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‘His Time Was Past’
Tigers of the Sea by Robert E. Howard


“…Answered Donel the minstrel as he lifted his goblet and drank deep. “Have we not read in the Roman books how he [Caesar] pitted wolf against wolf? Aye—that way he conquered our ancestors, who in their day were wolves also.’”

“ ‘And now they are more like sheep,’ murmured the king, a quiet bitterness in his voice. ‘In the years of the peace of Rome, our people forgot the arts of war. Now Rome has fallen and we fight for our lives—and cannot even protect our women.’”

Howard does quite a nice job with Donel, a minstrel of action, not unlike the villainous bard in The Phoenix on the Sword. He is described by Howard in the following passage, “Donel was blessed or cursed with a strange roving mind and his skill with the harp opened many doors to him that axes could not open.”

And so the king and the minstrel speak of hiring a sinister Irish sea rover and a brutal proto-Viking pirate chief to rescue the king’s royal sister. The plot of this story, unsold in Howard’s life, appears to be the source for the subplot in the movie Conan the Barbarian, in which the king’s daughter has been spirited away by a dark cultic leader.

Wulfhere the Skull-Splitter, a passionate meat-head of a captain, and Cormac MacArt, the cunning swordsman—who lies whenever necessary to achieve his ends and keep his oath—are sought out for a quest that takes the reader into Howard’s dark mythos. The story is set a generation or more after the tales of Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, and the Picts are here bad guys again, as in the Conan stories. In fact, Wufhere and Cormac are essentially Conan split in two parts, with the strengths of each exaggerated to good effect.

The story takes place during the supposed reign of Arthur Pendragon, when Angles, Jutes and Saxons raid and conquer the remains of Roman Britain in a “red tide.”

This story was read from the 1996 Baen edition, pages 75-122, a classic Howard novelette. The haunting atmospherics of a Conan story are present, as are the brooding tones of Kull, Mak Morn and Kane. Howard's themes of barbarism striving against civilization, of young tribes warring with old degenerate races, are woven into a seamless whole, a whole in which every character, however great or small, has a real living piece of narrative real estate. The relentless action typified by Howard demands a reading of Tigers of the Sea in one sitting.

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