Recently, Balladeer’s Blog examined Robert E. Howard’s trilogy of tales featuring one of his neglected characters, James Allison. This time around we’ll take a look at another overlooked creation of Howard – the Irish warrior Turlogh Dubh of Clan O’Brien.
THE GREY GOD PASSES – This was technically the first appearance of Turlogh Dubh but the story was not published until long after Robert E. Howard’s suicide in 1936. That publication came in 1962’s Dark Mind, Dark Heart. The other two Turlogh stories were published in 1931.
Turlogh is just one of many characters – both real and fictional – in this historical adventure about the real-life Battle of Clontarf on April 23rd, 1014 – Good Friday. The battle supposedly lasted from sunrise to sunset.
Robert E. Howard’s approach in this tale could be likened to those big-budget, all-star war movies like The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, Midway, etc. Like the other characters, the fictional Turlogh comes in and out of the narrative as we read the lead-up, the battle and a bit of the aftermath. He is, however, the main character of the next two tales in which he appears.
As The Grey God Passes opens, war has been raging between the forces of Brian Boru and the forces of the Viking occupiers allied with Irish “traitors” as the victors of Clontarf would call them. Conn, a former Irish outlaw now enslaved by the Viking Wolfgar Snorri, kills his hated master and flees south.
Conn encounters a mysterious, tall, bearded man in a grey cloak. The man has only one eye and one empty socket and speaks in a booming, albeit dreamy, voice. He speaks to Conn of the war being fought to the south and makes with vague premonitions of a bloody battle soon to come.
The former outlaw flees the weird figure, but his sense of patriotism has been rekindled and he wants to stand with Brian Boru’s armies against the Norsemen. Conn comes across Dunlang O’Hartigan, son of Brian Boru, who accepts his enlistment.
Dunlang is in a romance with Eevin, an enchanted woman of the mythical Tuatha de Danaans. She has foreseen Dunlang’s death in the impending battle but knows he must do his duty. Dunlang’s father Brian Boru reluctantly agrees with his son that Conn may fight at their side at Clontarf.
In Dublin, among the Vikings and Norse-allied Hibernians, a sacrifice is offered to Odin and his priest foresees the massive bloodshed to come, as well as the fact that the Viking/ Hibernian alliance will lose. Brodir still resolves to fight, and Kormlada/ Gormlaith, the Queen of Dublin, offers Brodir all kinds of favors if he can pull off a victory.
The supernatural woman Eevin kills the Nordic priest and leaves him at the feet of Kormlada. Other figures, historical and fictional, assemble for the next day’s clash.
In Howard’s rendition, the Battle of Clontarf does indeed last the full run of the daylight hours and most of the major figures on both sides are killed in the monumental struggle. Turlogh Dubh emerges as a major figure, wielding his favored weapon, a battle-axe and wearing his atypical (for a Gael of the time) armor.
Turlogh, a warrior of 19 years of age, appears almost everywhere on the battlefield throughout the day, leaving dead foes in his wake. He is in a battle-fury like the kind that would come to be associated with Cuchulain in Celtic Mythology. Conn also distinguishes himself throughout the day, and at last faces Thorwald Raven, the man who took him as a slave for Wolfgar Snorri, and kills him.
In real life there is still uncertainty about the exact number of dead from the battle, but in Howard’s version 4,000 of the Irish were killed while 7,000 of their opponents were slain. The Irish have won, ending the dominance of the Viking-Hibernian forces in the land.
Turlogh and Conn are among the victorious soldiers who congregate after the battle, and Turlogh removes the collar marking Conn as a slave from around his fellow Gael’s neck. The two regard the distant man in the grey cloak, who has been spotted in different locations throughout the day.
Suddenly, the figure seems blown along with the wind and flies off in the clouds toward the northern part of Continental Europe. Turlogh deduces that the figure was the Norse god Odin himself, come to watch this fateful battle.
The closing words of Turlogh’s soliloquy are “His children are broken, his altars crumble, and his worshippers fallen before the swords of the South. He flees the new gods and their children and returns to the blue gulfs of the North which gave him birth.”
THE GODS OF BAL-SAGOTH – This story was chronologically the last of the three Turlogh Dubh stories but was published before the second one. It was published in the iconic pulp publication Weird Tales in October of 1931.
As this story opens, Turlogh Dubh is a mercenary on a ship from what is now France. They are attacked by a Viking ship and in the bloody battle that follows, every man on the French ship is killed except for Turlogh.
Our hero is spared at the insistence of Athelstane, a Norse warrior who was once similarly spared by Gaels out of respect for his being the last man standing in a similar battle. Though permitted to live, Turlogh is tied to the mast because Athelstane’s fellow Vikings fear the Irishman’s fighting abilities.
A violent storm carries the ship far to the west, where it sinks near an isolated island with only Turlogh and Athelstane making it to shore alive, with our hero saving Athelstane to pay him back for sparing him earlier.
On the shore, Turlogh Dubh challenges Athelstane to a fight to the death since the Gael no longer owes the Viking a life-debt. Before either of them can kill the other, a screaming blonde woman arrives on the beach, pursued by what Howard describes as “a large wingless bird” (A surviving dinosaur?).
Turlogh and Athelstane set aside their own conflict to save the woman from the monster pursuing her. She tells the men that she is Brunhild, a Norse woman captured by a spurned suitor. Her captor’s ship crashed on the deceptive reefs and stones approaching the island, just like the ship carrying our two heroes did.
Brunhild was the sole survivor and tells the two men that this island is called Bal-Sagoth. It was inhabited exclusively by black people who had never seen a white-skinned blonde person, so she was worshipped as a goddess.
After years of Brunhild living and ruling on Bal-Sagoth as a goddess, the priest Gothan recently overthrew her and had her exiled among the isle’s monsters to be killed and devoured. Brunhild recruits Turlogh and Athelstane to help her regain her status as the goddess-queen of the island. This is accomplished and Gothan’s puppet king Ska is killed.
The very night of this victory and the restoration of Brunhild to her former position, one of Gothan’s subordinate priests conjures up a monster to kill Turlogh and his Viking colleague. Turlough kills the creature and the priest.
Next, our heroes save Brunhild from Gothan, who has seized the Norsewoman. Gothan has conjured up a monster of his own, but the beast turns on the priest and kills him. Brunhild, recklessly gloating over Gothan’s corpse, winds up crushed to death by the sudden collapse of a huge statue of one of Gothan’s gods.
Turlogh and Athelstane kill all the priests in battle and go back out into the streets of Bal-Sagoth, only to see the place is under attack by red-skinned raiders from the west, obviously ancient Native Americans. The pair slip out of the city unnoticed amid the carnage and put to sea in a small boat.
Throwing in one last oddball twist to this very strange story, Turlogh and Athelstane are found and taken aboard a ship from what is now Spain. The ship was blown off course, but thanks to our heroes, this Spanish ship avoids crashing on the rocks of Bal-Sagoth and heads back toward Europe.
Turlogh and Athelstane agree to join the Spaniards in their planned assault on the Moors occupying Spain. What an odd and zig-zagging storyline! And R.E.H. never got around to writing a follow-up story before his death.
THE DARK MAN – This tale of Turlogh Dubh of Clan O’Brien was published in the December of 1931 issue of Weird Tales. The treachery and trickery of a female cousin causes Turlogh to become an outcast and an outlaw.
Despite his fallen status, Turlogh still feels a certain loyalty to his fellow Gaels and hostility to the Vikings, who still launch periodic raids despite their loss of Ireland as a whole. Our hero learns that Moira, daughter of the Dalcassian Chief Murtagh, has been seized in the latest Viking raid.
Turlogh, determined to recover Moira for her father, outdoes all the other searchers and successfully trails the woman and her captors to the island hideaway of the Viking band led by Thorfel the Fair.
On his way there in a small boat borrowed from a fisherman, Turlogh first comes across a smaller island on which a savage battle has apparently taken place. Seven Pictish warriors lie dead but slew at least fourteen of their Viking foes and all the bodies still litter the field.
NOTE: Robert E. Howard’s depictions of the Picts in his various tales set in different time periods bear little resemblance to the historical Picts.
Back to the story, the fight was apparently waged over the black statue of an obviously revered Pict, a statue the Vikings were seemingly trying to steal. As Turlogh looks upon the statue it enchants him, granting him the strength to carry it alone to his boat. Then our hero travels to Thorfel the Fair’s island hideaway.
Turlogh leaves the statue in his boat as he plunges inland, in search of the Vikings and Moira. At length, our hero hides from an approaching band of Norsemen. They have found his boat and are carrying the statue with them.
The Irish hero realizes the statue was mystically enhancing his strength when he sees that it takes several of the Vikings to carry it. With Turlogh covertly following, the raiders from the north take the statue inside the longhouse they have constructed here on Thorfel’s island.
Using the black statue as the centerpiece of a makeshift temple, Thorfel the Fair is forcing a captured Christian, Father Jerome, to perform a ceremony marrying Thorfel to the captive Moira. She disdains the Viking and before anyone can stop her, she produces a hidden knife and takes her own life.
This enrages the watching Turlogh, who now emerges from hiding and wields his battle-axe against the assembled host of Vikings. He is once again in full fury, cutting down many foes, but the odds are hopeless.
Suddenly, a boatload of additional Picts, who came across the destruction on the smaller island where the dark statue was held, arrive to help Turlogh against the common enemies. The Vikings are slaughtered.
The Picts carry the dark statue of the man to their own ship, telling Turlogh that the statue is a memorial to the great Pictish warrior who fought the Roman Empire – Bran Mak Morn (another recurring fictional character of Robert E. Howard).
Turlogh and Father Jerome set out on his boat, headed for the Irish mainland. The clergyman asks “When will the reign of blood cease?” Turlogh Dubh replies “Not as long as the human race lasts.”
FOR FEMALE AUTHOR C.L. MOORE’S SWORD-WIELDING WOMAN WARRIOR JIREL OF JOIRY CLICK HERE.