I recently finished a re-read of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Del Rey, 2005), inspired by a reading of the Karl Edward Wagner pastiche Legion from the Shadows. Some thoughts, rattled off rather quickly as a formal post is not in the cards:
Bran Mak Morn is like an ancient, savage, King Arthur. He is a once and future king, who will unite all the original tribes of Britain, drive out the “civilized” Roman and post-Roman invaders, and restore existence to a primitive ideal. His Camelot/round table will be the Cromlech, an inscrutable symbol of the unknown. Poul Anderson did this sort of thing with Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but Howard’s “Arthur” is even deeper in time, the late third century.
A lineage of Picts connects all of REH’s material, like a savage through line. They make appearances in the Kull, Bran Mak Morn, James Allison, and Conan stories. Brule the spear-slayer’s lineage goes back to the very beginning (the Thurian Age of Kull, the days of Atlantis and Lemuria). The Last King contains a nice essay on this topic by Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet, “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts.” Bran Mak Morn taps into and unites this ancient spirit, successfully uniting the tribes before eventually dying in battle. But his image persists, a literal effigy in stories like “The Dark Man” and “The Children of the Night.” Will he come again, a once and future king?
Picts are Howard’s image of the primal, original state of man, whether that state is good or ill. Howard’s Picts are a primitive race. They organize in tribes, live off the land as hunter-gatherers (notably they do not farm, which makes men soft), don’t build cities, and work with flint. Howard saw himself in these slanted forehead, dark complexioned, brutish, un-guiled race. The Picts are a step below barbarians in Howard’s taxonomy, unchanging, and eternal. Barbarians would eventually organize, and civilize, and grow soft—not so the Picts. A description of the Pictish chieftain Gorm from Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”:
In the seventy-five years which had elapsed since he first heard the tale of empires from the lips of Arus—a long time in the life of a man, but a brief space in the tale of nations—he had welded an empire from straying savage clans, he had overthrown a civilization. He who had been born in a mud-walled, wattle-roofed hut, in his old age sat on golden thrones, and gnawed joints of beef presented to him on golden dishes by naked slave-girls who were the daughters of kings. Conquest and the acquiring of wealth altered not the Pict; out of the ruins of the crushed civilization no new culture arose phoenix-like. The dark hands which shattered the artistic glories of the conquered never tried to copy them. Though he sat among the glittering ruins of shattered palaces and clad his hard body in the silks of vanquished kings, the Pict remained the eternal barbarian, ferocious, elemental, interested only in the naked primal principles of life, unchanging, unerring in his instincts which were all for war and plunder, and in which arts and the cultured progress of humanity had no place.
The Picts did contain a purer, nobler strain, as exemplified in Bran, from the Thurian Age. They morphed in conception in Howard’s mind as he wrote the stories, and was exposed to new theories.
Howard uses the term “heather” very frequently when describing the landscape of ancient Britain, and its wilds, again and again, like an incantation. I have no knowledge of plant-life, but a quick Google search reveals that heather is a dominant plant in the heathlands of moorlands of Europe, yet is hardy and has been successfully introduced to many other continents and climates, including North America. The way in which Howard uses the term invites comparisons with his nostalgia for the frontier; I wonder how much he had in mind old, pre-cultivated, pre-industrial Texas, before the cattle farms and barbwire taming, while writing these stories.