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‘No Small Shame’
A Prose Fragment by Robert E. Howard

Formerly published as ‘Unless You Overcome Me,’ revised and expanded

Bran Mak Morn was Howard’s mythical King of the Picts, lineal descendent of Brule the Spear-Slayer of the Kull series. Bran is the most barbaric, most savage, darkest, and least apologetic character Howard wrote, and he wrote him from early in his career to late with the dates of Weird tale publications ranging from 1927-32. Some of these fragments may have been later. Once 33 rolled around Howard was investing his barbaric energy in Conan, and finding every pretext he could to slide Picts into a story, up until the very end with A Black Stranger.

In Howard’s hands the Picts [the tattooed tribe of lowland Scotts who the Romans immortalized as rude, painted savages and may well have accounted for a missing legion] are part Celt part Mohawk, a hybrid tribe of super-savages that were among the first men to rise from “apedom” and would be the last to fall—but fall they would.

The fascinating thing about Bran is he is mostly alone in the physical environment, which is not realistic for a king, even of savages, but does a searing job of burning the aloneness and extreme psychological isolation of the Top Man into the narrative. Bran travels under the alias Partha Mac Othna, his every breath and every act a mission to save his dying tribe in the face of the might of Roma to the south of the Antonine Wall. His haunts are Scotland and Wales, and he is a murderous man, a man who is prepared to treat women with a harshness that Howard’s other characters do not. There is nothing of the haunted tiger that is Conan, the brooding lion that was Kull, or the stalking panther that is Kane. Bran is best characterized in Howard’s totemic imagery as the wolf. He is not a large man, but is a man of extreme psychological strength, who is a goal-oriented psychopath to be sure.

Bran is the subject of Howard’s masterpiece story, the best piece of fiction he wrote, and the best fiction ever devoted to the question of tribalism and race and the price one is willing to pay to preserve his tribe in the face of overwhelming odds.

In this fragment Bran is scouting his realm, disguised as an emissary, and almost has a fight with a giant proto-Viking. This scene, in which both characters hunt and avoid coming to sword strokes is one of Howard’s most realistic heroic encounters. People who live in real hostile setting almost never come to blows with other dangerous types—and rarely even with fools—but tend to a cagey set of tactical behaviors and doubt-instilling motion to “negotiate” a hostile encounter.

Bran goes on to encounter, on a windy headland, a beautiful redheaded woman of pleasing form, who refuses to obey him as a man, and challenges him to wrestle her. The story from this point on is a loose rewrite of Jacob wrestling with the Angel from Genesis 32:22-32, which is referenced in Hosea 12:4. This act of wrestling with the angel on the mountain earned Jacob the sobriquet “Israel,” meaning “He who struggles with God.” [1]

The fact that Howard chose this biblical tale of a patriarch that shows the most extreme dedication to his tribe is telling, and lapses, in the end to a bit of Nordic irreverence as Bran grows angry with the woman after defeating her and lets her head smack into the frosty ground:

She sat up cross-legged and looked up at him.

“Well, you have conquered me,” she said calmly, “What will you do with me now?”

“I should rip the skin from your loins with my sword-belt,” he snapped, “It is no small shame to a warrior to be forced into striving with a woman—and no small shame to the woman who thrusts herself into a man’s game.”

“I am no common woman,” she answered, “I am one with the winds and the frosts and the grey seas of this wild land.”

Bran Mak Morn, king of a dying race, is not only willing, but destined, to combat any power in the cause of his increasingly unworthy race—but they are his race.

Bran Mak Morn is the most barbaric of Howard’s characters, as wild as Kull, as ruthless as Conan, and as fanatically driven as Solomon Kane.

In terms of the masculine ideal Bran is most mature: not humorous like Conan, not doubt-stricken like Kull and not wedded to a narrow scope of behavior like Kane. His wrestling with the elemental daughter of the cosmic powers and declining to use her sexually stands in stark contrast to Conan trying to rape the goddess in the Frost Giant’s Daughter. The story also stands as his most blunt statement on dealing with contentious women. The placing of a feminine element in this Old Testament story—or rather placing the story in Europe—this reader, suspects indicated Howard’s interest in the line of inquiry explored in Beowulf, of the potentially emasculating nature of the comforting notion implicit in a mothering faith.

One wonders how Howard would look upon the feminist construct that is postmodern America. Perhaps he would declare that the state of things are “no small shame.”


1. Sourced from Ask A Rabbi: "The Torah say that the name Yisrael (Israel) means "for you have striven with Divine [Esau's archangel] and with man [Esau and Laban] and have overcome."

He: Gilgamesh: Into the Face of Time

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