Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fiction Review: Robert E. Howard, "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"


"The Frost-Giant's Daughter," pulp author Robert E. Howard's second story featuring his sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian, was unpublished during his lifetime. It was written in 1932, but Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected it, and it didn't see print until the 1953 Howard collection The Coming of Conan. A current Howard collection featuring it is The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. (The painting above, by fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta, is from the cover of the 1969 collection Conan the Adventurer, where a version revised by L. Sprague de Camp was published.) While "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first Conan story, presented the character in middle age, this outing features the younger version familiar to most readers. It opens with the finale of a battle between Conan and the warriors of a northern mountain tribe. After Conan defeats the last of them, a beautiful young woman appears. He is consumed with lust for her, and chases her across the snow-covered mountain pass. She turns out to be a femme fatale; her only goal was to lure him into battle with her frost-giant brothers, where he will hopefully be killed. Structurally, the story isn't much: it's just this happens, and this happens, and this happens. Howard concludes it with a final twist that revolves around whether the woman was real or a hallucination. But the question isn't prepared for in the earlier sections of the story, so it just feels tacked on. It must be said Howard does a fine job of rendering the action of the story; the battle scenes, though brief, are vivid and brutal. He also keeps the reader keenly aware of the wintry environment and the impediments it creates for Conan throughout. Ultimately, though, the strengths and weaknesses of Howard's craftsmanship pale against the story's odious misogyny. A woman is presented as nothing more than a malevolent, taunting sex object. The main source of suspense is whether Conan will succeed in raping her. The story is effectively told from Conan's perspective, and there's no sense on his or, more importantly, Howard's part that rape is an evil, monstrous thing. The morality of Conan's actions are treated as beneath notice. It's an appalling story, and one ends up rather grateful that Howard didn't do a better job of putting it together. A more effectively crafted piece would have rubbed the reader's nose in the ugliness even more.



Reviews of other stories by Robert E. Howard:


1 comment:

Taranaich said...

It's good to see other reviews of Howard's work on the 'net, even negative ones. That said, I do have several comments.

Howard concludes it with a final twist that revolves around whether the woman was real or a hallucination. But the question isn't prepared for in the earlier sections of the story, so it just feels tacked on.

Well, only if you miss the several hints dropped regarding the unreality of the situation. "He looked up; there was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not place or define – an unfamiliar tinge to earth and sky." - Is that just meant to be flavour, not a hint that something different is in the air? Conan and the other warriors are wrapped in snow, yet Atali's naked save for a strip of gossammer: is the reader just meant to accept that? No, the question of unreality is right there in the beginning.

This is the central conflict of the story, whether Conan's experiences after slaying Heimdall (whose name is shared by the guardian of Valhalla in Norse Mythology, which is surely no coincidence). Conan's chase after Atali is to ascertain her reality, whether she is truly a spirit, or the figment of Conan's tired, battered brain.

A woman is presented as nothing more than a malevolent, taunting sex object. The main source of suspense is whether Conan will succeed in raping her.

The thing is, Atali is quite clearly not human: she is a being of ice and snow given the shape of a human woman. Her brothers are ten-foot monsters practically made of ice, and she is actually cold to the touch. She is no more human than the Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs or other creatures of mythology which use their supernatural powers to draw their prey to them. Conan recalls a "strange madness" as he beheld her, which is a curious thing for a red-blooded barbarian to say if this was just Conan seeking to have sex with her.

The story is effectively told from Conan's perspective, and there's no sense on his or, more importantly, Howard's part that rape is an evil, monstrous thing.

Should any author have to tell you that rape is an evil, monstrous thing? Surely such a thing is implicit without having to state it outright.

In any case, it's a matter of agency. Conan is not, in fact, chasing Atali, so much as Atali is luring him for the express purpose of getting him killed. When Conan manages to kill her brothers, then he gains agency, once again to ensure her reality. But since Atali had already worked her sorcery, she couldn't stop Conan from doing exactly what she had intended - except this time only her father could stop Conan.

I can certainly understand how this story could be interpreted as "Conan tries to rape a woman," but to do so would be to ignore the clear debt it owes to Greek and Norse mythology, as well as to ignore the fact that Atali is a monster who has led countless men to their deaths through her sorceries. This isn't presenting a woman as a sex object: an object suggests passivity and lack of agency. Atali has anything but those things: she is completely in control up until the final pages.

Of course, this is a very difficult story to discuss given how insidious rape culture is right now - just look at the Steubenville scandal - but there it is.