Sometimes you just have to go with the classics.
“Asgard and Vanaheim,” Prospero scanned the map. “By Mitra, I had almost believed those countries to have been fabulous.”
Conan grinned savagely, involuntarily touching the scars on his dark face. “You had known
otherwise, had you spent your youth on the northern frontiers of Cimmeria! Asgard lies to the north, and Vanaheim to the northwest of Cimmeria, and there is continual war along the borders.”
“What manner of men are these northern folk?” asked Prospero.
“Tall and fair and blue-eyed. Their god is Ymir, the frost-giant, and each tribe has its own king. They are wayward and fierce. They fight all day and drink ale and roar their wild songs all night.”
- "The Phoenix on the Sword"
Howard didn't have to look far for inspiration for the second tale of Conan the Cimmerian, and actively drew from the previous story to write it: "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" could almost be considered a direct prequel to "The Phoenix on the Sword," so obvious is the link between the two stories in the form of the above quotations.
The shortest of Howard's completed Conan stories is also, in my opinion, the most steeped in myth and symbolism. It may only be 9 pages long, but all nine of those pages are filled with all manner of subtext, some beautiful prose, unforgettable characters and imagery, and an economy which only Howard could provide.
The Road to the Blue Mountains
While "The Phoenix on the Sword" is a fine tale, and firmly establishes Conan as a distinct personality from Kull, the fact remains that much of the story is carried over from "By This Axe, I Rule!": it may be the first Conan story Howard published, but it isn't entirely the first Conan story Howard wrote. At least, it isn't the first story to be entirely written and conceived to be a Conan story. "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is, and it is in this story that we find more to distinguish Atlantean from Cimmerian, Hyborian from Thurian, and the themes of the Kull stories from the themes of the Conan series.
Howard must have thought quite highly of the tale, for not only did he subtly rewrite it and publish it in the amateur press magazine Fantasy Fan as "Gods of the North" - Amra of Akbitana is clearly just Conan with zero alterations save his name - but he even obliquely referred to it in the letter to P.S. Miller:
There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Æsir, fighting with the Vanir and the Hyperboreans, and developing a hate for the latter which lasted all his life and later affected his policies as king of Aquilonia.
And, sure enough, Howard wrote a story where Conan had spent time among a tribe of Æsir, and fought with the Vanir. Howard did not make any similar references to "The God in the Bowl" or "The Black Stranger," which also failed to sell, or "The Vale of Lost Women," which Howard probably didn't even send out. Yet here are two occasions where Howard, who rarely - if ever - talked about unpublished Conan stories even in personal correspondence with fellow writers Lovecraft, Smith, Preece, Price and Derleth, making reference to a Conan yarn not known to the public at the time.
And yet, Farnsworth Wright rejected it:
Dear Mr. Howard: I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it.
- Farnsworth Wright, letter to Robert E. Howard, 10th March, 1932
As far as I'm aware, no further elaboration was given on exactly why Wright did not care for it. Some have suggested that Wright may have found the conclusion distasteful, for obvious reasons. I'd be willing to accept that - if Wright didn't happily publish "The Devil in Iron," which had an even more unpleasant finale, or "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," which was filled with material far more objectionable, or any number of Weird Tales submissions which depicted horrendous treatment of women. My guess is that there really isn't much more to it than what he said: Wright just didn't like it. It's fairly short, a lot of the subtext could be lost on a brief scan (one can't expect an editor to pore over every story he receives), and perhaps he just didn't see the big deal. There's no accounting for taste, and "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" just might not have been conducive to Wright's palate.
All the same, Howard made sure via Fantasy Fan that the story found a small audience in slightly altered form - he could spare a nine page tale - and a heavily rewritten version of the tale was published in the Gnome Press editions. It wasn't until 1976 that the story was published as originally written, and 1989 in an accessible collection.*
Lean on your sword, red-bearded lord, and watch your victims crawl;
Under your feet they weakly beat the dust with their dying hands.
The red smokes roll from the serf's roof-pole and the chieftain's shattered hall?
But there are fires in the heather and a whetting of hungry brands.
The peaked prows loom like clouds of doom along each broken port;
The monks lie still on the heathered hill among the fallen stones.
Over the land like a god you stand, our maidens howl for your sport?
But kites await in the heather to tear the flesh from your bones.
Clouds and smoke for a broken folk, a lash for the bended back?
Thus you roared when your crimson sword blotted the moon on high,
But sea breaks and the world shakes to the battle's flying wrack,
And Death booms out of the heather to nail you in the sky.
- "A Song Before Clontarf," Robert E. Howard
Looking to the other stories Howard wrote prior to "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" can give some clues to Howard's creative mindset. Two which are of particular interest to me are "The Grey God Passes" (rejected by Weird Tales in December 1931) and "The Cairn on the Headland" (sold to Strange Tales in January 1932) - both written (in the former's case, re-written from "Spears of Clontarf," written in late 1931) a matter of months, perhaps even weeks, before Howard wrote "The Frost-Giant's Daughter." Both stories feature some of Howard's most in-depth exploration of Nordic mythology, and many tropes which we'd find in Ymir can also be found in Howard's depiction of Odin.
"The Grey God Passes" is a fantastical retelling of the Battle of Clontarf, the final battle of the legendary Brian Boru, and one of the events which brought the Viking Age to a close. However, just like Irish chroniclers before him, Howard imbued the story with supernatural elements, in the form of the Grey Wanderer and the Tuatha de Danaan. The tale is one of Howard's most epic stories, for it features nothing less than a battle for the soul of humanity - the Old Pagan ways, the enthralled heathens who make bloody sacrifice to a grim monstrous god, and the New Christian ideals. Obviously the complexities of pagan and Christian interaction are more complex in history and actuality, but "The Grey God Passes" is so rooted in myth that it seems almost besides the point.**
Fritz Leiber once wrote of this story:
"The Grey God Passes" registers Howard's debt to Celtic and Norse myth and to its master-legend of Ragnarok - the twilight of the gods - wherein not only the heroes but there gods also go down in everlasting defeat. In this tale the Conan prototype is Conn, a fugitive Celtic slave of the Vikings, a grim man wearing a loincloth and the copper collar of a serf, but with a sword in his hand. Outwardly the tale celebrates a great defeat of the Vikings and their grey god Odin in Ireland, foreshadowing their ultimate expulsion from the island. There are "kerns and gallaglachs" in the fight -- the "kerns and gallowglasses" of Shakespeare's MacBeth. With sure instinct Howard depicts Odin not as a benign all-father but as chief of a death cult, leading the wild hunt of his valkyries through the sky and able to descend and take part in the battle himself, a god whose priests tear the pulsing heart from the living sacrifice; here we see Howard adding in an Aztec element.
But most of the Celtic heroes perish, too, as foretold by the Cassandra-like Elfwoman Eevin. It is a victory for Christ, but Howard revealingly sets it down as one for "the new gods and their children" -- as if the Trinity were a pantheon. Black Turlogh observes with an ominous significance,"We too are passing, though we have conquered. The days of the twilight come on amain... What are we all, too, but ghosts waning into the night?" This fading of victory into gloom and despair is characteristic of Howard's underlying melancholy.
This depiction of Norse mythological figures as savage, brutal deities nourished by the still-beating hearts of living sacrifices is carried on into "The Cairn on the Headland." As with "The Grey God Passes," "Cairn" has a façade of one genre (in this case, Lovecraftian horror as opposed to historical fantasy) while being even more. Myth-making - or, rather, myth-destroying. "The Cairn on the Headland" is Lovecraftian in scope, but it has many of the same cues as "Grey God." Combined with several other stories, I feel these compose a miniature cycle of Howard tales centred around the idea of Norse mythological figures given the Lovecraftian Horror treatment, which I'll discuss in due course.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis,”The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
Paul Herman, The Neverending Hunt
Mark Finn, "Conan the Commercial: Seeking Robert E. Howard in His Most Famous Creation"
Deuce Richardson, "From Venarium to Ymir's Mountains"
Keith Taylor, "Black Turlogh O'Brien in England, Part One"
"The Grey God Passes" discussion at the Robert E. Howard Forums
*Thanks to Tex for clarification.
**A discussion of the religious element in "The Grey God Passes" is far outside the bounds of this post, but my thoughts are as follows:
Given Howard's criticism of Christianity in "The Temple of Abomination," one might wonder why he's in Christianity's corner in The Grey God Passes, but it isn't as simple as that: Howard isn't so much supporting the Irish for their Christianity as he is supporting the enemies of superstition and domination by evil forces, and the idea of man choosing his own destiny. The Old Gods were terrible beings which reigned over humanity using fear and cruelty. Set, Ymir, Ahriman, Thog, and Odin were all abominations - some of which may have been one and the same - which had a very real affect on humanity. They came to earth, demanded worship and bloody sacrifice, and the terrified people venerated them out of fear of retribution. Christianity was different: the God of Christianity did not appear and smite his foes with bloody abandon, or demand human sacrifice. Yet somehow, the Irish abandoned the worship of Crom and the Dagda and the Morrigan to worship this new religion that promoted meekness and kindness and forgiveness.
I think choice is the key element here. The Irish chose Christianity, Odin imposed his will on the Norse. Thus this is not merely a battle between religions, but a battle of destiny: between man's resignation to fate, and his choice to master it. For all Christianity's faults, it cannot be argued that mere evangelism and exposure has proven extremely potent, no less dramatically illustrated than Ireland, where a few monks managed to convert a nation of fierce and dangerous warriors. Even so, one has to remember that when it's a battle between Celts and Norsemen, Howard's always backing the Celts, so the fact that they were Christian at this point is secondary to the fact they were Irishmen.