Art by Brian LeBanc
COMPLETE SPOILERS AHEAD
Seriously, I'm going to discuss the ending, so if you haven't read this story, you might want to skip the following.
One of the more subtle and ambiguous Conan stories (especially compared to some later rushed-out slaughterfests), "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is a haunting little vignette. It also features some of Howard's most vivid imagery. I'm not wild about poetry in general and Howard's particular brand leaves me flat. But the urge toward poetry is what gives his prose such wonderful word choice and rhythm, and makes it sometimes scan so impressively:
"The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow-covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in the death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir, the frost-giant, god of a warrior race." (Some echoes of Shelley's "Ozymandias" there, don't you think?)
We're up in the Northern lands of the Hyborian age, after a battle where both sides were completely wiped out. Stepping over the scattered corpses, two last survivors approach each other; the man with the red beard asks the other for his name, so he can tell his brothers in Vanaheim who was the last enemy to be killed. The beardless and blackmaned youth gives a great retort as he charges, "Not in Vanaheim, but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria."
Although Conan does slay this final opponent, he takes a hefty clonk to the head as his opponent's sword shatters on his helmet. Exhausted by a long day of swordfighting, stinging with wounds and now a head trauma, the Cimmerian drops to the frozen ground and struggles to stay conscious. Then the laughter of a woman rouses him.
Rather unexpectedly, he looks up at Atali, the most gorgeous young thing he has ever seen; almost completely naked in the snow (just a little gossamer veil), pale and slim, with red-golden hair. She taunts him mockingly. As Conan stirs with anger and lust, the strange woman sneers, "Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You cannot follow where I would lead."
Grrrr. More dead than alive a moment ago, Conan lurches to his feet and chases after her. He plows through the heavy snow with brute tenacity, where she glides over it and hardly leaves footprints. The chase goes on for miles and, although the Cimmerian hardly notices, he strays from the mundane battlefield to "a shimmering realm of enchantment" where "the skies glowed and crackled with strange lights and gleams." Then he suddenly is introduced to the girl's big brothers. (oops!).
Two giants rear up out of the snow, covered with ice and frost. (I picture them maybe eight or nine foot tall, big enough but not kaiju-sized.) Atali has led him to the slaughter, but the towering brutes are in for a rude awakening. Even weary and wounded, an enraged Conan with a sword in his hand is no one's easy victim. *Slash! Hack! Thump!* As the barbarian turns from the two new carcasses, suddenly the girl loses her poise, "staring at him with wide-eyed horror, all the mockery gone from her face." This time, her flight is panic-stricken and, eventually, Conan wears her down and seizes her like a tiger grabbing a deer.
The Cimmerian grapples roughly with Atali, kissing her all over and preparing to claim her in the most direct way. ("I will warm you with the fire in my own blood –") With one last effort, she breaks free and calls on Ymir himself to save her. Well. There are blinding fireworks of blue and crimson flame; the girl is gone and Conan drops to the ground like a side of beef. He awakens to find some of his AEsir allies trying to revive him. They had followed his tracks from the battle and (as you might expect) there is no sign of the dead giants or the little sword-tease to be seen.
One man thinks Conan was just delirious from his concussion and wandered away, but another is sure he met the legendary Atali, daughter of the frost-giants. "She lures men from stricken fields into the wastelands to be slain by her brothers, the ice-giants, who lay men's red hearts smoking on Ymir's board." As for Conan, he doesn't know what to think – maybe he was lost in a daze – until he notices he still holds in one hand "a wisp of gossamer that was never woven by human distaff." (I have loved this literary touch, where there's a bit of concrete evidence after what seems a dream or hallucination, ever since first encountering it at the end of Wells' THE TIME MACHINE.)
It's an interesting thought that, since Atali appears only to those who are dying, her enticing Conan to pursue her through the twilight zone between this world and the next was actually what saved him. If she hadn't scampered along, most likely he would have ended up just one more frozen cadaver on the field. So he owes her a toast the next time he's chugging ale in some tavern.
This story has the evocative feeling of genuine folklore, as a legend retold by a skilled hand. It's sort of like a dark version of the Sirens or Valkyries, with a grim twist. Its most notorious aspect, though, seems to be the dogma that Conan just would never have raped a woman. In some of the stories, he is described as having a rough, crude sort of chivalry. Well, I suppose. The character after all spends much of his life as a bloodthirsty pirate and mercenary soldier. Even if he didn't participate in rape himself, he certainly led various groups to rob caravans, burn villages and castles, kill all the inhabitants and carry off the loot. Mass rapes and gangbangs would be a big part of the incentive for the fighters under his command. If he tried to deny his corsairs or raiders this fringe benefit, he would be deposed as quickly as if he had ordered them to just knock the victims out instead of cutting them to shreds.
What should be remembered is that Conan is after all a fantasy figure, not at all what a real barbarian was like. He's about as similar to a genuine Aechean or Viking as the Rawhide Kid was to a real cowhand. Robert E Howard often seemed to harbor an unrealistic attitude toward chivalry, as in his Western THE VULTURES OF WHAPETON where the gunfighter is shocked that the outlaws would dare harm a woman, who were inviolate to even the lowest riff-raff. So Conan is able to possess this rather idealized trait, which makes him more palatable to readers. He may cheerfully murder a merchant on the road for a few gold coins or lead the sack of a city whose people have done nothing to him. That's fine. Massacres and pillaging are okay, but sexual assault is just crossing the line.
"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was one of the earliest Conan stories which Howard wrote; he submitted it to WEIRD TALES along with "The Phoenix On the Sword". Editor Farnsworth Wright accepted the second tale (which appeared in the December 1932 issue and launched the series) but returned this one. Howard later sent it to an amateur magazine, where it was published with the hero's name changed to Amra – and of course, Amra was the name which Conan himself used while raiding villages under Belit, Queen of the Black Coast, completing the self-references.