“The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”

This week’s piece of weird fiction is a vigorous story from Robert E. Howard and illustrate’s Howard’s belief that barbaric virtues are better than civilized ones.

Review: “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”, Robert E. Howard, 1931.

Cover by Stephen Fabian

Our protagonist is Turlogh Dubh, “once a chief of Clan na O’Brien”.

This being Howard, the action starts right away.

Turlogh was on a French ship blown off course and taken by Vikings. The last thing he remembers seeing was a familiar face and then loses consciousness after an axe blow. He wakes up to find himself lashed to the mast of a Viking ship, the sole survivor of the battle with the Vikings.

The Viking ship isn’t doing too well either. It’s riding heavy in the water.

And then we meet our other hero, Athelstane, a Saxon outlaw who has thrown his lot in with the Vikings.

The two have a complicated history. The two have battled each other before, but Turlogh saved the wounded Athelstane from the Picts.

Athelstane returned the favor and asked the Vikings to spare Turlogh. He even unties Turlogh’s hands so he can eat.

In the night, the ship founders on the reefs of an unknown island. Athelstane cuts Turlogh loose, and Turlogh pulls the Saxon out of the water before his armor can pull him down.

They are the only survivors.

That’s no reason to put aside their quarrel. Turlogh wants a duel.

Just as they are about to fight to the death, the cries of a woman interrupt them. A beautiful, half-naked blonde woman comes racing out of the jungle, a giant, emu-like bird pursuing her. The two men kill it.

She’s very happy to see them not only because they killed the bird, but they are kinsman of a sort. She is Brunhild, daughter of a warlord in the Orkneys, who was carried away by Tostig the Mad. But, when he decided to go a-roving in unknown waters, the ship wrecked on this island.

It’s home to a civilization older than “Rome, Egypt, Cathay”, built by brown-skinned people, and Brunhild has been here ten years.

She married a local chief, Kotar, and the two launched a bloody revolution for the island’s throne. But, while they succeeded, Kotar betrayed Brunhild by taking another lover. The old, rather inhuman, priest Gothan stirred up a revolt, and Brunhild found herself taken out to be killed by the island’s last devil-bird.

Soon the haughty Brunhild involve the two men in some very typical civilized intrigues. The two men, like her, will be regarded as gods, and she will have her throne back.

The three make their way back to the island’s magnificent city, and Brunhild plays the crowd and claims a prophecy has been fulfilled. The iron men of her country are back. She demands the local king, Ska, fight a duel.

Athelstane takes Ska down easily though he thinks it a bit unsporting given he was armored and Ska wasn’t. Best not to break the illusion that his skin is not iron, says Brunhild.

Brunhild even seems to have a romantic eye on Turlogh. It’s not reciprocated. Turlogh tells Athelstane, “Women in power are white-fanged wolves.”

We hear a little more about this curious civilization. The red men, who destroyed the other outposts of it, are prophesied to return some day to complete its final destruction.

Gothan uses magic in an attempt to kill the men and Brunhild. He even unleashes a monster he himself fears.

Of course, the two best him and prod the creature into killing Gothan – who may, or may not, get revenge on Brunhild when a giant statue of the island’s most fearsome god, Bal-Sagoth, topples and kills her.

Of course, coincidentally, the red men show up now to pillage and kill her.

The two men battle their way to the beach where, conveniently, a Spanish ship lies.

The plot is thrilling despite the coincidences, but I mostly liked the bits touching on the role of weird, fate, Fortune, in life. It’s very true to the Saxon and Viking view of things.

Athelstane says

men’s fortunes are unstable as the sea. Last night I was the picked swordsman of a band of reavers and you a captive. This dawn we were lost outcasts springing at each other’s throats. Now we are sword brothers and right-hand men to a queen.

And the story ends memorably with Turlogh, who has come into possession of the jewel of kingship for the island of Bal-Sagoth, ruminating on the tenuousness of civilization:

Aye — a kingdom of the dead — an empire of ghosts and smoke. I am Ard-Righ of a phantom city — I am King Turlogh of Bal-Sagoth and my kingdom is fading in the morning sky. And therein it is like all other empires in the world — dreams and ghosts and smoke.

4 thoughts on ““The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”

  1. EG May 22, 2021 / 5:36 am

    I consider Howard one of my top-five favourite authors, yet I’ve never read this story. To date I’ve read all of his Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Breckinridge Elkins and Crusader stories, but maybe that’s only about a third or less of his total output.

    It’s amazing how prolific Howard was, especially considering that he died at the age of thirty.

    • marzaat May 22, 2021 / 11:14 am

      I’ve read little Howard though I need to rectify that. I’ve read all the Solomon Kane stories, but most of my reading of Howard has been in relationship to discussions over at LibraryThing.

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