He Picked Picts to Depict

Ages ago we ruled. Before the Dane, before the Gael, before the Briton, before the Roman, we reigned in the western isles. Our stone circles rose to the sun. … Like wolves we Picts live now among the scattered islands, among the crags of the highlands and the dim hills of Galloway. We are a fading people. We pass.
– Brogar the Pict, in Robert E. Howard, “The Dark Man”

Pictish monument There are two kinds of “savage” or “barbarian” in Robert E. Howard’s fiction. On the one hand we have the good savage – fierce, spontaneous, self-sufficient, honourable, and free from the weakness, hypocrisy, decadence, and over-intellectuality of civilised humanity. On the other hand we have the bad savage – subhuman, duplicitous, creepy, a slithering lurker in darkness, the primordial “other.” The good savage’s straightforwardness is frequently contrasted with the craftiness and duplicity of urban civilisation; the bad savage, by contrast, is cunning and secretive, anything but straightforward. One is like a swordthrust in broad daylight; the other is like a garrote in the dark.

In a particularly unfortunate racist twist, the good savages are almost always Aryan – sometimes Nordic, but more often Celtic – while the bad savages tend to be non-Aryans. (Most of Howard’s barbarian protagonists are Celts; this is obvious in the case of Turlogh Dubh, Donn Othna, Donald MacDeesa, Red Cumal, Red Cahal, Black Vulmea, Eithriall, and the various Cormacs (Cormac of Connacht, Cormac Mac Art, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey), but Conan too is clearly supposed to be a Celt: the name “Conan” is Irish, he swears by the Irish god Crom, and he’s a Cimmerian. In Howard’s day the historical Cimmerians were thought, rightly or wrongly, to be Celtic, the term being regarded as cognate with “Cymric.” And since Howard’s Cimmerians are supposed to be descended from the Atlanteans, that makes Kull of Atlantis a proto-Celt too.) One Howard quote (from the Solomon Kane story “Wings in the Night”) that has regrettably achieved some popularity on neo-Nazi websites runs: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.” (Incidentally, and outrageously, the Wikisource version of “Wings in the Night,” like many online Howard works, is apparently censored and omits this passage without notice.) For arguments over the extent of Howard’s racism, see Joe Marek (scroll to the bottom) on one side and Gary Romeo on the other; what Marek and Romeo between them succeed in showing – if it needed showing – is that severely racist elements in Howard’s thought coexisted with genuinely antiracist elements.

Pictish warriors In any case, in odd contrast with all this Celto-Aryan supremacy crap is Howard’s fascination with the Picts, whom he regarded – probably wrongly, but in accordance with theories fashionable in his day – as the pre-Celtic, indeed pre-Aryan, inhabitants of Britain. Howard’s Picts are, accordingly, “bad” savages, or well on their way to being such; they are portrayed (with some exceptions) as declined or declining below the human level (though they seem to have been a long time declining, as Howard’s Pictish stories range from the 1000th century BCE to the 20th century CE), and virtually as hostile, half-visible extensions of the natural environment. In their most extreme decadence they are even shown, sometimes, as furtive, subterranean, Gollum-like worm-people. Yet Howard ordinarily portrays these Picts (at least those that haven’t quite reached Gollum status) sympathetically, and indeed appears to have identified with them to the extent of imagining himself a reincarnated Pict. (Besides the Picts, another interesting exception is the African sorcerer N’longa. When first introduced, in the Solomon Kane story “Red Shadows,” he seems like a typical bad savage; but by “Hills of the Dead” he has plainly become a more sympathetic character.)

Indeed the Picts’ very decline seems to give them a romantic status in Howard’s eyes – and of course a romanticising fascination with those one regards as decadent or inferior is no less racist a reaction than condemnation or revulsion would be. Likewise, the same Rudyard Kipling who wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” championing imperialism as a supposed tool of civilisation, is also the Kipling who felt the allure of primitivism sufficiently strongly to write “Letting In the Jungle.” Such complexities don’t get their authors off the hook for anything; all they show is that these authors were confused in a variety of inconsistent ways, not just in one unitary way. Still, these complexities do make Howard – and Kipling – more interesting.

In a January 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard puzzles over how his childhood fascination with the Picts managed to overcome his admitted racist attitudes (though as Lovecraft was still more racist than Howard he could probably shed little illumination on this question):

I first learned of the small dark people which first settled Britain, and they were referred to as Picts. I had always felt a strange interest in the term and the people, and now I felt a driving absorption regarding them. … Picts were made to be sly, furtive, unwarlike, and altogether inferior to the races which followed – which was doubtless true. And yet I felt a strong sympathy for this people, and then and there adopted them as a medium of connection with ancient times. … I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked. Yet, in reading of the Picts, I mentally took their side against the invading Celts and Teutons, whom I knew to be my type and indeed, my ancestors. My interest, especially in my early boyhood, in these strange Neolithic people was so keen, that I was not content with a Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stocky, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair – my conception of a typical Pict.

Howard goes on to speculate:

Sometimes I think Bran is merely the symbol of my own antagonism toward the empire. … I saw the name “Picts” first on maps, and always the name lay outside the far-flung bounds of the Roman empire. … I was an instinctive enemy of Rome; what more natural than that I should instinctively ally myself with her enemies ….

For the relevant correspondence see the most recent Bran Mak Morn anthology.

As befits their status as “other,” Howard’s Picts are always portrayed from the standpoint of some non-Pictish character. The Picts tend to figure in other characters’ stories – Kull’s or Conan’s, Cormac’s or Turlogh’s. Even Bran Mak Morn, Howard’s chief Pictish protagonist, is almost always seen through others’ eyes.

Worms of the Earth book cover There is a sole exception, “Worms of the Earth” – generally considered the greatest of Howard’s Pictish stories – where we see events from Bran’s perspective. (Howard himself noted this when he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft: “when I came to write of them, it was still through alien eyes …. Only in my last Bran story, ‘Worms of the Earth’ … did I look through Pictish eyes, and speak with a Pictish tongue!”) And it is notably in “Worms” that the character of “bad savage” gets transferred most clearly from the Picts to the titular worm-people, who seem to the Picts as the Picts seem to everybody else. But the Jekyll-and-Hyde ambiguity of Picts-as-fearful-of-the-worm-people versus Picts-as-becoming-the-worm-people runs through the entire Pictish cycle. Howard sometimes tried to resolve the conflict by distinguishing decadent and non-decadent branches of Picts, or decadent and non-decadent phases of Pictish history, but could never arrive at a consistent solution – as is most strikingly evident in the fact that Bran himself in effect becomes, in “The Dark Man,” the worm-people’s stone idol that he views with such revulsion in “Worms.”

Here’s a checklist of Howard’s chief Pictish and/or worm-people stories, with links to online versions where available:

The Shadow Kingdom (1927)
Kull of Atlantis meets the Pictish chieftains Brule and Ka-nu, as well as the serpent-people sometimes identified with the worm-people

The Cat and the Skull (1928)
Kull, Brule, and Ka-nu versus Thulsa Doom

The Screaming Skull of Silence (1928)
A quiet moment with Kull, Brule, and Ka-nu

The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune (1929)
Kull and Brule enjoy a reflective moment

Three Men Sat at a Table (unfinished, 1928)
Brule tells Kull some Pictish history

By This Axe I Rule! (1929)
Kull, Brule, and Ka-nu foil a coup

Swords of the Purple Kingdom (1929)
Kull, Brule, and Ka-nu foil another coup

The Hyborian Age (1932)
Filling in Pictish history between Kull’s and Conan’s eras

Tower of the Elephant (1933)
Conan learns some Pictish history from an unlikely source

Beyond the Black River (1934)
Conan vs. Picts on the Aquilonian frontier

The Black Stranger (1935)
Conan, pirates, and Picts on the Aquilonian frontier; later rewritten as the Black Vulmea story “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” with the Picts transposed to American Indians

Wolves Beyond the Border (unfinished, 1934?)
Pictish skullduggery on the frontier during Conan’s Aquilonian coup

Picts by Frazetta The Lost Race (1924)
Picts in ancient Britain on their way to becoming the worm-people

Men of the Shadowsexcerpt (1925)
A Norse-Roman soldier meets Pictish chieftain Bran Mak Morn and learns some Pictish history

A Song of the Race (?)
Bran Mak Morn and more Pictish history

Kings of the Night (1930)
Thanks to time travel, Kull of Atlantis meets Bran Mak Morn

Worms of the Earth (1932)
Bran Mak Morn meets the subterranean worm-people and steals their stone idol – generally thought to be Howard’s best Pictish story

Tigers of the Sea (unfinished,?)
Cormac Mac Art vs. Picts

Night of the Wolf (1930)
Cormac Mac Art and Picts vs. Vikings

Spears of Clontarf (1931)
Turlogh Dubh and a Pictish seeress at the battle of Clontarf; rewritten as “The Grey God Passes/Twilight of the Grey Gods,” with more supernatural elements and with the Pictish character altered to one of the faërie folk instead; the tale is retold yet again, from a modern perspective, in “The Cairn on the Headland,” but still no Picts

The Dark Man (1930)
Turlogh Dubh meets Bran Mak Morn as the stone idol of the Picts

Gods of Bal-Sagoth (1930)
Turlogh Dubh on an island adventure; no Picts per se, but somewhat Pict-like enemies, plus the story is a direct continuation of “The Dark Man”

Ballad of King Geraint (1927)
Turlogh Dubh in another battle alongside a Pictish comrade

The Valley of the Lost / Secret of Lost Valley (?)
Worm-people in frontier Texas, clearly unrelated to the Picts

The Little People (1928)
The Picts as worm-people in modern times

The Black Stone (1930)
The stone idol of the worm-people (explicitly distinguished from Picts) shows up in modern Hungary

The Thing on the Roof (1930)
Another artefact of the worm-people (described as being from the same culture as that of “The Black Stone”) shows up in modern Central America

The Children of the Night (1930)
Modern racial memories concerning Picts and worm-people; a Conrad & Kirowan story, plus Bran Mak Morn and the stone idol get a mention

The Dwellers Under the Tombs (1932)
Worm-people in modern times; a Conrad & Kirowan story, better than most of the modern-times stories

Marchers of Valhalla (1932)
Modern racial memories concerning Picts; a James Allison story

The Valley of the Worm (1934)
Modern racial memories concerning Picts and something like worm-people; another James Allison story

The Garden of Fear (1933)
Modern racial memories concerning “little brown people” who seem to be Picts; yet another James Allison story

People of the Dark (1931)
Worm-people both in racial memories and in modern times

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2 Responses to He Picked Picts to Depict

  1. Joel Schlosberg August 12, 2008 at 7:42 pm #

    “Incidentally, and outrageously, the Wikisource version of “Wings in the Night,” like many online Howard works, is apparently censored and omits this passage without notice.”

    Since Wikisource is, well, a wiki, you could try to go ahead and restore such censored passages, and see if they’ll let them stay in.

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    […] ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak […]

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