So the 22nd of January once again comes around. Currently I'm researching for a post on Ossian and the Celtic Revival in Scotland (watch this space), and I'm looking into the mythologisation of Scottish historical figures. Macbeth, the Red King, is perhaps the most myth-shrouded of all, famed as he is from Shakespeare's tragedy. For one of Scotland's greatest and most successful kings to be so traduced in the convening centuries - first by his own people, and then by one of the greatest authors in the history of the planet - is a tragedy a thousandfold that of the thrilling fiction.
Blame cannot truly be placed on Shakespeare: he was faithfully adapting the centuries-past recollection of Holinshed's Chronicles, itself based upon the black propaganda first recorded in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland. The notion of Macbeth the murderous usurping tyrant did not begin with Shakespeare. What Shakespeare did contribute, however, is a captivating study into power and humanity, ambition and destiny, with some spooky goings-on for good measure.
And yet, even as I'm deep in Scottish history, I think of Howard.
"To MacBeth mac Finlay, High King of Scots!" he shouted. "Health—and a sharp sword!"
- Thorfinn the Mighty, half-brother and sword-brother to Macbeth, Macbeth the King, Nigel Tranter
As part of my research, I revisited Nigel Tranter - in this case, Macbeth the King. For a work published in 1978, it's amazing how few others have approached its quality. Here is a story which course-corrects the propaganda, using rigorous historical research as the basis for a new tale - one of a generous and conscientious king, a pragmatic and caring queen, bonds of brotherhood and familial betrayal, all against a backdrop of internecine conflict and cultural upheaval. And what a cracking read it is!
Read this passage from the opening chapter, and tell me you don't see echoes of "Spears of Clontarf," "The Dark Man," or indeed any of Howard's "Northern" stories ringing like the clash of flasing steel and the boom of freezing waves:
THE TALL, FAIR-HAIRED man stood on the high cliff-top amongst the wheeling gulls, grey eyes narrowed against the glitter of the sun on the wrinkled sea as he gazed south-eastwards.
"I count twenty-eight sail," he said, in the soft, lilting Gaelic, which might have seemed to come oddly from so strong-featured a young man, so deep of voice and of such strange, quiet but withheld inner force. "His full strength, I think. Which must mean... retiral."
"Retiral, yes. Retiral, to be sure!" his companion agreed, without agreement. "With lesser men it might be called flight. But the Raven Feeder never flees. He but retires to Cromarty to rest himself!"
"You have an over-sharp tongue, Neil Nathrach. Hold it."
"Yes, my lord Mormaor." The speaker, holding the two shaggy Highland garrons, grinned wickedly. He was an extraordinarily different-seeming man to be so closely related to the other, slight, dark, wiry, quick and flashing-eyed, the dark Celt indeed, as against the fair. Nathrach meant serpent. Yet they had had the same father.
His half-brother stared out to sea wordless, assessing, deducing. He had a great gift for silence. But at length he spoke again.
"I see no pursuit. So the King bides at Inverness. Meantime. We need not sound the call-to-arms yet, I think. How say you?" Neil Nathrach made no answer. "You think otherwise?"
"I am holding my tongue, MacBeth mac Finlay."
"Watch, then - or one day I shall cut it out." That was said as softly as the rest, but flatly also. And the dark man's mobile features tensed suddenly. He knew that the other was capable of doing it.
He swallowed, and found the horses in need of attention.
They stood on the summit of the South Sutor of Cromarty, the taller of the two towering rock bastions which guarded the narrow entrance to the Cromarty Firth, lofty, windswept, spectacular. Southwards, across the wide Moray Firth, the great land of Moray stretched from green plain to blue mountains, a noble prospect; eastward only the Norwegian Sea. And behind them their own firth opened to what was really a vast landlocked bay, at the head of which stood Inverpeffery, that the Vikings called Dingwall, capital of the mormaorship and province of Ross, one of the seven lesser kingdoms of Alba, or Scotland.
MacBeth - more properly Mac Beatha, Son of Life -was calculating again. He reckoned, at the pace Thorfinn was apt to drive his longships' oarsmen, that they would make their landfall in well under the hour.
"Back to Rosemarkyn, Neil," he said. "Tell Malduin mac Nechtan to stand down his companies, meantime. And to send word to Inverpeffery. A guard of five score at the boat-strand. To greet our guests. Take both horses. I shall not need mine."
MacBeth looked after the other as he mounted and rode off, and a faint smile played about his firm mouth.
Soon he set off downhill, long-strided, the two miles to the small haven of Cromarty, or Sikkersand as the Norse, had it, in the jaws of the firth-mouth.
He had not long to wait before the first of the fleet of long-ships, the dreaded Viking host, appeared round the headland, driven fiercely by all but naked oarsmen, four to an oar, twenty-benched, the great single square sails above painted with the black raven symbol of Orkney, the high-beaked prows open-mouthed in savage menace. The first and largest vessel turned landwards, more a galley than a simple longship, with forty double-banked oars. It flew at its single, central masthead a great white banner bearing the spread-winged raven of the Earl Thorfinn Sigurdson, the Raven Feeder, of Orkney and Caithness, the most dreaded emblem but one in a score of kingdoms.
Only this one long, low vicious-looking craft turned into Cromarty's haven, where MacBeth stood alone on the strand, backed at a respectful distance by a cluster of watchful and none too happy fishermen, whose every instinct was to flee from that raven symbol, rather than trust their lord.
The galley's snarling-dragon prow had barely made contact with the shingle when an enormous man leapt down from between the ranked, colourful shields, into the shallows, and came striding ashore. The quiet waiting man was tall and well-built, but this newcomer made him seem of very modest size, the great golden helmet with the flaring black wings adding to the impression. Whereas MacBeth was dressed simply in a belted tunic of saffron linen, its lower half forming a knee-length kilt above bare legs and sandals, his only sign of rank a dirk-belt of solid gold, this other was in the full panoply of war, in the Norse fashion, black leather long tunic studded with metal scales as armour, breeches bound to the knee with leather strapping, golden earl's shoulder-belt supporting a huge wide-bladed sword, bare hairy arms hung with bracelets of gold and bronze, the medals of his kind, white bearskin cloak hanging from one shoulder by a great jewelled clasp. This man, unlike most of his race, was dark-haired, black as one of his own ravens, with forked beard, down-turning moustaches and the hottest of pale-blue eyes.
"The Son of Life himself - looking still as death! As ever!" this apparition cried, in a voice to match his appearance, mighty, harsh, yet in as good Gaelic as MacBeth's own. "Smile, man - laugh, at sight of me!"
"May any man smile at sight of Thorfinn Raven Feeder?"
"Not any man, no. But you might, now and again."
And so I find myself thinking: wouldn't Howard have just loved this book.
Howard certainly loved Shakespeare's Macbeth, frequently evoking the play inside and outside his fiction. He even has Solomon Kane quoting the play in "The Blue Flame of Vengeance," presumably fresh off a visit to a performance from the Lord Chamberlain's Men himself! But how much more would Howard have loved a story that's real - a story of a great king by his own hand, who led a nation to a decade and a half of peace and prosperity, before being undone by the bane of clans and families humanity-wide - the blood-feud? As Canmore's father slew Macbeth's father, so Macbeth him, to be slain in turn by Canmore - himself, ultimately, slain in the blood-feud.
What a tale - and one that Howard, I have no doubt, would have relished.
He glanced at the stiff corpses about the beach, at the charred embers of the skalli and the glowing timbers of the galley. In the glare the priest seemed unearthly in his thinness and whiteness, like a saint from some old illuminated manuscript. In his worn pallid face was a more than human sadness, a greater than human weariness.
"Look!" he cried suddenly, pointing seaward. "The ocean is of blood! See how it swims red in the rising sun! Oh my people, my people, the blood you have spilt in anger turns the very seas to scarlet! How can you win through?"
"I came in the snow and sleet," said Turlogh, not understanding at first. "I go as I came."
The priest shook his head. "It is more than a mortal sea. Your hands are red with blood and you follow a red sea-path, yet the fault is not wholly with you. Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?"
Turlogh shook his head. "Not so long as the race lasts."
- "The Dark Man," Robert E. Howard