Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: Robert E. Howard's "The Frost-Giants Daughter (Gods of theNorth)"

This is a short tale, which takes up at the end of a battle between the wolves of Bragi and the Vanir on icy plains in the frozen Nordheim. After Conan kills the last enemy a woman, Atali, appears before him. She is nearly naked, covered only by a gossamer veil. She taunts him, whereby Conan chases after her. Conan is led into an ambush where Atali?s frost-giant brothers attack him. Conan defeats the frost-giants, after which Atali fleas in fright. Conan chases after her and finally catches her; she pleads for her father the Frost-Giant god Ymir, to saver her. Atali disappears in a pillar of blue flame, and Conan is rendered unconscious. Conan is awakened by allies who arrived at the battle site after the battle was over and tracked him across the frozen waste. One old fighter tells the tale of how the daughter of the Ymir haunts battle fields in order to lure men, weak from battle to be slain by her brothers, and their victim?s hearts given to their father as a sacrifice. The men don?t believe the old fighter, and believe Conan is suffering the effects of a blow to the head received during battle. But the story ends with Conan still holding the gossamer veil; he tore from Atali?s body before her father spirited her away.

This story is short and easy to read, and is largely derived from Greek mythology. It is one of the first stories written by Howard to chronicle Conan?s life. The story was not published in Howard?s life, but has appeared in different versions and in some times with different heroes since 1976.

What is Howard telling us about Conan in this story? Within the first few paragraphs Howard shows that Conan is by far the best warrior. After this Howard brings in Atalia, and shows Conan captivated by her beauty and taken over with desire to have her, all of the sudden the powerful warrior is subject to the charms of a woman. At this point Conan is depicted as supremely confident and powerful when in battle, but in affairs of the heart he is lead by his libido. At this point Atali clearly has the upper hand and is in control of the situation. When Conan meets the frost-giant brothers and defeats them in battle, Howard once again shows how ultimately superior Conan is on the battle field, but this is quickly negated when he runs after Atali heading to his libido. It can be argued here that Conan is more animalistic and less of a thinking human, but I would disagree since at this point there is alos a subtle change in Conan?s reason for chasing after Atali, lust is still a primary factor, but now it is tinged with revenge and retribution for being led into an ambush. When Conan proves that his constitution is superior to Atali, but chasing her across the frozen land and capturing her, she is left with only one means of escape, she calls on her father, Yamir. At this point Conan has his prize taken from him by divine intervention and is left unconscious. Howard shows us that Conan is a worthy opponent to godlike beings; yet, what is interesting here is that Conan does not even know himself that he is a worthy opponent. Although Conan doesn?t defeat Yamir in physical combat he defeats his champions, which in and of itself is worthy of legend.

A lot can be said on what this alludes to and questions that arise. If Atali is the daughter of a God, how is it that she is captured by Conan? If the brothers are sons of a God, how is it that Conan is able to kill them so easily? What is Howard trying to say about Conan? It almost appears as if Howard is implying that Conan is similar to Hercules who was the offspring of the union between a human and a God. As the history of Conan goes he does not bear Godly blood, even though time and again he battles superhuman beings and wins. I believe Howard was merely using these super beings as justifiable threats against Conan, and as a way of giving the character a mythical foundation of which to write further tales. Conan is the classic hero, and this story is an excellent portrait of what a hero should be. He is strong in battle against his enemies, yet he can be overcome, and in this case it is his desire for Atali that gets him in trouble.

The Frost-Giants Daughter is told with a fine mix of dialogue and narrative, allowing Howard to paint a very visual and detailed landscape for the reader to enter.

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