Monday, October 26, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Frost-Giant's Daughter

"The Phoenix on the Sword" by Robert E. Howard is rightfully called the published story of Conan the Cimmerian. However, it's actually a rewrite of "By This Axe I Rule!," an unpublished tale of Kull of Atlantis. "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was written later but, unlike "The Phoenix on the Sword," it was always intended to be a Conan story, thus making it the first original piece of Conan fiction, a fact supported, I think, by its taking place early in the Conan's life, when he was young and relatively inexperienced. These might seem like trivial details but the story of the creation and publication of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is not without value to understanding it and its place within the Conan canon. 

Howard submitted the short story to Weird Tales sometime in early 1932. Farnsworth Wright, its editor, rejected it curtly with the words, "I do not much care for it." Much ink has been spilled over the matter of just why Wright did not care for it, with some suggesting that the content of the story was too racy for his sensibilities. However, a cursory examination of the contents of any issue of Weird Tales, as well as the Unique Magazine's many covers by Margaret Brundage, should quickly disabuse anyone of this interpretation. Instead, I think we should take Wright at his word: he simply did not enjoy the story and there need not be any further explanation. I'll come back to the supposed raciness of the story before long.

Undeterred by the rejection, REH went back and rewrote the story, replacing Conan with another nearly-identical character, Amra of Akbitana (a name that Conan fans should recognize as an occasional alias of the barbarian). He then retitled it "The Frost King's Daughter" and submitted it to the amateur periodical The Fantasy Fan, edited by Charles Hornig (who is himself an incredibly fascinating individual). When it appeared in issue #7 (March 1934), its title was changed again, this time to "Gods of the North." A version of the story featuring Conan, as Howard has intended, did not appear until 1953 in the Gnome Press edition of The Coming of Conan, edited by L. Sprague de Camp. Despite the fact that De Camp had access to Howard's original manuscript, he nevertheless tinkered extensively with the text, as he so often did, and it would not be until 1976 that an unaltered version of the Conan version would appear, in Donald M. Grant's Rogues in the House. In the years since, other versions of the Howardian text have also appeared in print. 

The story itself is a short one, one of the briefest of all Conan tales but, for my money, it's also one of the most memorable and visceral. A young Conan is working as a mercenary in the service of the Aesir against their Vanir enemies. Though he survives a fierce battle that takes the lives of his comrades in arms, Conan is nevertheless wounded and exhausted. He falls into the snow, as a "rushing wave of blindness engulfed him." It's then that the story truly begins.

A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly. 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. But he did not think long of this. Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed down at the bewildered warrior. Her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery.

“Who are you?” asked the Cimmerian. “Whence come you?”

After a short exchange, Conan gazes upon "her billowy hair [and] her ivory body … as perfect as the dream of a god" and is "spell-bound." Take note of that last phrase. I do not believe Howard has chosen it carelessly. Indeed, I believe it is key to understanding everything that follows. 

The mysterious white-skinned woman mocks and taunts Conan, who attempts, in the haze of his wounds and fatigue, to determine who she is and how she has come onto this battlefield, which is littered with the corpses of the feuding Aesir and Vanir. At last she asks him,

"Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?" she chanted in maddening mockery. "Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can not follow where I would lead."

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 for the tainting figure before him hammered at his temples and drive 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. In the madness that swept him, weariness and faintness 

Conan will take no more of her taunting; he is now determined to catch the woman and make her pay for her ridicule. 

The remainder of the story is some of Howard's most intense and impassioned writing. Conan is overcome by powerful feelings that impel him forward, relentlessly chasing the woman across the snows, deeper and deeper into the cold – but are his feelings rage or lust or something else entirely? It's common to suggest that it's base lust that motivates him or perhaps a combination of lust and anger at being belittled, but I urge readers to remember that Howard describes Conan as being "spell-bound" after he first sets eyes on the woman. I believe that the Cimmerian has been literally bewitched and that the remainder of the story bears this out, as the woman, realizing she may have made a mistake in trifling with the young Conan, calls upon every power she can muster to prevent herself from falling into his hands.

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is a great story, a powerful exemplar of Howard's blood and thunder style of storytelling. Farnsworth Wright may not have thought much of it, but it's one of my personal favorite tales of Conan and a good introduction to him and his world. 

5 comments:

  1. One of my favorite REH Conan stories!!!

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  3. I wholeheartedly agree. From the very first sentence the reader is transported into the story and it unfolds like a perfectly choreographed movie. Howard at his best!

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  4. I agree with your interpretation of the story, and it's one of my favorites of the Conan tales.

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  5. Old Norse specialist Jackson Crawford has a video where he discusses valkyries. Crawford's thesis is that the figure of the valkyrie combines the concepts of sexual lust and battle lust, which seems relevant to the Conan story. https://youtu.be/VMrYEq_jNVs

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