[Bran Mak Morn, as painted by Jeffery Jones – the cover of Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard ]
It's a long story, the windings of my mind lately. When we were in Tennessee, I sought out and found a couple of sets of model soldiers I'd messed about with in my childhood – Airfix ancient Britons, a lovely set including two chariots and a chieftain with a wonderfully winged helmet, and Airfix Romans, a set every bit as poorly sculpted and anachronistically detailed as the review on Plastic Soldier Review (a site where I've been spending way too much time) makes it out to be.
I had determined that I was going to "finish" these soldiers – ie to paint them in realistic colors, and to use them for some sort of diorama (I have the Battle of the Teutonberg Forest in mind, in case you're interested, but it's a while down the road). I'd always been fascinated with ancient military history, & excelled in the "history" category at the Latin Club competitions back in the day. And I have indeed painted a couple dozen of the Romans, and some of the Britons, and a handful of ancient Germans and Picts that I've picked (pict – get it?) up over the past few months.
But while I was home, I also rummaged thru my books, and came away with among many other things a complete set of Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories – not merely his own stories, collected in Bran Mak Morn and Worms of the Earth, but a couple of pastiches by other authors. (Karl Edward Wagner's Legion from the Shadows, I seem to recall, is actually far superior to Howard's own Bran stories.) This is all pulp trash, of course, the sort of thing a pimply 15-year-old reads avidly, but it's interesting trash.
Unlike Conan the Cimmerian, Howard's most famous creation, Bran lives in a recognizable historical period – 3rd century Britain, where he's the king of the Picts in northern Scotland, and endlessly engaged in fighting off the encroaching Romans, not to mention the Gaels, the Northmen (Vikings), the Cymrians (Welsh?), and various other tribes who are all sharply differentiated in terms of physical appearance, fighting tactics, weapons, and clothing. The Picts themselves are described as dwarfish, olive-skinned, and vaguely neanderthalish. Bran himself, however, has retained the high forehead and upright stature of his ancient, pre-Atlantean Pictish ancestors (ie, he may be dark-skinned, but he looks white). His people have intermarried with the debased Teutons of north Britain, and thereby lost their handsomeness.
Bran is a typical Howard hero. He's a barbarian, so he hasn't been affected by the softness and effeminacy of civilized life. He's smart and cunning, but brave and straightforward as well. He fights for the honor & the survival of his people, though he knows they've become debased over the centuries. Indeed, decadence of one sort or another is a pretty constant theme in these stories, & in that they're very much akin to Lovecraft (with whom I spent some time this summer). In Lovecraft, half the time the horror of the story involves some kind of racial mixing or evolutionary debasement, as in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," where the villagers intermarry with creepy immortal sea-creatures, or in "The Lurking Fear," where the descendents of the reclusive Jan Martens eventually become dwarfish, apelike killers who nonetheless retain their ancestral mark of differently colored eyes. Both Howard and Lovecraft are one variety or other of racists (lump Edgar Rice Burroughs in there, as well), who see various races as being higher or lower on the evolutionary scale, and moreover are constantly worried about the possibility of decadence or atavism, of retreating back down that scale.
What's this got to do with my toy soldiers, or my fascination with ancient history? Well, when I was studying Roman history, I whizzed thru those various chronicles of Rome's struggles with other cultures – the Carthaginians, the Gauls, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, etc. – thinking of them largely in Howardian terms: ie, that a given foreign nation must have not merely a given culture, but a given racial identity as well. It never occurred to me – frankly because I haven't even thought of such issues for decades – until I spent some time recently with a big Osprey compilation, Rome and Her Enemies, that most of the armies Rome fought were every bit as multicultural and multiracial as the contemporary US Army. Take the Carthaginians, for instance – there's a core in Hannibal's army of "Carthaginians" – read Semites – but up to 80% of his army consisted of Celts, Iberians, Numidians, and other allied and mercenary groups.
Howard's notion of the conquering Roman army, commanded by "hawk-faced" Italians and consisting mostly of Italians and Teutonic recruits, facing down monoracial enemies, is clearly modeled on an early 20th-century American mythology of the Wild West, in which white cowboys and bluecoated soldiers battle it out with monoracial Native Americans. (And Howard's sympathies, interestingly enough, are always with the noble "barbarian" group.) What's even more interesting to me is the extent to which Howard, in a strikingly Herderesque move, pretty much equates race with culture. That is, to be a Viking may be to wear a horned helmet, to fight behind a shield wall, to carry a particular sword or axe, but it's always to be big and blonde or red-haired. (Similarly, in Conan's Hyborian Age the Stygians are all dark-skinned, the Kushites are black, the Cimmerians are pale but dark-haired...) And Howard's Picts are the purest example of this equation. Reading thru all the Bran stories, we learn almost nothing about the Picts' social organization, their folkways, their clothing, their traditions; even the distinguishing feature that gave them their Latin name – "pictus," painted – their tattooing or painting themselves with woad – is pretty much elided. Instead, we learn that they're olive-skinned, small of stature, and gnarled, almost apish. The racial degeneration of the Picts, in Howard's account, trumps anything else that might define their culture; because for Howard, race equals culture.
Alas, it's a pretty familiar theme, if you've read much Victorian adventure fiction. And ashes on my head that nothing about this rank boys'-own mix set off any alarm bells in my own adolescent head, when I was reading reams of this stuff back in Tennessee.