I didn’t know if that would be the case. I mean, the last time I read one of these comics, I wasn’t even old enough to drive a car. Not all stories fondly recalled from childhood hold up so well to a reunion visit.
But here in this issue we have a killer tree. You gotta love this issue’s title: “A Tree From Some Dark Hell.” (This one has by far the best, most eye-catching cover yet, with Arak and Valda dramatically poised to chop at the hell-tree with their sap-spilling blades.) Ernie Colon’s art seems just about right for the epic tale of Arak, and I’m really starting to appreciate Thomas’s storytelling, which is more interesting and nuanced than one might typically expect from an early ‘80s comic. And did I mention there’s a killer tree!
The tree — this issue’s featured monster/supernatural threat — is actually pretty truncated (See what I did there? That was a pretty good pun, you’ve got to admit.), rearing up in just the last few pages. The bulk of the issue concerns the arrival of Arak, Malagigi, and Valda to Aix-La-Chapelle, the capital of King Carolus Magnus. We find that His Majesty heads the “Assembly of the Twelve Peers,” inspired by the court of King Arthur and his Round Table (although, unlike the more egalitarian-leaning nature of the Round Table, King Magnus and his peers are seated at three tiered tables that clearly show rank/favor. On the other hand, give them credit for having a woman among the twelve). Along with Arak, we soon learn that Malagigi and Valda the Iron Maiden are two of the twelve members!
Never mind having connections with 1/6th of the Peers; Arak immediately incites mistrust and loathing. When he tries to deliver the warning about the sorceress Angelica that he has been carrying to the King since back in the first issue, his attempt to be helpful is shot down, himself being seen as unworthy of gaining the King’s ear.
The Peers, you see, are in Malagigi’s words “twelve of the noblest, most magnificent fighters for the right in all of Christendom…or the world, for that matter.” Alas, back in those days that often meant marching off to foreign lands to spread “Christendom” at the point of a sword. Many in the court see in Arak a half-naked, savage heathen. The final straw comes when the Dane Ogier — himself a former pagan — protests Arak’s pendant: “Yonder necklace mocks the cross of Christ — for ‘tis a hammer of Thunor, also called Thor and Donner — the Norsemen’s Thunder God!” Another member of the Peers, Archbishop Turpin (whom Malagigi notes is “at home with a mace as much as with a psalter” — and I couldn’t help but think he’s a perfect D&D cleric!), agrees, noting, “Worshippers of idols have no place in Aix-La-Chapelle…at least, not alive!” And the way Colon draws Turpin’s face, he says it with a slight smile. Very effective!
And this is why I’m loving Thomas’s comic book. What follows, before swords are drawn, is some pretty tense political and theological argument. Not what your typical ten-year-old would’ve been looking for when he picked up the comic off the rack, but something I sure appreciate.
We can guess, though, that this is not going to be resolved without some bloodshed. Arak refuses to remove the pendant, explaining that he vowed not to remove it on the night he slew the serpent seemingly with supernatural help (back in issue 1): “That night, I vowed never to remove this talisman, which the Norsemen wear to bring them good fortune on the seas…till I knew whether it was your God, or mine, or the Vikings’ — aye, or no god at all — which spared my life.”
For all those good Christian knights, this is not a satisfactory answer; indeed, it is declared blasphemy. Interestingly, the Peers include one Saracen who, although Muslim, is welcome among them. This does come up in the debate around the table; one Peer notes that the Saracen Ferrau “does not parade his heathen talismans among us, at least!” So I guess they’ve got a religious-faith version of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy going on, then. Which, come to think of it, is pretty progressive for those days, when just looking like you might not be of the right faith could get you sent to your maker, whoever he/she/it might be. But what will become clear soon enough is that these are men of fighting more than men of faith—even Archbishop Turpin—and so they put far more weight on how a man conducts himself in battle than how he prays. This is good news for Arak, because you just know there’s going to be a fight…
Things come to a head when he is given the ultimatum that he must “renounce all gods but the True God.”
Arak shows himself to have more going on up in his noggin than the typical barbarian with this nuanced answer: “How can I renounce that which I do not fully believe, Milord? I’ve not said that He-No or Thunor is truer than your God—only that I do not know! Is that a crime in the Kingdom of the Franks?”
In answer, the knight Rinaldo states, “It is, boy—and one for which you’ll pay with your life—“
And the time for talking is over. But it was fun while it lasted, for this reader anyway. I hope Thomas has more of that fencing of the verbal variety in future issues. Refreshing to see characters exercising the brain as well as the brawn, y’know?
It is arranged that Rinaldo and Arak will engage in combat outside in the courtyard, but first Rinaldo gets all decked out in his head-to-toe plate armor—and on horseback, no less! Arak, wearing only his belt, boots, and breeches and armed with his otomahuk, appears to be gravely outmatched.
* And we are four for four now in noting Arak’s effect on women. Here one lady onlooker whispers to another, “’Twould be a shame for one so young and noble-seeming to perish…” Both ladies, incidentally, have lustful expressions.
Okay, enough of that. Arak first lets out a war-whoop that so startles Rinaldo’s charging horse that the knight is thrown, at least putting the two combatants on equal footing. By turns, Arak turns Rinaldo’s supposed strengths to his own advantage, using both skill and cunning. When Arak is disarmed by the great swordsman, Valda intervenes by tossing her sword to Arak. This gives our hero the opportunity to show off his own swordsmanship, but when he finally has the upper hand, he spares Rinaldo’s life.
Chivarlic Rinaldo, in turn, declares, “Our Lord in Heaven must have a purpose for you…to have made you the equal of Frankland’s finest knight.” When Arak offers his hand in friendship, Rinaldo accepts: “Aye, and most gladly, Arak! The sight of that amulet around your neck still revolts me — but I’ll accept your oath that you mean no harm to Christendom.”
So it goes with chivalry, at least the mythologized version of it as it has come down to us. Since Arak wiped the ground with his armor-plated rear end, Rinaldo now declares the man he was just trying to skewer a lifelong friend. All is well, with Arak welcome at the court.
And here, 18 pages into the comic, it feels like that’s a wrap; we’re winding down into the denouement — but no! We still haven’t gotten to that killer tree, remember? We can’t make like a tree and leave before hearing about that “tree from some dark Hell,” no sir!
Everybody’s made nice, so Arak finally gets to deliver his warning about the imminent arrival of Angelica (you know, it just occurs to me: with all his side adventures of the last couple issues, how is it he arrived at court before the sorceress did?).
It seems somewhat of a non sequitur how the King replies: he recounts his recent campaign against the Saxons, during which he and his men came upon “the wooden monstrosity called…Irminsul! Irmunsul—gnarled and sinister, with a skull-like face which, the Saxons swear, no man ever carved upon its great trunk!” The Saxons put up quite a fight: “They would not abandon it to us, for it is a god to them…as holy as the world-tree Yggdrasil is, I’ve heard, to the Norse sea-raiders…And so, many a warrior died there, fighting desperately to protect the loathsome tree.”
And within the next two pages, we get all this exposition: Magnus’s men vanquished the Saxons and chopped down the tree, although when it toppled it killed the woodsmen who had fatefully wielded the axes (“’Twas the Devil’s doing, I’ll warrant!”). Inside the tree’s stump they discovered “the fabled treasure horde of the Saxons…gold and silver, coins and vessels!” He divvied most of the loot among his “brave soldiery,” but kept a “lovely silver drinking-cup, the wooden base of which was carved in Irminsul’s likeness. It made a good gift for my dear Lady, Liutgard.” (And what lady wouldn’t want a drinking-cup featuring a likeness of the “loathsome,” “gnarled,” and “sinister” “monstrosity” “with a skull-like face”? Perfect for drinking cider at Hallowe’en.)
Malagigi freaks out at this and demands to take the cup for further study, to ensure that it is not accursed. Magnus is all-too-happy to oblige — “What? By my faith, I’d not thought of that!” When the King and his Lady retire to their room, she reminds him of something else he’d not thought of — for some reason he also kept a sprig of the tree, which he proudly wears pinned to his shirt like the Boy Scout Merit Badge for Killing Evil Trees. “Why, bless me — so I did! Best dispose of it, then…just to be on the safe side.” One starts to get the impression that King Magnus is a bit absent-minded, perhaps a touch senile.
That sprig takes root and, that night, becomes the Tree From Some Dark Hell trumpeted on the cover. It seems to be much more sprightly than its cut-down parent, because it proves impervious to axe blows. It grabs the King from out of his tower room and is also giving Arak and Valda a run for their money. Malagigi is nowhere to be seen, because he is up in his room in some sort of trance over the drinking-cup. Arak, knowing they’ll need sorcery to deal with this invasive specie, throws his otomahuk through Malagigi’s window in the hopes of rousing him. This does the trick, and the wizard tosses some powder out the window onto the tree. The tree erupts into flame. Everyone manages to escape except Arak, who is surrounded by fire. King Magnus, showing himself still of sound mind and body in a pinch, rushes away to bring back a blanket that he throws to Arak, commanding our hero to wrap himself in it. He does so, and emerges from the flames unscathed.
The secret of the blanket is revealed: it is made of a new substance called asbestos. The Lady asks, “You mean — you saved his life with that table-cloth you often hurl into the fire after dinner, to astonish your knights when it does not burn?” And there is an editor’s asterisk on this, with the accompanying caption from editor Dick Giordano: “A true fact — Dick.” I’m not sure whether by “true fact” he means that an asbestos cloth won’t burn or that the real King Charlemagne actually amused and astonished his knights in this manner.
Whew. All that happened in a couple pages of packed panels. Now we’re truly at the end of the issue, the bond between Arak and His Majesty strengthened by their both having saved the other’s life.
That last part did have a bit of a stitched-on quality to it. I’m wondering — since Thomas has made it clear that he drew upon the legends of Charlemagne as recounted by the likes of Thomas Bulfinch as backdrop for his own tale — is this a case of wanting to work in some of that material? Is there, among the legends, a tale linking Charlemagne or Malagigi with the evil tree Irminsul? Maybe he figured this would be a good place to shoehorn it in, providing a monster for an issue that was otherwise all about religious intolerance and court intrigue. I guess maybe I’ll Google it. [Addendum: Yep, a couple minutes of Googling later, I can affirm that the destruction of the Irminsul by Charlemagne and his men is rooted in historical legend. I found nothing in my cursory search, however, to suggest the Irminsul was a tree with a skull-like face and a tendency to produce animated offspring.]
Because monsters happen to have been a big draw for me to this comic when I was a child, I’m going to start a Monster Tally for each issue. I didn’t do it for the first three issues, so I’ll play a little catch-up here. My categorization for this is quite broad — think the D&D Monster Manual broad. If there’s a ghost, I’m going to list it as a monster for the sake of this tally. Also, the number indicates different types, not actual numbers of a given monster. If 20 harpies come swooping into an issue, “harpy” counts as 1 monster.
Issue 1 Monster Tally. 1: sea serpent
Issue 2 Monster Tally. 3: devil, half-devil offspring, animated armor
Issue 3 Monster Tally. 0 (unless you count a near-immortal sorcerer)
Issue 4 Monster Tally. 1: evil tree
Next Issue: “Tournament of Titans!”