Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Short Take: "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

"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Daughter," pulp author Robert E. Howard's second story featuring his sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian, was unpublished during his lifetime.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. 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 well 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 of Howard's writing 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 part or Howard's 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. The above illustration is by Frank Frazetta.

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