Before his tent, the firelight playing on his white beard and glinting from his undimmed eagle eyes, sat the great king Brian Boru among his chiefs. The king was old – seventy-three winters had passed over his lion-like head – long years crammed with fierce wars and bloody intrigues. Yet his back was straight, his arm unwithered, his voice deep and resonant. His chiefs stood about him, tall proud warriors with war-hardened hands and eyes whetted by the sun and the winds and the high places. Tigerish princes in their rich tunics, green girdles, leathern sandals and saffron mantles caught with great golden brooches.
Robert E. Howard, “Spears of Clontarf”
The sun rose on the terrible dawn of a terrible day. It would set on a more terrible dusk. Two armies faced each other, more than twenty thousand warriors on each side. The High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, had marched against Dublin, then a Viking town, with the axe-men of his own Dalcassian tribe and the forces of Malachi, king of Meath, a former enemy and doubtful present ally. A long roster of other Irish chiefs supported him, and even a noted Viking warrior from man, Ospak, with – according to Njal’s Saga– ten shiploads of followers. Sigtrygg, king of Dublin, with his Irish mother and uncle, opposed Brian. Their allies included the king of Denmark’s sons with 12,000 followers, Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys, and Ospak’s redoubtable brother Brodir – both of whom had been promised the hand of Sigtrygg’s mother Gormlaith for their aid.
Sinister supernatural portents galore had preceded this day. Sigurd possessed a great banner bearing a raven, the bird of Odin. It was said to bring victory to the host that displayed it, but every man who carried the banner met death. Brodir, a warlock, had taken omens which indicated that King Brian would win if he fought on Good Friday, but also die, while if the two hosts fought on any other day, the Vikings would be annihilated.
The Njal’s Saga says a man named Daurrod in Caithness had seen the Norns weaving fate on a grisly loom. Within a phantom bower, they worked and sang remorselessly. Daurrod remembered their chant and repeated it later.
This woof is woven
With entrails of men,
This warp is hard-weighted
With heads of the slain;
For spindles we use
Our loom iron-bound
And arrows for reels.
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work …
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
Brand Gneisti’s son in the Faroe Isles saw a similar vision.
With so many supernatural portents about, it was all but certain Odin himself would appear at the battle. In Howard’s stories, “The Grey God Passes” and “The Cairn on the Headland,” he does, and also before. Conn the thrall meets him on the Irish shore and hears the prophetic words, “Soon you shall witness the passing of kings … and of more than kings.” Conn also sees the Valkyries riding through the sky. Odin later appears in Dublin Castle. In “The Cairn on the Headland” Howard has Odin, “the fiendish spirit of ice and frost and darkness” adopting human form to enter the battle on the Viking side.
Sigtrygg Silkbeard stayed within Dublin during the battle, while his son commanded the extreme left of the host. Beside him were Irish rebels from Leinster, under Maelmordha their king, Sigtrygg’s uncle. Jarl Sigurd of the Orkneys commanded the Viking center. On the right were Brodir of Man’s hardened veterans, about two thousand of them. At least that’s how modern assessments describe the battle array. REH set it out rather differently, with the Viking host “stretching in a wide crescent from Dubhgall’s bridge to the narrow river Tolka which cuts the plain of Clontarf.” The foreign Northmen, the Vikings (presumably the strong force sent by the Danish king) had the centre, “with Sigurd and the grim Broder.” The fierce Danes of Dublin flanked them on one side, “on the other flank the Irish of Leinster with their king Mailmora.”
REH describes the Irish formations as being led by the Dalcassians, “big rangy men in their saffron tunics, with a round buckler of steel-braced yew wood on the left arm and the right hand gripping the dreaded Dalcassian axe against which no armour could stand. This axe differed greatly from the heavy two-handed weapon of the Danes; the Irish wielded it with one hand, the thumb stretched along the haft to guide the blow, and they had attained a skill at axe-fighting never before or since equalled.”
Brian Boru’s eldest son Murrogh commanded them, described by REH as “tall, broad-shouldered, mightily muscled, with wide blue eyes that were never placid.” The chief Dunlang O’Hartigan in the armour that was his lover’s gift went on one side of Prince Murrogh, and on the other the two Turloghs – Murrogh’s fifteen-year-old son, and his cousin Black Turlogh, protagonist of “The Dark Man” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”
Further, according to REH, behind the Dalcassians came Scots under Lennox and Donald of Mar, and the men of South Munster led by Meathla O’Faelan. The third division comprised the men of Connacht, wildest of the lot, “shock-headed and ferocious, naked but for their wolfskins, with their chiefs O’Kelly and O’Hyne.”
Howard simplified for the sake of making the story move. He didn’t mention Brodir’s brother Ospak, who fought on Brian’s side because he admired the Irish king and had fallen out with Brodir. Ospak was noted for wisdom (according to Njal’s Saga) and led about a thousand mailed Manx Vikings on the Irish right. Also, it appears that the fifteen-year-old Turlogh, Murrogh’s son, was actually on the extreme left with his great-uncle Cuduiligh, at the head of 1500 Dalcassians. And the doubtful, reluctant force from Meath under King Malachi had been stationed in reserve, on the right, some hundreds of yards to the rear.
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