The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”

comingofconan

Bill Ward and I are working our way through the Del Rey Conan collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: Those first two paragraphs are so well written I had to stop and re-read them. Here, again, is proof of Robert E. Howard’s incredible descriptive powers. Some of that talent seems to have been innate with him, but I can’t help thinking he’s even better than he could have been because he spent so much time working with poetry, where every word counts even more than in prose. Well, actually, every word in prose should count, but too often prose writers don’t write that way. Howard at his finest always remembers this.

Bill: Indeed. There is a lot of poetic language in this one, and I think you can see the poet in the writer in much of REH’s work, just as you can with that other Weird Tales luminary, Clark Ashton Smith. Two writers with different styles, perspectives, and even goals whose prose is clearly informed by the writing of poetry. In CAS’s case he was primarily a poet, though, and I think that comes through in his work just as much as it’s obvious that REH is a born storyteller.

frost giant's daughter

Art by Mark Schultz

Howard: Absolutely. A whole lot of this story is chock full of stunning description, although, clearly, the story’s not about lovely events. A battle, its aftermath, a woman with murder in her heart and a man who lusts for her. I’ve been a little leery of this one because it wanders into uncomfortable territory.

Bill: But so does a lot of myth, classical or otherwise. By coincidence I’ve been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses lately, and it’s been suggested (in the “Hyborian Genesis” essay at the back of the Del Rey edition we are reading, for starters) that “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is possibly directly inspired by the Atalanta and Daphne & Apollo myths expounded by Ovid (the name of Ymir’s daughter, Atali, also seems to support this), and transmitted to REH through his reading of Bulfinch. Injecting that “divine lover’s pursuit” motif common with Classical cultures into a wintry Nordic context is one more interesting example of the Hyborian blender that allowed REH to be so inventive and to draw upon whatever source fired his imagination.

frost giant's daughter 2

Art by Cary Nord

Howard: I’m glad you did the legwork on that one, Bill. I have to agree — this isn’t Conan under “normal operating conditions.” Although Conan finds the strange woman stunningly attractive from the first, he doesn’t seem determined to have her until she weaves a kind of spell on him. That it’s a spell and not natural inclination becomes more clear closer to the end of the story when we learn that she’s a northern goddess who lures dying men from battlefields with her beauty so that her brothers can slay them — although there are many clues along the way that she’s supernatural.

From other Conan stories this kind of ravenous, animal lust is no part of his character, but I can’t help thinking that first-time Conan readers would be turned off by the situation, especially because it’s not made entirely clear this isn’t his natural state. If you’re paying attention, I think it’s obvious, but if you’re not looking for subtlety, a mistake people often make when reading REH, you might not see it. Even still, it’s an uncomfortable situation. Farnsworth Wright might have thought so as well, because he didn’t accept it for Weird Tales. Like the next story on the docket, “The God in the Bowl,” it was rejected, and never printed as a Conan tale in Howard’s lifetime.

frost giant's daughter 3

Art by Bruce Timm

Bill: And I scored extra nerd points this week by reading it in its reincarnated form, re-titled “Gods of the North,” in my facsimile reprint of The Fantasy Fan fanzine (March ’34). It stars “Amra of Akbitana” but is nearly identical to “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” though it includes a line that further details Amra’s travels in the south. This, I’m assuming, is the origin of Conan’s famous alias, and it’s great to see how the meta-events in the life of this character can turn around and influence his future fictional adventures.

And I agree, without making Conan’s magical compulsion more initially explicit, I could see “Frost-Giant” alienating readers, especially now. But Conan’s first impulse is to seek succor, to find Atali’s village, even though this woman “as beautiful as a frozen flame of hell” was standing completely naked before him.

Howard: An important point. She incites him to chase her so that she may have him killed by her brothers. He’s not in his right mind.

frost giant's daughter 4

Art by Cary Nord

Bill: Right. She mocks him, dares him to follow her, draws him toward a trap, enchants him quite literally with her otherworldly beauty. Not a good call on her part, as her brother giants find out. Finally she has to call on her father Ymir, one of the North’s fierce gods who has been continually referenced in the story, to save herself. Conan had a supernatural foe in the previous story, but here he is defiant right in the teeth of divine malice, another facet of his character we see to lesser or greater degrees throughout his career.

And in terms of a career, this story is often given as the earliest in terms of internal chronology. Again, very interesting that the first two stories about Conan bracket his adventuring life, one at the very end, and one at the very start. It seems like a an organic way of discovering the character, both for us and REH. One more point against the pastiches — in forcing the stories into “career” order (and shoehorning in others, of course) it destroys the byplay between the stories — what do we see Conan mapping in “Phoenix?” The setting of the next story! Reading them in the order they were written lets us as readers share, right along with REH, in that oft-quoted phenomena of Conan simply telling us his adventures as they occur to him.

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Art by Frank Frazetta

Howard: Oh, that’s a great catch Bill. I’d never noticed that wonderful juxtaposition of map maker to flashback of him in the place where he was making the map.

As to the story itself, it’s fairly simple, succeeding wholly because of Robert E. Howard’s polished prose. But, unlike next week’s tale, I find it well paced, completely achieving what it sets out to do.

Bill: In the hands of another writer it might have almost seemed a vignette, but it definitely works as a story as it stands, and the language is great. I think watching the evolution of the character and the stories themselves is possibly the most enjoyable aspect of these early stories for me, and the first three really seem to be building toward the classic trio that starts with “The Tower of the Elephant.” We’ll get to the last of these early three Conan tales next week, “The God in the Bowl.” Hope to see you here.

52 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”

  1. This is the story i see referenced the most when it comes to REH Conan. Good point about Conan going crazy because of a spell she placed on him. I could see that really throwing off first time readers. I think there are several clues in the story at the middle and the end that show that he was under a spell.

    This is one of those stories that puts Conan’s fighting abilities to almost god status. I mean here we have a very young Conan and he takes on two giants after completely exhausting himself in a bloody battle. I haven’t read every story but I don’t think there are two many where Conan does something like this.

    You could argue that the spell had something to do with it. Or that it was all really a dream and he just happened to find the piece of cloth in a daze.

    I love that you put a sample of Cary Nord’s work in the article. I really enjoyed the first 5 volumes of dark horse’s Conan series. I thought they did a good job putting their own spin on the story. Versus the Savage Sword of the Conan story by Roy Thomas that is exactly like the REH version.

    I’m looking forward to next week. God in the Bowl is one of my favorites.

    • I enjoy a number of the Dark Horse Conan collections, although my favorites are probably volume 1, and then the two later ones Roy Thomas did, 11, and 12, because the stories are just so darned clever and do a really nice job of giving us a “true-to-Howard” Conan. Certainly those are the only three that I’ve felt compelled to re-read more than once. I wish the level of quality had remained consistent.

      Bill and I have already drafted our take on “The God in the Bowl,” and I’ll look forward to hearing your take, because it is one of my least favorites. Maybe you can help convince me of what I’m missing…

  2. I’ve been following along but lax in commenting and pretty much all I would say has been already said. But with all the art that has been posted (all great choices) I would also put in a word for Barry Windsor Smith’s two page splash opener for this story in Conan The Barbarian #16. Relating to REH’s text it is stirring.

  3. Personally, I don’t buy into the spell approach here. I think it’s a justification of what is an attempted rape. Yes, she baited him, teased him and tried to have him killed. But there’s no denying she didn’t want to be with him.

    “With an oath, the Cimmerian heaved himself up on his feet, his blue eyes blazing, his dark, scarred face contorted. Rage shook his soul, but desire fo rhte taunting figure before him hammered at his temples and drove his wild blood fiercely through his veins. Passion fierce as physical agony flooded his whole being, so that earth and sky swam red to his dizzy gaze.”

    I think it’s just an all consuming lust for the daughter of a god.

    Along with the rape in Andrew Offutt’s trilogy, this is a piece of the Conan saga I just don’t approve or “accept.” And it was by REH himself, not in a pastiche, which makes it tougher to analyze, for me.

    There’s a short quest in the Age of Conan MMORPG that plays out The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Without the assault on Atali. You get to take out the brothers, though.

    • I think Hocking’s already effectively answered your observation with his Gorm quote, further down thread. At least, that’s the same evidence I would have quoted. Yeah, at some level you could say that the whole story is “the woman had it coming” but there’s plenty of textual evidence that he IS under a kind of spell, especially when you figure in what Gorm said.

      And lest we think that REH had an issue about this, I think Patrice Louinet, in “Hyborian Genesis” and Bill’s more explicit discussion, are a good argument for it being a twist on mythological stories that REH would have been familiar with.

      It still doesn’t make it a comfortable topic, especially in these times.

    • So, “taking out the brothers” by cutting them to pieces with a sword is morally acceptable. But chasing the woman with lustful intent is not.

      • The woman in the story is evil, no question. She’s clearly lured countless men to their deaths with a sort of spell of lust so that her brothers can slay those men and sacrifice their hearts to Ymir the Frost-Giant.

        But Conan defeats those brothers in combat. He faced them, two to one, and bested them. He triumphs because of his own strength and cunning against more powerful foes. It’s easy to respect.

        Yet he’s larger and stronger than the woman he chases. Her only power seems to be her spell, so that by the end she seems awfully close to a victim — Conan is ready to impose his own will upon her. Yes, she’s to reap what she has sown, what she apparently has sown many times with previous victims. But I still have a hard time seeing her as more than a victim and really can’t wish that she gets the fate she ironically brought upon herself. It’s harder to respect what’s under way here, with Conan imposing his strength upon someone weaker than himself.

        To my mind it ends up a little too much like “she had it coming” which has LONG been the excuse of any rapist to explain why they ignored the woman’s pleas to stop on account of her short skirt, or her different religion, or simply being in the wrong time and place, or being drunk or whatever else. And it’s the same problem I have with stories of myth that tread a similar path.

        I think we have to look at the story and its predecessors for what they were at the time and always keep in mind when they were written. But I also think we have to look at what they mean today as well as what they say about human nature. We can no more dismiss them out of hand as unworthy of reading than we should dismiss the feelings they raise in us, its readers.

  4. I took a detailed look at this one early in my blogging career. (It’s at http://adventuresfantastic.com/the-frost-king-the-frost-giant-and-their-daughters/ for those of you with too much time on your hands.) In addition to the was-he-under-a-spell question, it’s interesting to speculate which story was written first.

    I tend to agree with Howard and Bill that Conan isn’t acting according to the character REH established in the later stories, so I’m a proponent of the Atali put a spell on him theory. I doubt there will ever be consensus on this point.

    I’m enjoying rereading these stories, and I’m having trouble waiting until the next week. I want to read them all at once. I’ve got too many other commitments to do that. The details of some of the stories have faded over time, but “The God in the Bowl” is one that I’ve remembered ever since I first read it 30 years ago. I’m looking forward to that one next week.

    • Oh, nice analysis, Keith. Given that Howard’s Hyborian essay was written after these first three, I think it’s more clear that he wrote the Amra story after, when he knew those place names. I don’t think he had all of them before that.

      And you’re looking forward to “God in the Bowl” as well! Man, I hope I don’t disappoint everyone when they read my analysis of it. You guys may chase me away with torches and pitchforks…

  5. It always seemed clear to me that Conan was, if not ‘under a spell’, powerfully influenced by the presence and intent of Atali. Her treatment of Conan, luring him to his death at the hands of her brothers, is obviously not a ‘one-off’ that she decided to try on this Cimmerian in particular. This procedure is her MO; she snares sacrifices to her fearsome father in this fashion on a regular basis, and she is known for it.

    This is made explicit by the words of Old Gorm at the tale’s conclusion.
    “To the fields of the dead she comes, and shows herself to the dying! Myself when a boy I saw her, when I lay half-slain on the bloody field of Wolraven….I lay and howled like a dying dog because I could not crawl after her.”

    Atali patently has a sorcerous effect on her victims. Old Gorm, so grievously wounded he can’t even crawl, howls because he cannot rise to pursue her.
    So some of the warriors Atali tempts have the strength to rise and follow her. Despite wounds and battle weariness they are captured by her weird allure and, against all sense, chase her across the snows to be slain by her brothers. But our protagonist had the strength to rise, pursue, and then upset her sacrificial game.

    • You just answered the criticisms better than I would have done with the perfect quote from the story to illustrate my position. A. This is NOT an innocent and B. She puts all those she intends to kill under a spell so compulsive that even the gravely injured try to follow.

      Now it still means we have a story I at least wouldn’t have been comfortable writing, and probably would never have conceived, but as mentioned by Bill, it’s not without historical antecedents, and it was drafted in a different time.

  6. Yeah, Bill, a vignette is exactly how it struck me when I first read it back in the Lancer Conan of Cimmeria collection, sandwiched between stories “written” by de Camp and Carter. It seemed unformed and incomplete.

    Definitely not my take on it today. Stripped out of de Camp’s chronological ordering, Howard’s initial conceit of penning stories from across Conan’s life as they occurred to him means it can stand on its own, neither needing to serve as backstory or fill in a gap in the timeline.

    As for all the lusting/rape stuff, yeah, tough stuff that doesn’t ring true for Conan’s portrayal in other stories.

  7. As you say, he worked on it. “Innate talent” is just a potential. The best writers make it look easy, so people (though usually not we writers) often think it came easily for them. For some perhaps more than other, but everyone with talent has to put in endless hours to hone their talent and learn their craft. Preaching to the choir, I’m sure.

    – “I’ve been a little leery of this one because it wanders into uncomfortable territory.” Howard, not sure I follow you. As Bill said, this is classic mythic territory, and it is what I like best about the earlier fantasy writing, which was channeling deep cultural ideas from the subconscious or the dreamworld or the unseen world (depending on terms and beliefs). Actually, thinking about the mythologies of various cultures, most of the subject matter is provocative and primal. Everything now has been cleaned up and made literal and made to match our current cultural biases. And therefore, most of it has lost the power to speak to the deepest things in our human souls/subconsious minds.

    Also, I always had the impression that Conan was not in his “right mind” and the situation not “normal.” Here’s a naked woman in the freezing cold appearing out of nowhere, etc.

    -“I think it’s just an all consuming lust for the daughter of a god.”
    Um, “just?” How would a presence of the actual daughter of a god who is enticing a mortal man affect him? I would say, definitely not “normally.” We modern people overestimate our control and reliance on a “rational” mindset.

    John said: “It always seemed clear to me that Conan was, if not ‘under a spell’, powerfully influenced by the presence and intent of Atali. Her treatment of Conan, luring him to his death at the hands of her brothers, is obviously not a ‘one-off’ that she decided to try on this Cimmerian in particular. This procedure is her MO; she snares sacrifices to her fearsome father in this fashion on a regular basis, and she is known for it.

    This is made explicit by the words of Old Gorm at the tale’s conclusion.”

    Thank you, John.

    Whether or not Conan is acting completely consistently with the way he acts in other tales is one matter. But to be judging Howard and a pre-historic barbarian by the standards of 2015 seems a bit absurd. Does anyone here read classical mythology or even later folk tales and make social judgments on the characters and authors? This seems to me a mistake, if not a bit short-sighted. If any of us were to travel back to another time, our beliefs and actions would no doubt get us in trouble. Were we to travel into the future, we would be considered barbaric as much or more than we consider Conan so. Something to think about.

    • I’m not saying that we should judge Conan or pre-historic barbarians by today’s standards. I do think that in presenting discussion of these stories to a modern audience we have to walk a little carefully. I probably erred in sounding too apologetic, because I always hate to be offensive.

      The problem is that many modern readers apply their modern understanding to authors of other times, or authors writing of other times. They lack grounding in genre history, or how to properly critique a story. It would be easy to simply ignore these critics or to tell them to figure it out on their own (perhaps with a hand motion thrown in), but many don’t seem to be capable of figuring this out on their own, no matter their intelligence.

      As Hocking was saying to me earlier today, THINGS USED TO BE DIFFERENT. For instance, yes, the white man always used to be the hero, but not necessarily because all the writers were racists and sexist, but because white men made up the educated class who had leisure time to write and white men made up those who had the leisure time and money to read and buy the material.

      You can find a fine example of this kind of thinking here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/08/i-read-100-best-fantasy-and-sci-fi-novels-and-they-were-shockingly-offensive

      To reach these people — and I think we should try to reach them — I believe we need to handle discussions of the texts delicately. Because sometimes they’re young, or don’t understand that a text is rooted in its time or even what some of the issues of that time mean to a text.

      On the other hand, we shouldn’t be mealy mouthed about it, and perhaps I was treading a little too carefully… although I have to say that the idea that “she had it coming” still makes me uncomfortable, even if Conan’s chase is magically induced. Sure, there’s plenty of mythological basis, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question it. Maybe I should have taken the issue on more directly.

      In short, thanks, Robert. You’ve made me decide to raise the bar on the way I discuss these stories going forward.

      • Late to the party and doubt anyone will read it.
        So, his raping her would be sexist–violence against women.
        But letting her go would also be sexist–paternalism, denying a woman responsibility for her actions and agency.
        Clearly, especially for Americans, the only non sexist solution would be to treat her the same as her brothers, and kill her.
        And to make the story modern, Conan could then have sex with her corpse. Or, to make it really modern, he could go back and have sex with the corpse of one of the brothers.
        And as far as reaching a new generation of readers goes by addressing such things delicately, I hear A Song of Ice and Fire has sold a few books.

        • Hey Terry,

          You’re right — I didn’t see this for ages.

          As for addressing such things delicately, I do not mean to discuss A Song of Ice and Fire, I mean to reference how modern readers bring their viewpoint to older work, and how best to reach them. And because so often the default seems to be to approach it with hackles raised, ready to take offense, I advocate more of a teaching stance. A gentle one. If that fails, and they continue to be blind, then maybe it’s time for more stringent arguments, although at this point in my life I don’t usually have time for arguing with people determined to be at odds with me, and usually just walk away.

  8. And, let me get this straight: Conan brutally murders countless individuals and everyone’s fine with that, but he chases after one woman with savage lust in his heart and everyone is up in moral arms?

    • Here’s the problem with that equivalency — Conan fights people all the time, and people try to attack him all the time. But he’s a warrior, not a murderer. He’s not a wanton slayer. He only attacks if he has good reason.

  9. Oh, trying to get a new generation of readers. Yeah, that’s a concern and I see where you’re coming from.

    “She had it coming.” That is incredibly unacceptable, of course. I am a staunch advocate of women’s rights, so of course I wasn’t saying anything like that. As for questionable heroes, sheesh, try The Stars My Destination, possibly the greatest science fiction novel ever written. I don’t even understand the motivation behind the heroes rape of his future “sidekick.” Very weird.

    Hmm, a warrior, not a murderer. That’s a very discuss-able point. He kills plenty of time when it’s not in the midst of a battle. And the male idea that it’s not murder if you’re fighting for a country with a nice uniform on is debatable. I could instead just change the word to “brutally kills countless people.” I stand by that statement. It’s very American to see sexual matters as sinful and suspect, but violence as okay. Just look at the movies. You can watch people being hacked apart and tortured: R rating. Shot of male or female genitalia: X rating. That’s sick and twisted, and I think we have the Puritans to thank for that.

    • That’s true about Conan slaying . But let’s consider just the story at hand. Conan wins a battle against TWO mighty foes, overcoming them because of his own strength and cunning.

      On the other hand, he’s about to impose his power on this woman. She’s evil, no question. She used her power on countless men and led them to their deaths. Yet at this point of the story she feels much more like a victim than the stronger, faster man who wishes to do something with her that she doesn’t want. In walking this path, we get awfully close to the argument rapists have often made to excuse their behavior. (She’s evil, so she deserves it. She was wearing a short skirt, or makeup, or was in the wrong part of town, or shouldn’t have drunk so much, or was looking at me like she wanted it… damned if it doesn’t make me cringe.) This situation is VERY different from that Conan faced when fighting the two brothers. It’s no longer an equal contest, and that’s why it makes me uncomfortable and probably why it’s made other readers uncomfortable.

      You’re dead right about The Stars My Destination…

      And you’re also dead right about how it’s okay for us to have violence, but heaven forbid we have consensual sex. The former will only get you PG; the latter could get you R or even X. It does seem to be those Puritans, doesn’t it?

  10. And, politically incorrect as it may be, sexuality is a primal urge between males and females that sometimes verges on violence.

  11. Agreed, Howard. But wait a minute. 🙂

    The two warriors he killed were just protecting their sister! No sympathy for them? They died a painful death while the woman got away unharmed. No condemnation of Conan for killing two men who were protecting a woman from his lust? No one has a single thought for them. They are simply enemies to be conquered in noble battle by our hero. Again, it clearly reveals cultural bias. We’re scared to death of not condemning a possible rape, but have no qualms about the killing (and this, in my opinion, is murder) of two men.

    Now, if one claims the two men were not innocent, that they were part of her scheme, then one admits that it was all a trap and she is a murderous trying to kill Conan. Rape her? I’m surprised he would not kill her along with the two men. Why would he not kill her? Because, by his beliefs, women are weak, and not to be punished like men (see the story, I forget, where Conan kills the woman’s lover and only throws her in the mud after she tries to have him killed).

    Okay, I’ll put it to bed now. Just want to bring up some thought-provoking observations. We are all, to a lesser or greater extent, intellectual prisoners of the culture in which we live.

    • That’s a great point about cultural bias. If some sort of court of law were somehow able to bring the brothers and Atali to justice, they all would have been judged guilty of multiple murders and sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

      I don’t think you can say that the men were trying to protect the woman from Conan’s lust — Atali was the bait and they were the trap. Not protectors, but the wire that slams down when the mouse grabs the cheese.

  12. Modern readers who are offended by vaguely implied, sorta-might-wanna rape might want to turn their delicate eyes elsewhere. But this is not a common theme or trait of Conan. Howard’s writing is just too good to be ignored due to non-PC material that crops up in some stories from time to time. Yeah, a new reader could skip some of the more “controversial ” stories and still experience the best the Howard wrote about his most famous character. But I say read this tale with an understanding of the opinions and mindset of general population of those days and you will find some pretty good writing here. Make up your own mind if the story has any merit; I think it’s a damned good tale.

    • Hey, thedarkman, thanks for stopping by.

      I agree that there is not just good writing here, but great writing. On the other hand I don’t think we can simply tell modern readers coming to it for the first time to suck it up and deal with it if they’re not used to this kind of intensity. I can’t say that to my 15yo daughter. Or, at least, I feel pretty awkward saying it to her. It’s not that her sensibilities are necessarily delicate, it’s just that the story’s going to hit her in a different way than it might hit me.

      I think it’s okay to have a frank discussion of anything that gets raised in these stories and to look it straight in the eye. It could make someone uncomfortable, and not just someone who’s looking to be offended or who wouldn’t be inclined to like this kind of fiction anyway. I’m thinking of young people like my daughter, or even my son, coming upon Conan stories for the first time. They really don’t have much modern work to compare it to, or the training to judge a story of it’s time and by its own merits or even to look more deeply at subtler issues.

      I do have to say that the implication that a rape is intended isn’t especially vague or sorta-might-wanna. It’s heavily implied. But then unlike many another author, REH saves even the villainess from this fate, and has Conan returned to his normal state of mind. I don’t think we’ve really touched on that in any of these discussions.

      • Well said Howard, as a father myself, I totally understand where you are coming from. My post comes from the perspective of a 50 year old male who has been exposed to plenty of older genre and pulp fiction from the “non-PC” past. To the younger or uninitiated reader, a certain amount of caution is recommended. At the same time there is plenty of fiction, both old and new out there, that crosses deeper into ‘dark territory’ than Howard ever dreamed…

        • Oh yeah, there’s much darker stuff than REH! And there’s some icky tendencies among some writers that pop up again and again. REH didn’t have a fascination with rape or use it routinely in his fiction. There are a couple of old writers that keep coming back to it. The more I read of Vance, for instance, the more I noticed some disquieting tendencies in amongst all that amazing world building.

          I suppose a lot of my own thoughts about all of this are informed by my own discussions I’ve had with my kids (or my thoughts beforehand about how I’ll present the texts) about some of the good old fiction on my shelves. I have to set the stage a bit, sometimes. And I’ve probably thought more about this story than any other because I think REH is one of the greatest adventure writers of all time and I wanted them to read his work.

          As for the modern fiction with dark bits, I haven’t had to think too much about talking to them about it because I really don’t have much of it on my bookshelves, at least not for long!

  13. I really can’t see the Conan stories, or much other R. E. Howard adventure appealing to women. I’m not saying there are not exceptions, but that’s not the main audience for the stories. Women are mainly interested in very different core things than men: emotions, relationships, meaningful conversations. If someone is going to the Conan stories for that, they’re going to be disappointed. I wouldn’t recommend them even for even older women, much less young ones.

    Even Leiber would appeal to women more, and even that is mainly for a male audience. One of my ex-girlfriends enjoyed the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, but one of her main comments was: “Dude, the Mouser is a pervert!”

    • While there are definitely women who love and appreciate the work of Robert E. Howard, including at least one Howard scholar, my personal experience confirms your own. I have met vastly more men than women who enjoy the work of Robert E. Howard. My wife, who shares many of the same preferences in fiction as myself and loved the first Chronicles of Amber as well as the cossack stories of Harold Lamb, bounced off Robert E. Howard like a superball dropped on pavement from three stories.

      You may be right as to an overall difference between what men and women prefer in their stories, although having had a number of discussions with you now I think I can be fairly certain you don’t mean to suggest any absolutes, just tendencies.

  14. I WOULD recommend C.L. Moore’s Jirel Of Joiry stories! What a difference as a storyteller, yet the same basic material. Apart from a few rare exceptions of violence or gore, her stories are packed with emotion, sensuality, relationship dynamics, atmosphere, mystery and wonder. Women would like those stories, and I certainly do myself.

    • Oh yeah, Moore is great. My chief problem with the Jirel stories is that nearly every one of them has the exact same plot, so they definitely shouldn’t be read back to back.

      I always thought she read like a cross between William Hope Hodgson and Robert E. Howard during his dreamy Kull period.

      • Yes, I agree. And though Black God’s Kiss is one of the greatest stories of its kind ever, the sequel Black God’s Shadow is her worst. Same with the Northwest Smith stories—very similar in plot, so only a couple at a time is recommended. But when she wrote well, her style was like no one else. Dreamlike, haunting and beautiful.

  15. Regarding this very short story being different than all his other Conan works: might it be somewhat attributable to “finding his feet” with Conan? His first story, which had a bit of supernatural, was a rewritten Kull story. His third story (next week’s ‘The God in the Bowl’) is pretty much (a somewhat dull) police procedural.

    Then, in story four, we have ;The Scarlet Citadel’, followed by ‘The Tower of the Elephant,’ in which we get what seems to be the classic Conan.

    Maybe Conan’s lust for Atala was just part of REH’s development of the character. Something he cast aside (likely after the story was rejected by Farnsworth).

    • I think it likely that REH WAS finding his feet with Conan, but I also think that the text itself points to the fact that the lust is supernatural, particularly the section where Gorm speaks, quoted by Hocking above.

      I definitely don’t think it was a characteristic that REH tried out and cast aside; I do think it was a story idea he didn’t return to, and more power to him, because my own enthusiasm for Vance (I love his world and culture building) waned over the last few years as I kept encountering the rape of young women/older girls in book after book. Sure, we have to separate the story and the writer, but A. I didn’t want to keep encountering the scenario and B. it made me begin to think there might have been something icky going on with the author himself.

      Above, Robert mentions that an ex-girlfriend referred to the Mouser as a perv, and some of the Mouser’s own actions and thoughts and preference for pre-pubescent girls (or just post-pubescent) also leave me feeling a little icky and now color my perception of the author’s work.

      • Actually, haha, my female friend’s comment was not said negatively. She was amused by the Mouser! But obviously not all women would be. I think women are more open-minded about sexual matters than men think, and overall, I find the women that I’ve known at least as if not more open-minded than men on such matters. They’re just not allowed to express that in our society without being looked on strangely or being called a derogatory name (like slut).

        The saving grace for Leiber (and where he beats Howard hands down) is that the women in his stories are, for the most part, incredibly strong characters, usually stronger in character than the men, even than Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. There are many examples (such at The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar, Stardock, and in almost all of the later Rime Isle stories, their female counterparts are represented in every way as the twain’s equal.

  16. Wow, having made that comment, I started thinking of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, and the list of stories with not just strong but dominant female personalities is long.

    I think Leiber understood women very well (and Howard did not understand them much at all, which makes sense looking at his sheltered life and his apparently dependent relationship with his mother). Leiber knew women were, among other things: 1. Very sexual creatures. 2. Psychologically, for the most part, stronger than men.

  17. And yes, thanks, Howard, I’m almost always talking about tendencies, not absolutes. And BTW, I still don’t see a way to edit a comment once posted.

  18. I wish I had time to comment more in depth, but let me throw a few things out there.

    I need to get this written up at some point, but Bulfinch may not be the main source for this, but rather an anthropological work in Howard’s library called Sex and Sex Worship. It has Daphne and Apollo, but more importantly discusses both Valkyries and the Lorelei in the same paragraph, and what is Atali if not a combination of the two?

    Her name and the smoking heart reference come from the Star Rover by London.

    More mythology – he slays Heimdal (guadrian of Bifrost), then you get the Aurora borealis (Bifrost), and he’s in the realm of the gods. So not only is under Atali’s spell but it’s implied that the whole encounter with Atali and her brothers is an alternate reality or a different state of consciousness. A similar thing happens to Kull in Delcardes Cat.

    It’s still uncomfortable, but it’s a lot more complex than Conan was feeling rapey that day.

    • Thanks, Jeff. That’s really great information. Knowing the sources and inspirations of a text really shed new light upon it. I think your mention of Valkyries and the Lorilei being in the same paragraph really shows us where REH was coming from.

      I keep meaning to read The Star Rover, especially because I quite enjoy the James Allison stories. I was just re-reading Rusty Burke’s introduction to Swords of the North and saw him reference how much REH enjoyed The Star Rover. I’ve read that about Howard again and again and even tracked down a copy and I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I should. I mean, I hear he also liked some Lamb guy who’s supposed to be pretty good…

  19. This story has always seemed to me a story of a threshold state or transition where the veil between the real world and the afterlife is thin and Conan may or may not pass from this world. To me he is clearly under a spell and his greatness as a warrior and his will to live are showcased as being every bit as powerful as the world of myth/gods. A journey to the afterlife and back to the real world like so many mythic figures.

  20. Great comments by Jeff and Scott. This whole issue of mythology and symbolism is essential to “fantasy” literature. I think that’s what gives the best examples of it (Tolkien, Howard, Leiber, etc.) the depth they have. Without it, you have something similar to religions that have lost the deep meaningful metaphors and turned them into literal events that have lose their true power to give glimpses and guideposts to the other eternal world. And that, as we have touched on briefly before, is why much modern fantasy suffers. The mythology has been replaced by literalism.

  21. Also, as Bill mentioned before (and I had read this too), the tale comes from an earlier tale featuring a different lead character. Howard rewrote the story with Conan in the role. And though it may sound like a simple, practical idea, Howard may simply have been rewriting the story quickly hoping it would sell since Conan was selling, because he needed the money (we all know how difficult things were financially for him).

  22. Let me add too, that the Conan version absolutely predates the Amra version and the typescript makes this. There is no longer any controversy or mystery about this. It was either Karl Edward Wagner or Fritz Leiber that put it out there as a possibility years ago, but the typescript wasn’t available then. It was changed to “Amra” when he submitted it to Hornig to publish in Fantasy Fan in 1934. By then Amra had already been used as Conan’s nicknane, so REH was winking at the fans.

  23. Hey Jeff, would you happen to know what the first use of ‘Amra’ for Conan was?

    I read the Star Rover (as The Jacket) about a year ago, nothing about smoking hearts rings a bell! I’ll have to go back and check it out.

    Terrific comments and discussion on this one guys, it’s great to see our read along garnering so much attention — and anything I might want to have added to this one has already been said better by several commenters. Great to have you all with us for this one.

    • Bill, it was Scarlet Citadel for the first mention of Amra, by his jailer who lost his brother to one of Conan’s raids years before.

      From Star Rover:
      “…the skalds singing of … Gudrun’s revenge on Atli when she gave him the hearts of his children and hers to eat while battle swept the benches, tore down the hangings raped from southern coasts, and, littered the feasting board with swift corpses.”

      Also from another chapter in The Star Rover:

      :Heavens, before I was of the flaxen-haired Aesir, who dwelt in Asgard, and before I was of the red-haired Vanir, who dwelt in Vanaheim, long before those times I have memories (living memories) of earlier drifts, when, like thistledown before the breeze, we drifted south before the face of the descending polar ice-cap.”

      • Great stuff, Jeff; I never made the connection with REH when reading Star Rover.

        I do remember that jailer scene from Scarlet Citadel, which I’m looking forward to rereading very soon!

  24. One story that has not been discussed as a source for Howard’s tale is Leonard Cline’s “The Lady of Frozen Death” which originally saw publication in Ghost Stories, August 1928, under his pen name Alan Forsyth and the title “Sweetheart of the Snows.” At the risk of beating my own drum I had an article published in Two-Gun Raconteur “Atali, the Lady of Frozen Death” which I think did a pretty good job of covering this territory. If you have a chance read Cline’s story and note how both ladies are covered by “gossamer” veils–and there are many other comparisons too many to list right now. Algernon Blackwood, in “The Glamour of the Snows” also has a deadly snow bound lady that could bear some looking into.

  25. Pingback: Black Gate » Articles » Discovering Robert E. Howard: Barbara Barrett – Painting With Words: The Poetry of REH

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