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‘To Feed the Ravens’
Swords of the Northern Sea by Robert E. Howard
Reading from Cormac MacArt, pages 123-156
Forbidden, taboo love, selecting a mate from the wrong class or tribe, against the will of society, seems to have been a favorite storytelling framework for Howard in his early work. In this fine adventure yarn, Howard’s propensity to delve into taboo mate acquisition serves as the main plot device and at the same time, detracts from the story. However, beyond the unlikely Nordic Romeo and Juliet plot device, Swords of the Northern Sea sketches realistically passionate heroes.
As with the Kull cycle, the shorter MacArt cycle brings a supporting cast for the hero, with the primary supporting character, Wulfhere the, the skull-cleaving Danish chieftain, whose raging aggression, red hair and blazing eyes contrasts with the cruel calculation, black hair and cold eyes of Cormac MacArt, the renegade Gael. Cormac and Wulfhere are the perfect pirate team, as if Black Bart and Blackbeard teamed up to take on the world.
In many ways Cormac is a mental plot driver just as Conan is the impulsive plot driver of his hero cycle and Kane is the obsessive plot driver of his saga. But in Swords of the Northern Sea, the great, bloody-handed Dane, Wulfhere takes the spotlight and outdoes his mastermind partner:
“Out! No more skulking for Wulfhere’s killers—we go to feed the ravens. Osric—Halfgar—Edric—Athelgard—Aslaf—out, wolves, the feast is ready!”
Cormac, for his part, is the heroic grifter, the adventurer as interloper, who knows the Norse, with whom he battles better than they know themselves.
The final battle scene is one of Howard’s more realistic affrays as men butcher men, ultimately over a woman and the status she represents.
Reverent Chandler: The Saga of Fend
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