Saturday, 28 August 2010

Return of the Flood, and something that'd been bothering me

A while back, I discussed Alison Flood's discussion of Conan, along with her rather amazing admission that she hadn't read all the stories.  Sheee's baaaaack.

This time, she's talking about Tanith Lee.  Regrettably, I haven't read any Lee despite my interest in female fantasy authors, but even so, Flood manages to get my hackles up, not least because nothing I've read of Lee's female character in the article seems appreciably superior to the best of Howard's female characters in terms of feminist qualities.

Having fought through Conan and all his lily-white wimpy women, imagine my joy to be greeted by Narasen, "the leopard queen of Merh", beautiful, a warrior, and uninterested in the male sex: "I do not lie with men," she says firmly. Of course things end up going wrong for her: she and her city are cursed to be barren, it's only if she can bear a child that her kingdom will survive but – after very reluctantly trying with many – she realises the curse means that only a dead man will be able to impregnate her. A bargain with Uhlume, Death's Master, ensues, but it all goes wrong and she's condemned to live 1,000 years in his kingdom. She never stops being thoroughly feisty and brilliant, however. Even when, later in the book, she's turned completely blue (long story).

I see little about this Narasen that seems particularly more refreshing than Valeria, or Belit, or even Yasmina, save the lack of interest in men.  Barbara Barrett and Amy Kerr have explained quite well in three parts how even the lesser of Conan's women are strong in their own way.  Let's not even discuss Dark Agnes or Red Sonya, and certainly not Jirel of Joiry.

But you know what grates?  She talks about how she "fought through all (Conan's) lily-white wimpy women," yet cites "Red Nails" as one of the stories she enjoyed.  Either she's fibbing and hasn't actually read the story beyond the first chapter, or she really considers Valeria - one of the most badass Sword-and-Sorcery heroines of any era, the equal of Conan in many ways save strength and endurance (which can't be said of many men, let alone women), and a shining example of Howard's feminism in action - to be one of "Conan's lily-white wimpy women."  Either way, it's balderdash of the highest order. 

From the previous article, "Conan and his lily-white women":

Even the spirited Valeria in Red Nails – "as quick and ferocious as a tigress" – is popped on Conan's knee and caressed – against her will, but later, as "a chill crept through her veins", she will "unconsciously" lay her "white hand on her companion's muscular brown arm" for reassurance. And she's one of the good ones.
Let's look at some more quotes, just to put them in context:

She was frightened, and the sensation was new to Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. So she sat on her companion's - or captor's - knee with a docility that would have amazed Zarallo, who had anathematized her as a she-devil out of Hell's seraglio.

Valeria is popped on Conan's knee and caressed against her will because she was just attacked by a fecking dragon from the depths of myth and legend.  This is a woman who's seen just about every sort of horror in the heat of battle, but faced with a monster born of hell itself she didn't know what to do.  She didn't know what the hell was going on, barely aware of her surroundings, faced with a vision of nightmare and lunacy.  Conan, having experienced stuff like this before, was practically a rock in this instance, largely unphased by a sight that would utterly stun most people.  Even if you were a grizzled S.A.S. veteran, I think you'd be in a slightly unhinged state of mind if a goddamn Tyrannosaurus rex just attacked you - and if the only guy with you happened to be a dinosaur expert, I think you'd look to him for reassurance.

This is all Flood gives Valeria in the article.  She seems to completely miss all the quotes talking about how awesome Valeria was - "stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious," who "brought into action a finesse of swordplay that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them," "the equal of any man in the rigging of a ship or on the sheer face of a cliff," "whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather," who commanded ships of her own, who no living man could disarm with his bare hands, who "had proved her reckless courage a thousand times in wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burning war ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandy beaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed their knives in one another's blood in their fights for leadership.

Conan knew that "if he came any nearer her sword would be sheathed in his heart" and that "he had seen Valeria kill too many men in border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her." After the nightmare with the dragon, "her buoyant self-confidence began to thaw out again," and "there was a swagger in her stride as she moved off beside the Cimmerian. Whatever perils lay ahead of them, their foes would be men. And Valeria of the Red Brotherhood had never seen the face of the man she feared."

It's clear that her weakness with Conan was a very special case: "For another man to have kept her watch while she slept would have angered her; she had always fiercely resented any man's attempting to shield or protect her because of her sex. But she found a secret pleasure in the fact that this man had done so. And he had not taken advantage of her fright and the weakness resulting from it. After all, she reflected, her companion was no common man."

Yet even so, Valeria was very brave.  She slew the Burning Skull, a hideous apparition that would give anyone pause.  Hell, she didn't even notice being stabbed in the leg until Conan mentioned it.  The only people who dominate Valeria are the massive, bull-like Olmec - who gave Conan himself a run for his money - and Tascela, who quite clearly had some sort of sorcerous strength going on, being able to drag the paralyzed Olmec as if he was a sack of feaths.  Let's not forget that Valeria is the one who slays the villain of the piece.  As for her skill in battle...

The other three swarmed on Valeria, their weird eyes red as the eyes of mad dogs.

She killed the first who came within reach before he could strike a blow, her long straight blade splitting his skull even as his own sword lifted for a stroke. She side-stepped a thrust, even as she parried a slash. Her eyes danced and her lips smiled without mercy. Again she was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the hum of her steel was like a bridal song in her ears.


Valeria fought beside him, her lips smiling and her eyes blazing. She was stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious. Her sword was like a living thing in her hand. Where Conan beat down opposition by the sheer weight and power of his blows, breaking spears, splitting skulls and cleaving bosoms to the breastbone, Valeria brought into action a finesse of swordplay that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them. Again and again a warrior, heaving high his heavy blade, found her point in his jugular before he could strike. Conan, towering above the field, strode through the welter smiting right and left, but Valeria moved like an illusive phantom, constantly shifting, and thrusting and slashing as she shifted. Swords missed her again and again as the wielders flailed the empty air and died with her point in their hearts or throats, and her mocking laughter in their ears.

Yeah, totally a "lily-white wimpy woman."

All these quotes show that Valeria was an independent, strong, courageous, badass woman, the likes of which wouldn't be seen in other Sword-and-Sorcery stories for decades - Jirel of Joiry notwithstanding.  Only the few sentences that show Valeria acting frightened, bewildered - in other words, completely out of character - deserve mention in Flood's article.  And that depresses me.

I don't really want to clog up Flood's article on Lee with more fallout from her Conan one, but I hope she reciprocates by not dragging Conan's women through the muck again, especially considering her later admissions correspondence in the comments.  Hopefully when she gets around to Jack Vance she'll just stick to the task at hand.


  1. I have a couple of things to say, not really specifically to this post. I've never commented on a blog, and I very rarely comment on forums. I run a couple of forums, but don't have much free time.

    That said, I've been a fan of fantasy for years, some of those passively, and some actively. In the past, before my career and personal laziness intervened, I was quite the reader of fantasy. REH, HPL, JRRT, Eddings, Weis/Hickman, and various others, though certainly some of those names might not belong in the same company.

    I've read all of the original Conan stories, and used to revisit those when I was younger. Hell, I even once drew a large (probably 8' x 8') map of Hyboria, and wrote a gazetteer of the entire world, for the purposes of basing a DND campaign in it.

    The above is a little beside the point, my main purpose in posting being to mention something related to you and your blog, but I figured I'd introduce myself a bit.

    Anyway, I've been watching the Conan The Movie Blog, simply for self-mutilation, probably, and saw that you had taken it over. Meaning no offense to the previous maintainer, who was certainly well-versed, I found your articles quite impressive, and possessing of an understanding of the source material. They also indicated a writing style not often found on the average blog. That lead me to find out a little more about you, and I initially turned up The Cimmerian. Your articles, as well as the articles of the other bloggers found on the aforementioned blog, are fascinating. I've read many, many of them over the last couple of days (rather than working on some websites I need to finish), and all I can say is "Wow". Sorry for the lack of a better word, but I was not aware that there are so many staunch and knowledgeable supporters of REH on the Internet. Additionally, I was particularly surprised and pleased that these same supporters would protect that legacy with such vigor.

    As such, I ended up reading a ton of interesting material at The Cimmerian, many of the articles on your blog, a bunch of stuff at the REH Foundation, and your numerous rebuttals to uninformed articles, regarding REH, that have been scattered across the Internet. Additionally, I've been reading back through the Conan stories, chronologically, and intend to pursue Howard's other stories, many of which I'm familiar with, many of which I am not.

    So, in summary, I think you're an excellent and very engaging writer. Lamentably, I've not been working at my business like I should, but, happily, I've discovered a king's ransom of remarkable articles covering REH and I've managed to renew my own passion for reading. All of this is related in no small part to what you've done here and elsewhere.

    My sincere gratitude and appreciation. I thought you should know that your efforts are not going unnoticed.


  2. Bill, thank you very much for the thoughtful and erudite comment. I'm very grateful you took the time to write it, especially considering your busyness: what forums do you run, if you don't mind my asking? I owe a lot of my writing style to The Cimmerian and the preparations involved, including buying and devouring a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, and it's good to know that all that reading has paid off.

    Truth be told, I was feeling rather low this week due to certain factors, and your comment considerably perked me up. I feel very fortunate that my work is appreciated: those who regularly comment on my blog are a great source of inspiration for me to keep going, and knowing that there are others adds more still.

    I think I'll take this opportunity to thank everyone who drops by my blog to comment, and even those who only read without commenting: the mere fact that there are folk out there who think I'm doing a good job is the best reward I could possibly think of. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all.

  3. Hell, Al, I've got your site up on the bookmark toolbar. You're up there with the likes of the Two-Gun Blog, REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, the REH Forum, the Cimmerian, the REH Foundation, and REHupa. And, with the exception of the Cimmerian (Crom, but I miss it!) I hit your site along with the others several times a day.

    So I'd say you've earned your salt, yah?

    (honored to be allowed to occasionally scribble on the walls without getting painted over...or clobbered by the Sweeney!)

  4. I have you bookmarked, too. I've been following you since I discovered the Cimmerian about nine months ago. I had been in sort of a dead spot with my reading when suddenly there popped up this wealth of resources through the Cimmerian. I still have that site bookmarked (right next to this blog in the bar) and when I have time I like to go back and explore it. Someday I'll finish reading everything on that site!

    Another guy I picked up on over there was Brian Murphy, and I read the Silver Key now, too. Why, just the other day I found his articles on Mad Max and they made me want to watch those movies again.

    The whole reason I came across all this stuff on the web was because one day I asked myself, "Who the hell invented Conan the Barbarian?" I knew it was a pop culture icon and a source of hilarity for some, myself included, but I had no idea of its origins, and I had never even been curious before. When I went looking for the answer I quickly became a fan of REH, and I'm kinda sorry I didn't find out about this years ago.

    Since then I've been turned onto all kinds of stuff like Lovecraft and Burroughs especially. Even the literary form of the short story has become interesting to me, in and of itself, where before I found myself thinking, "What could an author possibly achieve in so short a format?" I have always preferred novels for their space and scope, thinking that nothing less could produce a quality piece to explore and absorb, but now I know better.

    You've been no small part of this opening of new vistas for me over these past nine months and, though it may be exhausting to do all this in your free time, I hope you and all the others never get tired of it.

  5. Sorry, but if you ARE a feminist of almost any stripe (and from your article I'm guessing you're not), Lee's characters are infinitely preferable to Howard's. You can't throw down the gauntlet at Alison for talking about things you don't think she's read thoroughly enough, then turn around and admit you've read absolutely nothing by Tanith Lee and expect to be taken seriously by any but the most hardened Howard fans (who will most likely agree with you automatically and refuse to engage in meaningful literary criticism without name-calling and the like as has happened below). Are you even familiar with feminist literary theories? If your blog is any indication, you're not, and this is another example of talking about subjects in which you've never versed yourself. Exactly what you seem to be complaining about with Flood.

    Also, I must respectfully disagree that the three Barrett and Kerr articles sufficiently counter Flood's feminist thesis (which intelligently addresses the intersectionality of race with sex/gender but neglects socio-economic class). In the comments section at

    you'll see even Barbara seems to be quickly backing off from the idea that Howard's female characters are actually feminist representations. Barbara even starts to distance HERSELF from any clear identification as a feminist. She invokes feminist scholarship (though she seems to barely understand it) and then refuses to discuss legitimate criticisms of her argument online, throwing "agree to disagree" shapes and ad hominem attacks (implying Justin and Deirdre are somehow insincere or only trying to sell a book) behind her as she runs from the discussion. Where is her feminist courage, I wonder? Did she learn to behave this way from Howard? Proof positive of the lack of courage in evidence by Howard's modern fanbase, my comments were very recently deleted from the RSS Feed. Barbara now has the last word, it seems, but still fails to respond to her articles' critics.

  6. Thanks, Butcherhammer! I'm very appreciative of your kind words.

    Now, I'm going to comment here that somebody under the name of "anonymous" had posted a response, but it was deleted from the RSS feed not only here, but over at 2 Gun Raconteur. Anonymous, let it be known that neither Barbara or I had anything to do with it, and can only assume an error from your end, or from Blogger. I'm going to address your comments in a future post.

  7. Anonymous, I address many of your comments at the following post: