Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The People of the Heather: Robert E. Howard and Scotland

Books dealing on Scottish history were easier for me to obtain than those dealing with Irish history, so in my childhood I knew infinitely more about Scottish history and legendry than Irish. I had a distinct Scottish patriotism, and liked nothing better than reading about the Scotch and English wars. I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights.
 - Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft

Robert E. Howard's Irish fascination is well-known and explored among Howard scholars. Nearly every genre and series he wrote had some connection to Ireland and the Irish: several series starred Irishmen in lead roles, and a few of his most famous stories are set in Ireland. But Ireland is not the only Celtic nation Howard wrote about: Scotland too can boast her share of Howardian heroes and histories.

Howard counted Scottish authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Service, and Walter Scott among his very favourites, and plenty of his favourite non-Scottish authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, and Lord Dunsany wrote a few Scots tales in their time. As seen above, Scottish history was a significant influence on Howard's imagination. The theosophical writings of Scots Lewis Spence & William Scott-Elliot were foundational to the Thurian and Hyborian Ages of Howard's most famous creations, Kull of Atlantis and Conan of Cimmeria. My Floridian pal Jeffrey Shanks goes into great detail here:

Howard was far from alone in setting his Weird Tales in Scotland: Edmond Hamilton's "The Atomic Conquerors" is a wild yarn which supposes a rather otherworldly origin for the mysterious vitrified forts populating the Scottish wilderness; H. Warner Munn's "The Werewolf's Daughter" is a grand trilogy detailing the adventures of the Werewolf of Ponkert; Weird Tales regular Seabury Quinn even got in on the action with "the Bride of Dewer," a Rumpelstiltskin tale with a tartan twist.

So, on Robert E. Howard's 113th birthday, I wonder: what would a "Scottish" anthology of Robert E. Howard stories look like?

Monday, 31 December 2018

Putting the Terror Back Into Terrible Lizards

The depiction of dinosaurs as monsters has long been a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, dinosaurs-as-monsters has kept them in the public consciousness, and acted as a gateway for more nuanced & naturalistic media, like documentaries. On the other, it can be dispiriting to see them depicted as run-of-the-mill bogles. One of the things I still applaud Jurassic World for its recognition of this dichotomy, exemplified by the Indominus & Indoraptor - warped, disfigured, monstrous abominations which bore little resemblance to the animals from whence they came.

So while I love media that presents dinosaurs as animals, or with a wide variety of temperaments, I also appreciate new ways of making them scary. The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were iconic because not only were they savage & dangerous, they were also intelligent. This added a certain existential dread to their threat: you could outsmart a T.rex or a Dilophosaurus, but could you be so sure you could outsmart a Raptor?

With that in mind, a fellow RPG aficionado posed this question to me:

I need some truly nasty dinosaurs, real bastards, things that could lay waste to a tough band of adventurers. Real nightmare fuel. Thrill me.

Well, I couldn't not respond, could I?

Because I had such fun writing this, I thought I'd write it down on the blog for posterity.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Mortal Engines & the Tyranny of Realism

Urgh. How very unrealistic.

I love realism in my speculative fiction, but I am by no means beholden to it. I can enjoy realistic science fiction like The Andromeda Strain, 2001, Interstellar, Silent Running, and Moon at least as much as I relish scientific romance & space operas like the Space Trilogy, the Barsoom saga, & Star Wars. It's answering the question "Do you like hard or soft science fiction" with "yes."

Take dragons, for instance. I greatly enjoy the likes of The Last Dragon/Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real, which offered a fascinating pseudo-palaeontology for dragons, from the early draconic creatures of the Late Cretaceous which survived the K-T extinction, to the variety in forms which led to Marine, Occidental, and Oriental forms. Similarly, Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George and its spiritual companion, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons (both inspiring the fascinating Rankin-Bass cartoon sharing the latter's name) offer inventive extrapolations into dragon society in fantasy settings, as well as the anatomical nature of dragons.

8-year-old Aly ate stuff like this right up. In this age of the Internet, daft nerds like me can explore further than ever. Shad Brooks' series Fantasy Re-Armed does for other fantasy beings what has been done for dragons, from dwarves to elves, orcs to mermen, minotaurs to centaurs, fairies to giants, while also exploring traditional fantasy elements like dungeons, castles, paladins, and barbarians. It's a great time for those people in the middle of that very niche Venn diagram that loves hard science and complete invention.

At the same time, however, I don't need my fantasy creatures to be realistic (imagine that). I don't scoff at the unrealism of Ancalagon the Black being ludicrously huge, nor will I be over fussed if one dragon or another defies the laws of aerodynamics. I will not immediately dismiss a work of fiction because one thing or another isn't realistic, and I cannot believe I'm actually saying these words about stories with freaking dragons in them. Speculative fiction does not have to adhere to the constraints of our current reality: it doesn't even have to acknowledge them. All it has to do is be true to what it is trying to achieve.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 11: Margaret, Queen of Scots, ca 1070 AD

Let me speak first of all about her prayerfulness. In church no one was so silent and composed as she, no one so wrapt in prayer. Whilst she was in the house of God she would never speak of worldly matters, or do anything which savoured of the earth; she was there simply to pray, and in praying to pour forth her tears. Only her body was then here below, her spirit was near to God, for in the purity of her prayer she sought nothing but God and the things which are God's. As for her fasting, I will say this alone, that the strictness of her abstinence brought upon her a very severe infirmity.

To these two excellent gifts of prayer and abstinence she joined the gift of mercy. For what could be more compassionate than her heart? Who could be more gentle than she towards the necessitous? Not only would she have given to the poor all that she possessed; but if she could have done so she would have given her very self away. She was poorer than any of her paupers; for they, even when they had nothing, wished to have something; while all her anxiety was to strip herself of what she had. When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, and none of them left her without being comforted.

But when she had distributed all she had brought with her for the benefit of the needy, the rich who accompanied her, or her own attendants, used to hand to her their garments, or anything else they happened to have by them at the time, that she might give them to those who were in want; for she was anxious that none should go away in distress. Nor were her attendants at all offended nay rather each strove who should first offer her what he had, since he knew for certain that she would pay it back two-fold.

Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty. Nor was it towards the poor of her own nation only that she exhibited the abundance of her cheerful and open-hearted charity, but those persons who came from almost every other nation, drawn by the report of her liberality, were the partakers of her bounty. Of a truth then this text may be applied to her, "He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, therefore his justice remaineth for ever."

 -   The Life Of St Margaret, Queen Of Scotland, Turgot, Bishop Of St Andrews

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 10: Lady Fenella of Angus Assassinates Kenneth II, ca 995 AD

The principal of these were Constantine the Bald, son of King Culen, and Gryme, son of Kenneth, son of King Duff; and, plotting unceasingly the death of the king and his son, they at length found accomplices for the perpetration of such a crime. The daughter of Cruchne, Earl of Angus, who was named Finele, consented unto their deeds and design, her only son having formerly been ordered to be put to death by the king at Dunsynane, whether by the severity of the law, or for what he had done, or in some other way, I know not.
This wily woman, therefore, ardently longing for the king's death, caused to be made, in an out-of-the-way little cottage, a kind of trap, such as had never before been seen. For the trap had, attached to it on all sides, crossbows always kept bent by their several strings, and fitted with very sharp arrows; and in the middle thereof stood a statue, fashioned like a boy, and cunningly attached to the cross-bows; so that if any one were to touch it, and move it ever so little, the bowstrings of the crossbows would suddenly give way, and the arrows would straightway be shot forth, and pierce him through.
Having thus completed the preparations for perpetrating the crime, the wretched woman, always presenting a cheerful countenance to the king, at length beguiled him by flattery and treacherous words. The king went forth one day, with a few companions, into the woods, at no great distance from his own abode, to hunt; and while pursuing beasts hither and thither with his dogs, as he hunted, he happened by chance to put up hard by the town of Fettercairn, where the traitress lived. She saw him; and, falling on her knees, she besought him with great importunity to come into her house -
"otherwise," said she, "I shall, without fail, think myself mistrusted by your Majesty's Grace. But God knows - and thou, my king, shalt soon know - that, although the tattling of the spiteful may repeat many a lie about me, I have always been faithful to thee - and shall be, as long as I live. For, what thou not long ago didst to my most wretched son, I know right well, was justly done, and not without cause;"
and tripping up to the king, she whispered in his ear, saying: -
"When thou be come with me, I will explain to thee, my lord, who are the accomplices of that accursed son of mine, and the manner of their treachery. For they hoped to get me to join them in their conspiracy to deceive thee; but I straightway refused to countenance their heinous treachery Nevertheless, they forced me to lay my hand on the Gospel and swear never to betray their secret; but, though I promised them this on my oath, still I should be most false and traitorous towards thee, my lord king - to whom, above all others, steadfast and loyal fealty is due - were I to conceal the danger to thy person. For who knows not that no sword covenant holds good against the safety of the king's majesty. 
Thus that crafty woman cunningly misled the king's mind, and drew him, alas! too ready of belief, into the house with her, everything speeding her design. Why say more? Why dwell on so sad a tale? After the king had alighted from horseback, she took his hand, and quickly led him, alone, to the house where the trap was concealed. After she had shut the door behind them, as if with the view of revealing the secrets of the traitors, as she had promised, she showed him the statue, which was the lever of the whole trap. He naturally asked what that statue had to do with him; whereupon she answered, smiling
- "If the top of the head of this statue, which thou seest, my lord king, be touched and moved, a marvellous and pleasant jest comes of it."
So, unconscious of hidden treachery, he gently, with his hand, drew towards him the head of the machine, thus letting go the levers and handles of the crossbows; and immediately he was shot through by arrows sped from all sides, and fell without uttering another word. The traitress then went hurriedly out by the back-door, and hid herself in the shades of the forest for the time; but, a little after, she safely reached her abettors. The king's companions, however, after having long awaited his return from the house, wondered why he delayed there. At last, having stood before the gate, and knocked persistently at the door, and hearing nothing, they furiously broke it open; and when they found that he had been murdered, they raised a great outcry, and ran about in all directions, looking for the guilty woman - but in vain: they found her not; and, not knowing what to do, they consumed the town with fire, and reduced it to ashes. Then, taking with them the king's blood-stained body, they shortly afterwards buried it with his fathers in lona, as was the custom with the kings.
 - John of Fordun, Chronicles of the Scottish Nation
 The death of Kenneth II of Scotland is shrouded in mystery, with little compelling contemporary evidence. Lady Fenella - or Finella/Finele, depending on the source - is even more mysterious, with some suggesting she was even fictional. While John leaves Fenella's fate unclear, the locality of Den Finella in Kincardineshire is alleged to be the location of her death: chased by the king's men, she leapt from the cliffs into the sea.

Finella is one of many Scottish historical and folkloric figures that featured in Disney's groundbreaking and fascinating series Gargoyles - though, as with many of these individuals, her story is rather different from established history - voiced by none other than Sheena Easton.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 9: Máel Brigte slays Sigurd the Mighty... Posthumously, 892 AD

Earl Sigurd made himself a mighty chief;  he joined his fellowship with Thorstein the red, son of Olaf the white and Aud the deep-minded, and they won all Caithness and much else of Scotland, Moray and Ross;  there he caused to be built a burg southward of Moray.  These two agreed between themselves to meet, Sigurd and Melbricta toothy the Scot-earl, that they should meet and settle their quarrel at a given place, each with forty men.  And when the day named came, Sigurd thought to himself that the Scots were faithless.  He made them mount eighty men on forty horses;  and when Melbricta got to see them, he said to his men: 
“Now are we cheated by Sigurd, for I see two feet of a man on each horse’s side, and the men must be twice as many again as the steeds that bear them.  Let us now harden our hearts, and let us see that each has a man for himself ere we die;”  and they got ready after that.  And when Sigurd saw their plan, he said to his men: 
“Now half of our force shall get off horseback and come on them in flank when the battle is joined;  but we will ride at them as hard as we can, and break in sunder their array.” 
And so they met and there was a hard battle, and not long ere Melbricta fell and his followers, and Sigurd caused the heads to be fastened to his horses’ cruppers as a glory for himself.  And then they rode home, and boasted of their victory.  And when they were come on the way, then Sigurd wished to spur the horse with his foot, and he struck his calf against the tooth which stuck out of Melbricta’s head and grazed it;  and in that wound sprung up pain and swelling, and that led him to his death.  And Sigurd the mighty is buried under a “how” at Ekkjalsbakka.
 - The Icelanders Saga, Volume 3: The Orkneyingers' Saga

Sigurd "the Mighty" Eysteinsson was Earl of Orkney. In 892 AD, he met Máel Brigte of Moray in battle: he slew the Pict, and to add insult to injury, beheaded him, and tied his head to his saddle as a gruesome trophy.

On the ride home, the head's teeth started to graze against Sigurd's thigh. After hours of this, a wound emerged, and Sigurd died of infection.

Máel Brigte thus joins the likes of El Cid and Arrichion of Phigalia in managing to achieve victory over his foe from beyond the grave.

Monday, 8 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 8: Vikings at the Rock of the Clyde, 870 AD

While the Roman Invasion left an indelible mark on these isles, it was far from the last great assault from overseas: four centuries after the last Eagle crossed the channel, a new menace emerged - the Norsemen.

The very end of the 8th Century is generally considered the beginning of the Viking Age here. While many Norse folk settled peacefully, hungry-eyed kings brought swords rather than ploughshares to the coast. One of these was Ivar the Boneless, a great warrior-king who was one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which conquered much of what is now England. Ivar joined forces the Olav the White, another robber king who invaded Ireland & ruled Dublin, in an assault on one of the last strongholds of the ancient Britons - Alt Clut, the Rock of the Clyde.

The Britons of Strathclyde, descendants of the fierce Damnonii who harried Rome, held out for four months of merciless siege. Ivar marched an army all the way from York, while Olaf sent forth a great fleet of longboats numbering in their hundreds. By the end of the siege, no less than two hundred boats were required to carry away their plunder.

Despite this devastating attack, the Kingdom of the Clyde survived and flourished - indeed, it retained its independence all the way to the middle of the 11th Century.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 7: Óengus mac Fergusa, Mightiest King of the Picts, and the Saltire in the Sky, ca 761 AD

Good the day when Óengus took Alba,

hilly Alba with its strong chiefs;
he brought battle to palisaded towns,

with feet, with hands, with broad shields
 - The Book of Leinster
There are two pieces of Scottish history in here. The first is Óengus mac Fergusa, one of the greatest kings of the Picts: he fought the other kingdoms of what would become Scotland and defeated them all. He captured and drowned the King of Athfhotla, becoming overlord of the southern and northern Picts; he beheaded the king of Dál Riada as Dunadd roared in flames; he battles and defeats the great Brythonic kingdom of Alt Clut. He was the first warrior-king to proclaim himself King of the Scots and Picts - though, obviously, not the last.

The second is the saltire in the clouds. The story of Scotland's flag - that a Scottish army beheld the Cross of St. Andrew in the sky before a battle against the Angles, a possible omen for their victory - is traditionally associated with Óengus' successor, Óengus II, and the legendary Angle king Æthelstan, and dates it to 832 AD. The problem with this date is that Æthelstan was not born until much later. However, The Scotichronicon suggests another Pictish King, one "Unust," and the Picts battle the Northumbrians rather than the Angles. Not only are the Northumbrians more suitable from a political and geographical point of view, "Unust" is not a million miles away from Onuist, the Pictish name of Óengus - and given the Son of Fergus' military achievements, it seems entirely possible that at least the tradition could date from the last year of his reign at the latest.

Most compelling of all, Óengus is generally credited with establishing a monastery to St. Andrew at Cennrígmonaid, modern St. Andrews: even if the story is ultimately folklore, it could be a thematic embellishment on the First King of the Picts & Scots' devotion to the apostle who would become the patron of all Scotland.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 6: The Illuminations of Iona, ca. 670 AD

WHAT we are about to relate concerning the plague, which in our own time twice visited the greater part of the world, deserves, I think, to be reckoned among not the least of the miracles of St. Columba. For, not to mention the other and greater countries of Europe, including Italy, the Roman States, and the Cisalpine provinces of Gaul, with the States of Spain also, which lie beyond the Pyrenees, these islands of the sea, Scotia (Ireland) and Britain, have twice been ravaged by a dreadful pestilence throughout their whole extent, except among the two tribes, the Picts and Scots of Britain, who are separated from each other by the Dorsal mountains of Britain. And although neither of these nations was free from those grievous crimes which generally provoke the anger of the eternal Judge, yet both have been hitherto patiently borne with and mercifully spared. Now, to what other person can this favour granted them by God be attributed unless to St. Columba, whose monasteries lie within the territories of both these people, and have been regarded by both with the greatest respect up to the present time? But what I am now to say cannot, I think, be heard without a sigh, that there are many very stupid people in both countries who, in their ignorance that they owe their exemption from the plague to the prayers of the saint, ungratefully and wickedly abuse the patience and the goodness of God. But I often return my most grateful thanks to God for having, through the intercession of our holy patron, preserved me and those in our islands from the ravages of the pestilence; and that in Saxonia also, when I went to visit my friend King Aldfrid, where the plague was raging and laying waste many of his villages, yet both in its first attack, immediately after the war of Ecfridus, and in its second, two years subsequently, the Lord mercifully saved me from danger, though I was living and moving about in the very midst of the plague. The Divine mercy was also extended to my companions, not one of whom died of the plague, or was attacked with any other disease.
 - The Life of Columba, CHAPTER XLVII, Concerning the Plague. 

Iona was one of the most important places in Early Medieval Europe. The march of the Roman Empire and the vacuum of its absence meant that centuries of knowledge, chronicles, and histories were lost. In addition to being an essential destination for pilgrimage, Iona became a foundation for literature, philosophy, and art throughout the "Dark Ages."

The appointment of Adomnán as Abbot in 670 AD led to his hagiography of Columba, and started Iona on a path which would lead to the Book of Kells - which is to Irish history as Y Gododdin is to Welsh - another example of the global influence the people of what would become Scotland would make.

Friday, 5 October 2018

HistoScotIntoberFest Day 5: The Battle of Catraeth, ca. 600 AD

Men went to Gododdin, laughter-inciting,
Bitter in battle, with blades set for war.
Brief the year they were at peace.
The son of Bodgad, by the deeds of his hand
     did slaughter.
Though they went to churches to do penance,
The young, the old, the lowly, the strong,
True is the tale, death oer’took them.
Men went to Gododdin, with eager laughter,
Attacking in an army, cruel in battle,
They slew with swords without much sound
Rheithfyw, pillar of battle, took pleasure in giving.
Men went to Catraeth, swift was their host.
Fresh mead was their feast, their poison too.
Three hundred waging war, under command,
And after joy, there was silence.
Though they went to churches to do penance,
True is the tale, death oer’took them.
Men went to Catraeth, mead-nourished,
Sturdy and strong, it would be wrong should I not praise them.
Amid blood-red blades in dark-blue sockets,
The war-hounds fought fiercely, tight formation.
Of the war-band of Brennych, I would have thought it a burden,
to leave any in the shape of a man alive.
A friend I have lost; faithful I was.
Swift in the struggle, it grieves me to leave him.
The brave one desired no father-in-law’s dowry,
The son of Cian from Maen Gwyngwn.
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn.
Their fears left them,
A hundred thousand and three hundred clashed together.
They stained their spears, splashed with blood,
He was at the forefront, foremost in battle,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn.
Their bravery cut short their lives.
They drank yellow mead, sweet, ensnaring,
For the space of a year the minstrel was merry.
Red their swords, let them not be cleansed;
Their shields were white, their spearheads four-edged,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.
Men went to Catraeth with the day,
He made certain the shame of armies.
They made it certain biers would be needed,
With blades the cruelest in all the world.
Rather than speak of truce, he made
A blood-bath and death for his enemy.
Before the army of Gododdin, when he went,
Brave Neirthiad accomplished a splendid intent.

A man went to Catraeth with the day–
He gulped mead at midnight feasts.
Wretched, a lamentation for his fellows,
Was his attack, ireful killer.
There rushed to Catraeth
no great one so generous,
in his purpose [?]
There was none who more completely
From the fortress of Eidyn,
Scattered the enemy.
Tudfwlch Hir from his land and his villages,
Slew Saxons each seven-day,
Long will his valour endure,
And his memory among his fair company.
When Tudflwch was there, his people’s pillar,
Bloody was the place of spears, son of Cilydd.
A man went to Catraeth with the dawn,
About him a fort, a fence of shields.
Harshly they attacked, gathered booty,
Loud like thunder the noise of the shields.
A proud man, a wise man, a strong man,
He fought and pierced with spears,
Above the blood, he slew with swords.
In the strife, with hard weapons on heads.
In the court the warrior was humble,
Before Erthgi great armies would groan.

Three hundred gold-torqued men attacked,
Guarding their land, bloody was the slaughter,
Although they were slain, they slew;
And until the end of the world they will be honoured.
And of all of us kinsmen who went together,
Sad, but for one man, none escaped.
Three hundred gold-torqued,
warlike, wonderful [~]
Three hundred proud ones,
Together, armed;
Three hundred fierce horses
Carried them forward,
Three hounds and three hundred,
Sad, they did not return.

He pierced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
Among those powerful in feats [?]
In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.
  - Aneurin, Y Gododdin (translation by Siân Echard)
Long after the Legions left, the islands faced a new future free from the influence and order of Rome. Many new kingdoms came into being, while others reawakened old memories.

The Brythonic peoples of the lands between the two great Roman Walls formed a common area known as the Hen Oggled, the "Old North," whose roots can be seen today: Aeron in Ayr, Manaw in Clackmannan, Ystrad Clud in Strathclyde, Lleuddiniawn in Lothian. One of these kingdoms, Gododdin, was the home of a great bard called Aneurin. One of his poems, Y Gododdin, is both the oldest known work written in the Welsh language, and also the oldest surviving example of poetry written in Scotland.