Tuesday, 17 July 2012

80 Years of Conan: "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" - Part Two

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. 

Frost Kings and Frost Giants

Last time, I stated that "The Frost King's Daughter"/"Gods of the North" was a rewrite of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" when it appeared in Fantasy Fan: this seems to be the prevailing theory in Howard scholarship, with Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke in particular supporting this interpretation. However, it was not always so unanimous. Karl Edward Wagner believed the opposite to be the case, that Howard rewrote "The Frost King's Daughter" into a Conan story:

In his introduction, Wagner states that Howard wrote "The Frost King's Daughter" first and that the Conan version, "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was the rewrite.  How he knows this to be true, Wagner doesn't exactly say.  He supports his case by saying that "The Phoenix on the Sword" was a rewrite of the Kull story "By This Axe I Rule" (documentably true), and that "Frost-Giant" was a rewrite of "Frost King".  We know Howard would recycle stories if they didn't sell, at times changing the names of major characters, and we also know that sometimes the details of his stories would change from one draft to the next.  Furthermore, there is evidence that Howard was still developing the character of Conan as well as the Hyborian Age for the first several Conan stories.  Patrice Louinet, in his essay "Hyborian Genesis" (The Coming of Conan), does a thorough job of showing this development.

I'm a great admirer of Wagner's work in the field of Howard scholarship and publication, but in this case I disagree: for FGD to be a rewrite of FKD just doesn't make sense within the context of Howard's writing. However, it's all a moot point, since Patrice Louinet commented on the situation:

The Amra version of the story was not written until at the very least September 1932, several months after REH completed "Frost Giant". Up to that point there was no "Kush" in the Conan stories (it was still "Cush"), and, more importantly, there was no "Vilayet"; that sea was always referred to as the "Inland Sea".
Stanley Lane-Poole's TURKEY, which was the major source for "The Road of the Eagles", a cossack story written abt september 1932, was also a source for some Conan stories, most notably "Iron Shadows in the Moon" (October 1932), which borrows the names Amurath, Akif, Irem and Yildiz from that book, as well as marks the first appearance of the name "Vilayet" in the Conan stories, once again taken from Lane-Poole. 
In other words, the line in "Frost King's Daughter" was added specifically for the Amra version and was not (could not) be present when Howard completed "Frost Giant" in March 1932. It has nothing to do with Conan's "biography."

Well that's that, then. But let's keep going: let's imagine that we don't know when FKD was written, and continue with the theory that it was written before FGD. That means it had to have been written before March 1932, otherwise we are expected to believe that Howard, after creating Conan, created another nearly identical warrior in what is clearly the Hyborian Age (in addition to Cimmeria, Asgard, Vanaheim et al, "The Frost King's Daughter" mentions Zingara, the Sea of Vilayet, Stygia, Kush and the Hyrkanians), who only differs from Conan in name and nationality. Now, if this was another Cimmerian named Amra, perhaps that would be one thing: Howard's Nordic heroes in the James Allison yarns are all blonde and blue-eyed, so if Howard wrote a tale of another Cimmerian (perhaps Conan's grandfather) and called him Amra, that'd be an interesting point of discussion, even though the references to his prior adventures would make him another Cimmerian who wandered far from home.

However, one still has to acknowledge the strangeness of Howard creating another new character almost identical to Conan who happens to be set in the same age despite being from a completely different place - Akbitana. Again, Howard was not talking down to his audience, and he expected them to be historically literate: Akbitana has very different cultural and mythological connotations to Cimmeria, being Eastern rather than Celtic.

So the story cannot have been written after "Phoenix": what about before? Already we run into problems. Was it written before "People of the Dark," starring Conan of the Reavers? Before "Cimmeria"? The name Amra has a long history in Howard going back to the Kull stories and earlier. But then, we have to believe Howard wrote a Hyborian Age story before he wrote a Conan one: either that, or this was a "rough draft" of the Hyborian Age which just happened to have many words and phrases that wouldn't be used until later stories, particularly Kush (first appeared in "The Scarlet Citadel") and Vilayet ("Iron Shadows in the Moon," referred to as "the inland sea" in "Black Colossus.")

All in all, even if we didn't have the direct evidence placing FGD and FKD/GotN, what makes more sense: that Howard created Amra of Akbitana and placed him in the Hyborian Age, only to rewrite the character as Conan after writing "The Phoenix on the Sword" (if so, why didn't he just bring back Amra for "Phoenix"?) - or that this was always a Conan tale, and Howard used Conan's known alias Amra (established in "The Scarlet Citadel") and references to lands and places invented later as a "nod and a wink" to Conan fans without treading on Wright's toes? The latter seems far more likely to me.

Far Wanderings

Most indications suggest that this is an early Conan story - possible the very earliest of all the stories. Aside from the hint in the P.S. Miller letter alluding to Conan's first excursion from his homeland being to the north rather than the south, there's the reference to Conan's "youth" in "The Phoenix on the Sword," and a few indicators of Conan's naivete:

“I had thought there was no village within many leagues of this spot, for the war carried us far, but you can not have come a great distance over these snows, naked as you are. Lead me to your tribe, if you are of Asgard, for I am faint with blows and the weariness of strife.” 

It's difficult to imagine an older Conan being so easily taken in by Atali's trap, concussed or otherwise, especially one who's experienced supernatural beings in human form firsthand: this is a clue supporting the early placement. Another is the reference to Conan's "dark, scarred face," which Conan absently stroked in "Phoenix":

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!"
 - "The Phoenix on the Sword"

With an oath the Cimmerian heaved himself up on his feet, his blue eyes blazing, his dark scarred face contorted.
 - "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"

It's another piece of handy synchronicity. On the other hand, there is this sentence:

"Far have I wandered, but a woman like you I have never seen."

Of course, one could say that if Conan was a young man, then his definition of "far" might be very different from older Conan. After all, outside of border raids, the Cimmerians are not wanderers like their Nordic brethren, with individuals like Conan's grandfather being a marked exception. Similarly, if one views "Gods of the North"/"The Frost King's Daughter" as an "expanded" version of FGD, then what to make of this sentence?

"Far have I wandered, from Zingara to the Sea of Vilayet, in Stygia and Kush and the country of the Hyrkanians; but a woman like you I have never seen."

Of course, I'm of the belief that this sentence was added purely as a nod and a wink to Fantasy Fans, who were undoubtedly familiar with the further adventures of Conan, and not necessarily meant to serve in place of FGD. While Zingara, the Sea of Vilayet, Stygia, Kush and the Hyrkanians are not mentioned in FGD, another far clime is:

... the girl in her gossamer veil ran as lightly and as gaily as if she danced through the palm and rose gardens of Poitain. 

This is the narrative prose, not Conan's mental dialogue, so our hero needn't necessarily have been to Poitain or even heard of it in this instance. Even if we're to assume this is description from Conan's point of view, it's easy to rationalise: Conan's grandfather surely could have told him of the palm and rose gardens of Poitain.

Gods of a Warrior Race

Anyone familiar with Norse Mythology will likely know several of the names and terms found throughout "The Frost-Giant's Daughter":

...as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior-race. 
The primordial Ymir is crucial in Nordic creation myth as not only the progenitor, but active ingredient in the creation of the world: from his blood the sea was formed, from his flesh the earth, his bones the mountains, his sweat mankind. The Æsir and Vanir of the Hyborian Age are, according to Howard, the historical inspiration for later Norse mythology: the tales of their wars and travels being transformed into the sagas and traditions, heroes and villains deified as gods and monsters. It's fitting that Ymir and his daughters served as the Æsir and Vanir's deities just as they themselves would be worshipped by the Scandinavians and Germanics in later millennia. Ymir is attested in many mythological sources, most pertinently the Poetic and Prose Eddas.
“Man,” said he, “tell me your name, so that my brothers in Vanaheim may know who was the last of Wulfhere’s band to fall before the sword of Heimdul.”
Vanaheimr was the domain of one of the two tribes of Nordic gods, whose war was one of the most important aspects of Norse mythological tradition.

Wulfhere ("Wolf Army") is not taken from mythology, but history: it's the name of a famed King of Mercia. The Wulf element is an Old English version of the Norse Úlf ("wolf"): since the Æsir were part of the root stock of what would become the Anglo-Saxons, it isn't necessarily an anachronism for Æsir or Vanir to have Old English names.

Heimdul, of course, is a version of Heimdallr, a god sometimes counted among the Vanir, most famous for being the tireless sentry keeping watch for the coming of Ragnarok.
“Not in Vanaheim,” growled the black-haired warrior, “but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria.” 
Valhalla really needs no introduction: the Hall of the Slain, the place where warriors who have fallen in battle go to drink and fight in preparation for Ragnarok. It's important to note that Howard is drawing a distinction between Vanaheim and Valhalla, following from his description of the former as an earthly land in "The Phoenix on the Sword."
“Yet though my strength fail me, they shall not take me alive. I see that you are of the Vanir.”
As mentioned earlier, the Vanir are known as one of the tribes of the Norse gods.
“I can not tell,” said he, “whether you are of Vanaheim and mine enemy, or of Asgard and my friend...”
Asgard is another of the Nine Worlds. Most notably, Asgard is the location of Valhalla: in the Hyborian Age, it is one of the two great cultural regions divided between the Æsir and Vanir, with Valhalla being in the afterlife.
“Though I am not of the golden haired Æsir, none has been more forward in sword-play!”

The Æsir comprise several of the more famous Norse deities, particularly Odin and Thor, and are generally considered the primary tribe.
"This day I have seen four score men fall, and I alone have survived the field where Wulfhere’s reavers met the wolves of Bragi."
Bragi introduces something that might be a stumbling block to more literal minded fans, as his name is taken from one of the Æsir gods, yet the Hyborian Bragi is of the Vanir. This problem is dispelled when one considers that the conclusion of the Æsir-Vanir war results in unification, as well as the observation that there are probably countless individuals bearing the name among both tribes.
Niord should have come up with us before the battle joined."
Compounding the Bragi oddity is Niord, an Æsir warrior named for a Vanir deity. Was this intentional on Howard's part, or inconsequential?
“He’s coming to, Horsa...”
Horsa is another name taken from English history, this time from one of the two brothers who are reputed to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the conquest of England.
“It was Atali, the daughter of Ymir, the frost-giant... I lay half-slain on the bloody field of Wolraven.”
Atali's etymology is difficult to narrow down. One interesting possibility is Atli, "the terrible," one of Thor's many names, the name of a character in the Volsunga Saga linked to Attila, and a Norwegian jarl. The name Atli can be found in H. Rider Haggard's Eric Brighteyes. Of course, Louinet links her to Atalanta, and it's a tempting possibility.

Walraven is a German surname ("battlefield raven") which was common in knightly and patrician families in northern Swabia and the Upper Rhine: a more "Nordic" name might be something like Valhrafn*, but again, the Germans and Dutch are from Æsir and Vanir descent via their Frankish heritage, and so their names are fine.
“Old Gorm’s mind was touched in his youth by a sword cut on the head.”
Interestingly, there is an "Old Gorm" in the historical annals: a Danish king by that name bore the epithet "the Old," and he was also the first - thus, the oldest - recognized King of Denmark. Howard used Gorm as a name in a number of other contexts, most notably the Pictish chieftain who was so instrumental in "The Hyborian Age," Niord's Pictish ally in "The Valley of the Worm," and the father of Otho in "Wolves Beyond the Border." As an aside, Gorm is mentioned in Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships.

Ymir, Vanaheim, Valhalla, Heimdul, Asgard, Æsir, Bragi and Niord are all very familiar, as the names of gods and places of Norse mythology; Wulfhere, Horsa and Gorm are historical Germanic or Scandinavian names; Atali and Wolraven are a bit more difficult to place, but they have close Norse approximations.

There are only a handful of non-Nordic/Germanic names in the story:

“Not in Vanaheim,” growled the black-haired warrior, “but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria.”

“It was all strange and weird – by Crom!”
If you don't know the origins of Conan, Cimmeria and Crom by now, what in blazes are you doing here? In no uncertain terms, Howard marks Conan as very different from the blond and red-headed giants beyond his hair colour: his name, his country, and his god make it clear that Conan is an outsider. This is very important in the context of the rest of the story.


... the girl in her gossamer veil ran as lightly and as gaily as if she danced through the palm and rose gardens of Poitain.
A nice bit of continuity with "The Phoenix on the Sword," where Howard described Poitain as a land of "smiling sun-washed plains and blue lazy rivers" - very in-keeping with the sense of warm and comfort depicted here.


Further Reading

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 West, "The Frost King, The Frost-Giant, and Their Daughters"

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter" discussion at the Robert E. Howard Forums

Keith Taylor, "Black Turlogh O'Brien in England, Part One"

"The Grey God Passes" discussion at the Robert E. Howard Forums 

*Forgive my unwieldy attempt at Norse cognation, I'm hardly an expert in that particular field.


  1. Great post and thanks for linking other interesting stuff. Reading about Conan and other REH stuff is great!

    I recently saw some cool word clouds and being bored decided to create some. Here is the one from The Frost-Giant's Daughter (the rest can be found by clicking my name).

    Pretty cool.
    But I think this is as far as my Howard scholarship ever goes. :DD
    I leave the actual content to you and others who write great stuff. Keep writing more, please. :)

    1. Absolutely brilliant idea, ripa! It's very illuminating, and could be an interesting route for further analysis. The frequency of "like" shows Howard's affinity for simile; "feet" is a clue to Atali's true nature; "snow" and "white" obviously provide setting and atmosphere, and so forth. Looking at the others, it's interesting (but not surprising) Murilo and Nabonidus dwarf Conan in frequency, as well as Balthus and Taramis.

  2. Some great research there!
    I was about to suggest you read up on the "Huldra" as to explain Conans behaviour around Atali, but Im sure you are already on top of things.
    Nice of you to reference old Frans G Bengtson!

    1. Heh, well most of the work was already done for the encyclopedia, so it was just a matter of trawling through that again. I'm going to be looking at a good number of mythical/folkloric beings similar to Atali: while I'm unsure if Howard was aware of the Huldra, he was certainly familiar with her sisters the nymphs, sirens and succubi, as well as individuals like Lilith. And I figured it'd just be nice to give The Long Ships a shout-out!