Here was Ragnarok, The Fall of the Gods! — Part Three

 

He was stained with the blood of the Viking’s band,
His spear had shivered in his hand,
Now he held aloft his crimson brand.
His shield the Viking’s broadsword turned,
Along his arm the keen edge burned.
The red drops followed the slicing steel,
Turlogh cursed in the trumpet peal,
Rose in his stirrups, spurred and smote,
Breaking the shout in the Viking’s throat.

Robert E. Howard, “The Ballad of King Geraint”

The Battle of Clontarf had been decided, but not quite ended. Brian Boru’s Irish warriors had gained the victory. Those of the enemy who survived were running for the shelter of Dublin or retreating to their dragon-ships in the bay. Brodir the Warlock, probably for the first time in his life, had fled earlier in the battle. Now he skulked with a band of Vikings in Tomar’s Wood, looking in rage upon the disaster.

Brodir was hardly the man to accept defeat graciously. He led his fugitives around through the wood to where King Brian’s tent stood behind the battle-lines. This was the man who had rallied the Irish, fought and intrigued his way to the High Kingship, given his people a measure of unity, and brought about this day. Brodir swore he should not live to enjoy it. His fugitives attacked suddenly, cut down the men guarding the royal tent, and burst into it. Brian faced them, tall, white-haired and unafraid. It was Brodir who cut him down. According to the Icelandic Njal’s Saga, he left the scene calling out, “Now let man tell man that Brodir felled Brian!”

The saga also recounts that he was swiftly pursued by a group of vengeful Irish warriors, led by Wolf the Quarrelsome. As stated in the previous post, this blogger thinks that Wolf and REH’s Black Turlogh were the same person; that in some circumstances, Turlogh was known to the Danes by that alias.

Wolf, or Turlogh, pursued Brodir into the woods. He and his men surrounded the Vikings, and caught Brodir alive by hurling masses of green branches on him, then bearing him down by weight of numbers. He was helpless. Turlogh slit open Brodir’s belly and nailed one end of his intestines to a tree-trunk with a dagger. Leading him around the tree until all Brodir’s entrails were drawn out, he brought the warlock to a complete and messy end. Brodir had spilled a lot of blood in Ireland, and also slain Turlogh’s grandfather, the king. He probably died wishing he hadn’t announced his last deed so loudly.

“Brodir’s men were slain to a man,” adds the saga.

The Orkney and Manx Vikings, in retreat, had difficulty reaching their ships. During the gruelling day-long battle, the tide had come in, cutting them off from their vessels. They attempted to swim, exhausted as they were. While Black Turlogh was killing Brodir so ferociously, the other Turlogh, Prince Murrogh’s fifteen-year-old son, chased the fleeing Vikings into the water and hurled himself upon two of them, stabbing them again and again in a battle-fury worthy of his dark cousin. But his dying enemies dragged him under and he drowned.

Three generations of the royal Clan na O’Brien had perished on the same day; Brian Boru himself, his son Murrogh, and grandson, young Turlogh. Most of Brian’s other sons died at Clontarf as well. Donnchad, who had been absent by Brian’s command, keeping many of the Meathmen too busy to join the battle, survived. Malachi of Meath became the High King after Brian, and then Donnchad succeeded him. But even the men who ruled as a result of the battle did not deem it less than appallingly costly.

The losses on both sides were huge. Modern estimates have it that the Vikings lost six or seven thousand men, including all their chieftains, except King Sigtrygg Silkbeard of Dublin, who had not fought. His sons, who did, were now corpses. The Irish lost perhaps four thousand, or one man in seven. The wounded and maimed, as always, would have numbered far more. Black Turlogh might well have said wearily, as REH has him do, “The king has fallen and all his heroes, and though we have freed the land of the foreign chains, we too are but as ghosts waning into the night.” (“Spears of Clontarf”)

So also was Odin. In two of his stories, “The Grey God Passes” and “The Cairn on the Headland.” Howard has the northern god disappear from human ken after that climactic battle. In the former, Odin foresaw his own end with the words, “To each being there is an appointed time, and even the gods must die … ” Conn the escaped thrall, to whom he spoke the words, sees him again, in company with Black Turlogh, after the bloody fighting is done. He does not understand who the mysterious “grey man” is, but Turlogh does.

“It is Odin, god of the sea-people,” said Turlogh somberly. “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. No more will helpless victims howl beneath the daggers of his priests; no more will he stalk the black clouds.” (“The Grey God Passes”)

Odin’s disappearance from the human world is effected differently in “The Cairn on the Headland,” though it still occurs. In that story, his human form receives a fatal wound from a cross-adorned spear on the field of Clontarf, and he is buried under a great heap of stones lest he should ever revive. He mutters while perishing that the touch of “the magic plant – even holly — ” would make it possible. In the twentieth century, it almost happens, but he is frustrated by a ghost and a great saint’s crucifix.

The narrator of ““The Cairn on the Headland,” a modern O’Brien, is the one who reluctantly opens the cairn. His nemesis, a parasitic blackmailer, hopes to find treasure in it. Warning him against the course, O’Brien passionately makes the speech that can best serve to close these posts:

Here on this very plain the Dark Ages came to an end and the light of a new era dawned faintly on a world of hate and anarchy. Here … in the year 1014, Brian Boru and his Dalcassian ax-wielders broke the power of the heathen Norsemen forever – those grim anarchistic plunderers who had held back the progress of civilization for centuries.

It was more than a struggle between Gael and Dane for the crown of Ireland. It was a war between the White Christ and Odin, between Christian and pagan. It was the last stand of the heathen – of the people of the old, grim ways. For three hundred years the world had writhed beneath the heel of the Viking, and here on Clontarf that scourge was lifted forever.

Then, as now, the importance of that battle was underestimated by polite Latin and Latinized writers and historians. The polished sophisticates of the cities of the South were not interested in the battles of barbarians in the remote northwestern corner of the world – a place and peoples of whose very names they were only vaguely aware. They only knew that suddenly the terrible raids of the sea kings ceased to sweep along their coasts, and in another century the wild age of plunder and slaughter had almost been forgotten – all because a rude, half-civilized people who scantily covered their nakedness with wolf hides rose up against the conquerors.

Here was Ragnarok, the fall of the gods!

Read Part One, Part Two