Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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

This review has been moved to the R. S. Martin website. Click here to read.

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.