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‘The Thrall’s Eyes’
The Word of War by Robert E. Howard

This is the first chapter of the unsold story Spears of Clontarf, a novelette that is a version of the unsold story The Grey God Passes. [published in Marchers of Valhalla in 1978] One of the chief differences between the two tales is that Spears of Clontarf has this opening chapter which gives the back story of Conn the Thrall, an Irishman who had escaped a Norse master by way of murder.

Reading from Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, Del Rey, 2011, pages 1-4

The Word of War is a brief masculine morality play between Wolfgar Snorri’s son, and his slave, among the most brutish of Howard’s heroes:

“Conn the thrall let fall the huge armload of logs before the cavernous fire-place and faced about to meet the gaze of his somber master. Conn was tall and massively yet rangily built, with broad sloping shoulders, a mighty, hairy chest, and long heavily muscled arms. His features were I keeping with his bodily aspect—a strong stubborn jaw, low slanting forehead topped by a shock of tousled hair which added to the wildness of his appearance, as did his cold blue eyes. Garments he wore none, except a loin cloth; his own wolfish ruggedness was protection enough against the weather, ordinarily. For he was a slave in an age when even masters lived lives ferociously hard and hardening.”

Conn seems a crude Conan prototype with aspects of Esau Cairn about him.

The entire story revolves around the 1014 battle that pitted the forces of the Irish High King, Brian Boru, who gave his life driving the Vikings from his homeland, against that of the Norse invaders. Ironically, after noting the above passage the day before travelling to Pennsylvania for my last fight, having decided to bring a bottle of Irish whiskey to share, I found a bottle of 1015 Clontarf and just had to purchase it.

Conn wishes to fight in the battle, which precipitates an argument with his master concerning his service as he glares covetously at his master’s sword. This conversation could have been had between an Irish slave and English master in 1700 Carolina or New England, replacing swords with muskets and carles with Indians:

“‘I’ve done the work of three men,’ answered the thrall boldly. “I have not been backward when the swords were singing. I have stood at your back and mowed down carles like wheat when you warred with your neighbors. And in return you have given me—crusts from your board, a bare earth floor to sleep upon, and deep scars in my back because I would not call you master or fight for you against my own people.’

“‘Well, dog’ growled the Norseman, angrily tugging at his golden beard, ‘do you want to be petted like a Saxon girl?’

“‘I want to be free,’ answered the thrall calmly. ‘I was not born into slavery—that’s why you’ve never broken me. No man ever broke a kern born in the western hills. We are brothers to the eagle…I will fare forth. I will go in your strongest fishing boat, it is no short voyage from Orkneyar to Erin and the sea is wild with the storms of spring, but better drown in a good effort than die under the lash of a pirate.’”

What ensues is log versus sword combat in a yarn that would not see print for a generation after its author’s death. The details of Irish slavery—often at the hands of English pirates—in early America are just as clearly represented in this story as is the earlier enslavement of these people at the hands of the Vikings, who, along with the Arabs they dealt with in slave flesh, were largely responsible for engraining the traditions of bondage into the English [a country ruled by French-speaking Christian Norseman for over 400 years, beginning in 1066] psyche. It seems ironically fitting to this reader that the root of the very social forces that drove Americans of Irish and Scottish descent westward would form the back story for a tale told by one of their descendents, a tale that would not be sold in either version. It is also telling that the back story of white slavery is the divergent aspect between the two versions of Howard’s telling of Clontarf.

Beyond the historical aspects of the story, The Word of War presents the quintessential Howard theme that would loom over all of the Conan tales, the fact that a man molded by a harsh environment carries within him a kind of freedom sense that is not easily eradicated by social circumstance.

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