Bran Mak Morn, The Doomed King
by Bill Ward
Most new readers approach the work of Robert E. Howard from the perspective of his most famous creation, Conan. As is only natural, they tend to look at Howard’s other heroes in terms of their relation to the Cimmerian, and look for those elements that later make their way into the much more famous stories of the Hyborian age. Kull is perhaps the most well known ancestor of Conan for, after all, it was a Kull story that served as the basis for the first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” But all of Howard’s creations are different, as he was too good a writer to spin the same yarn twice – even when he directly rewrote one character’s tale into another – and all of his characters are informed by the age and circumstances in which they find themselves. Bran Mak Morn, last king of a dying race, is a hero that Howard spent fewer words on than Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull, or even many of the somewhat lesser known characters from his historical and boxing stories, such as El Borak, Steve Costigan, or Brekenridge Elkins. And yet Bran is, unquestionably, one of Howard’s major creations; representing not only the best of what Howard was capable of producing, but also exemplifying deeply personal themes that would inform the entirety of Howard’s writing life.
Bran Mak Morn emerges out of Howard’s fascination with the Picts – but not the Picts of modern, sober archaeology – rather the Picts of turn-of-the-century pseudo-scientific conjectural anthropology, the sort of thing that was available for a young Howard to read. But that, believe it or not, is a good thing: for the Picts that captured Howard’s imagination are a mysterious people with a strange past rooted in lost continents, trans-world migrations, and civilizations long vanished. Some of Howard’s creative magic, whether in the Bran stories or Conan’s Hyboria or any of the myriad other historical fantasies he produced, grows out of the freedom of his time to fill in the gaps of the historical record with imagination – wild speculation on Atlantean colonies and strange transpositions of race had not yet been put to rest by modern archaeology, a field more or less still in its infancy at the time. If it was the case that less reliable history and questionable science was what Howard had to draw upon, than that just had the effect of allowing him to dream bigger dreams.
And Bran Mak Morn is something like a dream of Late Antiquity. Bran, the last king of a people that are the degenerated and almost sub-human remnants of a race that once ruled a mighty civilization lost to the shadows of time, must fight the Roman Empire as it encroaches on Pictland north of Hadrian’s Wall. These stories are bleak, the doom of Bran and the Picts having already been foretold by prophecy, the Picts’ very genetic makeup a mirror of their fallen fortunes. Bran’s heroism is rendered both greater and more poignant because he fights a battle he knows he cannot win, one that, in effect, has already been lost centuries ago. And his heroism underscores too his aloneness as the only ‘civilized’ man amongst a people who have succumbed to barbarism. But unlike Howard’s other heroic outsiders, Bran is also an exemplar of his people, his fate bound entirely to their own, his significance to them even resonating down through the ages long after he fought and lost his last battle.
The Bran cycle consists of essentially just four stories, and only two of those feature Bran Mak Morn in the sort of heroic mold of a Conan or Kull. But those two stories are widely considered among Howard’s best: “The Kings of the Night,” and “The Worms of the Earth.” In the former we see Bran in action for the first time, leading a coalition army against Roman onslaught, dealing with issues of command and deployment. It’s a great battle piece, and it also features an appearance by King Kull—summoned forth from his own lost age to lead an unruly Norse contingent in a stand against the legions. Bran and company are victorious, though meditations on Kull’s vanished kingdom reinforce Bran’s own sense of futility in the face of the inevitable onslaught of history.
In “Worms of the Earth,” Bran is the viewpoint character for the first and only time. Disguised as an envoy, Bran lives among the decadent Roman aristocracy of York as a spy, and is driven mad with fury when one of his own countrymen is crucified right in front of him—something he is powerless to stop. Thus is set in motion Bran’s dark plan to revenge himself upon the Roman Governor. He employs loathsome magic to force the aid of creatures even more fallen than his own Picts—the titular Worms of the Earth, an ancient people displaced by Bran’s ancestors who themselves are no longer human. Dwelling underground, worshiping a black idol, the Worms represent the terrifying aspect of the legends of the little people or faeries. Bran’s revenge is robbed of its sweetness by the means of its achieving, and the horrible fate of the Worms serves to underscore the Picts’ own inevitable doom.
There are other accounts of Bran. “Men of the Shadows,” introduces him, but is ultimately more an account of the history of the Pictish nation. In “The Dark Man” Bran has been dead half a millennia, the Picts reduced to scattered bands, but the King’s brooding presence presides over a scene of red slaughter in the form of a dark statue. There is even a mention of a ‘Bran cult’ in the Lovecraftian contemporary horror story “The Children of the Night,” wherein a man becomes awakened to ancestral memories of the conflict between his people and the dark Picts. But, rather than making Bran a more concrete and knowable figure, such as Conan, all of these stories only further serve to reinforce his mystery.
Which is entirely appropriate for Bran Mak Morn, Howard’s most mysterious hero, the doomed king who never quite steps from the shadows of legend and into the light of history.