Diabolus Vult: A Look at Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part One
Saturday, June 20, 2009
posted by Al Harron
In a happy coincidence as I was working on this post, Paradox announced that the fourteenth volume of the essential Del Rey collections would be devoted to historical tales, specifically citing Dark Agnes and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Knowing that Del Rey will produce a fine book with new illustrations of the sorely neglected Norman-Gael, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Thus it seems timely for me to begin an exploration of the enigmatic and intriguing Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, one of my very favourite Howard characters, despite the few stories he graced with his shadow.
Because of the phenomenal popularity of Conan, it is inevitable that he be considered the “archetype” for such heroes among critics: of the Gaelic heroes, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is often called the most “Conan-like.” Indeed, it gave rise to the popular myth that Conan and Cormac were “physical doubles at 6’2″ and 210 lb.” However, despite being mentioned on wikipedia, not only are there no references to such a comparison among Howard’s letters that I am aware of, but the very numbers are inaccurate. In “Hawks of Outremer,” Cormac FitzGeoffrey’s dimensioned were defined quite specifically: “a fraction of an inch above six feet” and was “two hundred pounds of iron muscle.” The other tales are more abstract in description: in “The Blood of Belshazzar” his height is given as “above six feet” and in “The Slave Princess,” “over six feet in height.” I have no clue to the source of this misconception, though I’d be very interested in tracking down the origin of this “factoid.” Citation needed indeed.
Yet if we discard this fallacious claim, there are still some notable similarities betwixt the Cimmerian and the Hiberno-Norman. Both have the characteristic sable lion-manes and volcanic blue eyes of the Howardian Gaelic hero. Both men are exceptionally powerful, performing feats of strength that would stupefy a common man. Both are renowned killers with formidable skill on the battlefield throughout the world’s war zones. Both are children of two tribes from paternal ancestors far from their homeland, though Cormac’s parentage is further removed than Conan’s. Indeed, both spent their youth stalking their war-torn home country in wolfskins, experiencing battle from a young age.
Reading through the list of shared aspects it would be understandable to question how fundamental any differences could be to their characters. However, there is one: anger.
Terrible as his battle fury is, Conan is not an angry person at heart. Quick tempered, perhaps, and when roused to seek vengeance very little will dim his brooding wrath, but these do not define him. He has his famous “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” fully in evidence in the tales, wide-eyed wonder, stark fear. He has moments of quiet contemplation as well as instances of catlike alertness. Even in battle, his burning fury is tempered with icy alacrity. Perhaps the only time Conan truly loses himself to rage is in “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” with the butchering of Shah Amurath. Days upon days of crawling through the wilderness, surviving on rats and water, something within Conan finally snaps, and he ceases being a human, and transforms into a red-handed psychopomp, sending the Turanian on his way to Erlik on a tide of blood and entrails.
What Conan is on a bad day, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is by default. Cormac shows little of amusement, sadness, fear or any other emotion, if indeed he truly experiences those feelings at all. Any smiles which appear are either minute grins, or mirthless, teeth-baring snarls. Even in reminiscence, his mind wanders back to battles and bloodshed past. Cormac is defined by his anger. The furious rage Conan displays only in “Iron Shadows” is seen in every battle Cormac fights: not only is the enemy to be defeated, the enemy is hated. The pragmatic Conan does not hate all his foes; some deathly blows he was loath to deal. Not so with Cormac. If you were on the other side of the battlefield, Cormac hated you. If you are even a member of the enemy’s race or country, Cormac hated you. Indeed, one gets the impression that if you were not actively “with” Cormac, you were against Cormac – and if you were against Cormac, then he hated you.
What could be the catalyst for Cormac’s anger and hatred? What parallels does Cormac have in history, myth and fiction? Why does this make Cormac so fundamentally different from Conan and the other Gaelic heroes? All will be addressed next week in part two.
Fiat Sanguinarius: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Two
Saturday, June 27, 2009
posted by Al HarronA quick recap: in my previous post, I started a look into one of my favourite Robert E. Howard creations, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. I briefly discussed certain elements of Cormac’s character, specifically his anger, and his relation to Conan. In this post, I will go into more depth about Cormac’s life, as well as a bit of amateur psychoanalysis of his personality and character.
Unlike some of REH’s other historical characters, it is quite a simple matter to date and age Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. In “The Slave Princess”, Cormac divulges some fascinating information about his origins in Ireland.
“Wars and massed battles I have seen in plenty,” said he, lifting his great goblet. “Aye–I fought in the battle of Dublin when I was but eight years old, by the hoofs of the Devil! Miles de Cogan and his brother Richard held the city for Strongbow–men of iron in an iron age.”Strongbow’s forces arrived at Dublin in September, 1170, making Cormac’s birth year eight years before: 1162. This is a most intriguing date for Howard to choose, for it marks the arrival and departure of two immensely important historical figures, not least in Middle Eastern politics. First of all, the death of Baldwin III of Jerusalem: Baldwin’s demise marks the division in fortunes for the Crusaders which would lead to the famous events of the Third Crusade, which Cormac would take part in. The second interesting fact is that this is the year of Temujin’s birth: obviously, Ghenghis Khan’s affect on world and especially middle eastern history cannot be understated. I do not know if this interesting corroboration was intentional on Howard’s part, but I considered it noteworthy.
Another enigma is that of Cormac’s father, Geoffrey the Bastard. In “Hawks of Outremer,” Geoffrey is called “a renegade Norman knight… in whose veins it is said coursed the blood of William the Conqueror.” William himself was known by the Bastard epithet, making it fitting to be carried down the family line. What is odd about this is that the Norman invasion of Ireland would only begin in 1167, five years after Cormac’s birth. Obviously the renegade Geoffrey fled here, his presence and offspring serving as a grim prelude to the days to come. As the child of native and invader, outcast of both peoples, Cormac serves a prophetic, almost eschatological symbol of the Norman invasions themselves.
Cormac’s early life is harsh and unforgiving, and a possible origin for his later demeanour is revealed in “The Slave Princess”:
“So Wulfgar and I came into the battle and the first wounded man I saw was an English man-at-arms who had once crushed my ear lobe to a pulp so that the blood flowed over his mailed fingers, to see if he could make me cry out–I did not cry out but spat in his face, so he struck me senseless. Now this man knew me and called me by name, gasping for water. ‘Water is it”‘ said I. ‘It’s in the icy rivers of hell you’ll quench your thirst!’ And I jerked back his head to cut his throat, but before I could lay dirk to gulley, he died. His legs were crushed by a great stone and a spear had broken in his ribs.”Just as Cormac was about to hand a receipt to a man who had done him wrong, fate strikes, and the man dies before Cormac has the luxury of killing him. In rage and frustration, Cormac looses his arrows blindly and rapidly into the throng of Normans and Vikings, not knowing if any arrows hit, nor if any hit a foe. Yet after the cosmos snatched away Cormac’s chance for vengeance, another opportunity comes, this time to carry out his bloody duty as a warrior. Wulfgar, lifeblood seeping away fast, commands Cormac to slay Miles de Cogan: eager to prove himself by slaying a mighty lord, Cormac draws his bow. The arrow flies… and splinters harmlessly on de Cogan’s breastplate. He is dragged before De Cogan, and though he is shown leniency, in the years to come he would gain some measure of satisfaction in drawing a life-lasting wound on Miles’ face. Still, the fact that he did not succeed in killing de Cogan must have eaten away at Cormac.
Perhaps Cormac’s frustration at this first battlefield experience provides an impetus to his ferocity: his shame and anger in his shortcomings as an eight-year-old forcing him to push himself ever further, so that he does not fail again. Even though he shows incredible prowess for a child’s standards, I doubt someone as proud as Cormac would take much solace in such relativism. It might not be the defining factor, but it’s intriguing to think that frustration in failure could be a contributing reason for Cormac’s anger.
Ultimately, failure would likely be a common hurdle in young Cormac’s life. For all the valour of Irish kings and the Norse lords of Dublin, the Norman conquest was simply too powerful to resist. With the support of an English pope, constant squabbling among the petty kingdoms and clans, and the assistance of allies from Flanders, Wales and Leinster, the Irish were fighting a losing battle. Even in the Crusades, the victories of Richard would be undone by the awesome forces of Saladin, Jerusalem becoming a Muslim dominion just after it was retaken by the Crusaders.
Nevertheless, none of these grander failures can be attributed to Cormac himself, and he rarely suffers the indignity of personal defeat after his boyhood. How frustrating must it be for Cormac, a man who can crush a man’s head with a punch and hurl battle-axes like they were hatchets, to know that no matter how ferocious or devastating an individual can be in battle, it could still not be enough to secure victory, or even to ensure that victories last? It may not just be a matter of Cormac’s own inability–being a historical series, Howard could not have Cormac rewrite history to a dramatic extent, no matter how gratifying it might be to see him storm into London at the head of an army of ceithernes and gallÃƒÂ³glaigh, crash into the Palace of Westminster and tear the gory crown from the unlucky King John’s head, to become High King of the British Isles and utterly change the history of the world. Alas, it was not to be, though Paul Herman asserts that this inability to forge gigantic happenings in historical adventures may have been one of the dramaturgical chains Howard snapped free from in his creation of the Conan tales.
At the same time, it would be simplistic to tie down Cormac as a “crusader” considering his outlaw status in the stories, and the state of flux of the Fertile Crescent during his time means that lands rotate between Muslim and Christian control on almost a yearly basis. Cormac’s anger finds a suitable outlet in this hellish, war-torn place, which would be forever stained red if the burning sun did not bleach the sand. An ideal place for an angry, violent man to vent his murderous tendencies in the name of King, Country and God.
In The Neverending Hunt: A Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, Paul Herman suggests that it is Cormac, not Kull, who is the true predecessor of Conan. Richard L. Tierney concurs in his introduction to Tigers of the Sea, noting his “rude, basic chivalry” and his implacable fighting prowess. I think there is very much evidence to this claim. Herman cites his barbaric ferocity, his stature, the unapologetic darkness and grimness of his actions. There is also the fact that the Cormac tales were written only a short time before “The Phoenix on the Sword,” compared with the longer time between the Kull and Conan stories. However, I would say that Cormac’s unrelenting rage and starkly sober demeanor separate him from Conan as much as Kull’s intellectualism, insecurity and introspection separate the Atlantean from the Cimmerian. In my opinion, Conan is an amalgam of Kull and Cormac, in some ways: he has the barbarian-to-adventurer-to-king biography and occasional intellectual musings of Kull, with the strength and dynamic nature of Cormac. Of course, there are still things which set Conan apart from both men, most notably his appreciation of wine, women and song.
Just as one can trace the beginnings of certain Conan plots, characters and moments from the Kull stories, there are certain times in the Cormac tales one can sense a flash of the Cimmerian. These, along with other comparisons to historical characters, a look at Cormac’s later life, and an overview of the Cormac tales, will be discussed in Part 3 of my look at Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Suffice to say, however, that even with only two complete stories and a single draft, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey still has a fascinating history with many intriguing connections to Howard’s other characters, which make him a standout character even among the iconic giants of Howard’s fiction.
Calvaria ad Victoriam: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Three
Saturday, July 11, 2009
posted by Al HarronIn my first foray into the life of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, I made some basic observations on his character, and what makes him different from other Howard protagonists. In the second, I put forward some theories regarding his psychological development, and an overview of his early life. In this final chapter, I will look at Cormac’s life and character as a whole, and present a possible biography.
In 1170, he participates in the battle of Dublin at the age of eight, following Wulfgar the Norseman and his chief Jon the Mad in Hasculf Mac Turkill’s attempt to retake Dublin for the Danes. The three Danes were slain in battle, and Cormac captured: while Richard de Cogan suggested his Irish descent would make him dangerous, his brother Miles reasoned that as the son of Geoffrey-and by extension, William the Conqueror–he would make a good soldier for the Normans. Ultimately both were right, as Cormac became a great warrior, but one that caused as many problems for the Normans as to their foes. Some years later, Cormac met Miles in battle, where he would give him a permanent scar.
In 1174, at the age of twelve, he runs with the kerns in wolf-skins, weighs fourteen stone–almost his adult weight–and has killed three men. Cormac would spend his adolescence and early adulthood, roughly from 1174 to 1190, fighting in the war-torn land of his birth: rival Gaels, Danes, Normans, possibly even his brother Donal, with whom he had a disagreement later in life. During this time his brothers are slain. Shane was killed by a Norwegian sea-king in a Norse raid into Munster, who himself is killed by Cormac, using the very sword that killed his brother. This blue-steel sword is of obvious Norse design, with runes along the blade and a remarkable hardiness. Cormac’s other brother, Donal, was slain in a battle at Coolmanagh–a very obscure Irish settlement–by Eochaidh O’Donnell. Perhaps as maddened by O’Donnell killing Donal before Cormac got the chance, as much as his outrage in a Fitzgeoffrey being slain, Cormac burns O’Donnell in his own castle. Some time in his early adulthood, Cormac threw his lot in with the Fitzgeralds, a Norman-Welsh family who had adopted Irish customs and culture, and the feuds that go along with it.
The Road to Outremer
Cormac became friends with a young Fitzgerald by the name of Eamonn. Bitten by the proverbial Crusade bug, Eamonn’s enthusiasm to liberate Jerusalem from Saracen hands was enough to inspire Cormac to join him on the long road to Outremer. The two warriors join Richard I’s forces, and make for the Mediterranean. At the same time, Philip Augustus mobilizes his French army: among his many soldiers are Rupert de Vaille and Sieur Amory. Also traveling is the mighty host of Frederick Barbarossa. During a sea voyage, possibly during the crossing from Constantinople to Anatolia, the French knight Sieur Gerard de Gissclin bests the German knight Conrad Von Gonler in a duel, in the presence of Barbarossa himself. This slight would be one of the factors leading to the events of “Hawks of Outremer.”
Richard’s journey to Outremer would not be a bloodless voyage, however: in addition to his campaign to expand Norman holdings in France, he invaded Sicily and conquered Cyprus. Cormac and Eamonn would doubtless have exercised their sword-arms eagerly in this prelude to the Crusade proper.
The Lion and the Skull
Cormac and Rupert de Vaille are present in the Battle of Azotus. Cormac is crucial in assisting the fallen Richard when his horse is brought down by a mob. Dismounting himself, Cormac gives Richard enough time to right himself, where he earns the king’s gratitude. Despite this, Cormac’s pride prevents him from humility, even in the face of a king. After the battle, Cormac falls in with another young knight: Sieur Gerard de Gissclin. Gerard is said to be a noble, gallant knight with a deep faith in Christ: he may have reminded Cormac of his fallen friend Eamonn. In the ensuing campaign, Cormac fights alongside Gerard: at some point, Gerard even saves Cormac’s life, perhaps in the battle of Joppa, where Cormac’s sword breaks inopportunely, or at the battle of Arsuf.
In the summer of 1192, Cormac and Rupert are also present at the Battle of Joppa, as is Kai Shah, a high-ranking Seljuk. It is rumoured that the white scar on Kai Shah’s jaw was dealt by none other than Richard, who presumably switched from his great mace to a sword for this fight. As at Acre and Azotus, Saladin notices Cormac’s death-dealing of the Faithful.
The bravery of Cormac’s acquaintances is well rewarded. Rupert is given the most prestigious office of Seneschal of Antioch, second only to Jerusalem in importance to Christian strongholds of the Holy Land. Gerard’s valour earns him a castle, too: Ali-El-Yar, which is near an oasis frequented by himself and his men, also near the Muslim stronghold El Ghor. Though Ali-El-Yar is not immune from attack, Gerard proves a formidable defender, as Turkoman raiders and wild eastern tribes learn to their expense, a Turkoman chief being hung on a gibbet near the castle. With a base of operations to work from, Cormac could spend time becoming more acquainted with his liege, as well as others. He may have become friendly with Michael de Blois, one of Gerard’s squires. He may have had dealings with Sieur Amory. He may even have known Conrad Von Gonler, who Cormac notes was “a man” before complacency and greed got the better of him.
The Lion Departs
Somehow, Cormac makes his way back to Ireland, perhaps after the wholesale slaughter of the corsairs who dared to hold him captive. On arrival, Cormac learns that James Fitzgerald has been slain by Nial Mac Art, and Cormac joins the Fitzgeralds in a vengeful raid on Ormond. Combined with the fame gathered during the Third Crusade and his loyalty to the Fitzgeralds, it’s possible that this is how he becomes a chieftain. With the Le Boteliers defeated and no conflict on the horizon, Cormac decides to return to Ali-El-Yar, his debt to Gerard not yet repaid. During his journey to and from Ireland, Nurredin’s imperial plans are put into motion. The first casualty of his schemes is Ali-El-Yar, which is razed to the ground after Gerard was ambushed in a devious trap. In 1192, Cormac returns to Outremer and makes for Antioch, where he plans to meet an old ally.
“Hawks of Outremer”
The blood debt repaid in full, Cormac stays in Outremer, even though the slaying of Conrad von Gonler results in him being a wanted man among the Christian territories, and being a Frank has him viewed with suspicion by Muslims. Rupert is captured by Ali Bahadur: searching for funds either to ransom his friend or raise an army to rescue him, Cormac seeks out Bab-el-Shaitan.
“The Blood of Belshazzar”
Cormac ends the tale with the titular gem, believing it sufficient to ransom Rupert de Vaile, with the cycle of blood and ambition likely to continue with Ali Bahadur as it did with the ill-fated kings and warlords before him. Whether he is successful or not is unknown, but Rupert is never referred to in “The Slave Princess.” It is possible that Rupert did not survive captivity, or that Cormac simply felt Amory was a better accomplice, perhaps because Rupert was too busy as Seneschal to be involved in such dealings.
Some time before finding Zuleika, Cormac rode with the Turkomans. Three years before the story, Princess Zalda is scheduled to marry Khalru Shah of Kizil-hissar, subsequently kidnapped by Kurds. Hearing of an assault on the city Zuleika was situated in, he rode hard for battle and plunder, only to come late.
“The Slave Princess”
“The Sowers of the Thunder“
Beyond the Third Crusade
So what can be learned from Cormac Fitzgeoffrey? It’s clear that even with only two finished tales and a half-written synopsis, he is as fully-formed and identifiable as any of Howard’s characters. Despite the sparse exposition, a rich and enthralling history of the man can be suggested when put in a “chronological” context, revealing untold past adventures and the seeds of future tales. It’s impossible to say whether Howard would have eventually returned to Cormac had he continued writing, but with the existing precedents of Howard virtually abandoning characters, it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the stories Howard did write featuring the Norman-Gael are there, and stand proudly beside the greatest examples of Howard’s historical fiction. When it comes to showing the Crusades in all their fervent fanaticism, bleakest hopelessness, and bloodiest violence, the tales of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey are second to none. Even in the shadow of Conan, one can see the glinting of a grinning silver skull, the blue sheen of a dripping rune-sword, and blue eyes burning with deepest hate.