Friday, 8 March 2013

Swords & Sorority

"When I was younger, as well as liking Conan, I was a fan of Red Sonja," says Scott. "so I do firmly believe that if you're writing a fantasy book, if you can't have an axe-wielding barbarian woman in a chainmail bikini - and the chainmail bikini is very important - then there's no point in writing it, really."
 - Christopher Wright, and while I suspect he's being a little facetious, he's being far too subtle about it

I like “pulp” and “Sword and Sorcery” in all its gory, sexist, glory. Big, awesome barbarians, though an occasional wizard or rouge can slip in. Women are to be barmaids, princesses, slave girls, dancers, victims to be rescued, etc. Blacks and MezoAmerican like peoples are either rare “Noble Savages” or hideous cannibals with filed teeth. Orientals are sinister characters, though their women look hot but unless they are “Rescued sacrifice victim” also very sinister. Of course, awesome “Noble Savages” think Kubotai from “Conan the Barbarian”! Mix in lovecraft, westerns, maybe some not too queer Burroughs like stuff…
Really, do women, blacks, orientals, Mexicans, etc. buy “Heroic Fantasy/Sci-Fi” enough that the damage of not sucking sucking sucking up to them will be less than the damage of alienating your base customer market?
 - Green Gestalt on John O'Neill's post on Realms of Fantasy

I don't see posts like this very often, but when I do, they leave a bad taste in my mouth. I'm reminded of the Cross Assault sexual harassment scandal over which the Internet had once again exploded (one wonders how the series of tubes could survive all these conflagrations):

Those are jokes and if you were really a member of the fighting game community, you would know that. This is a community that's, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it's not the fighting game community — it's StarCraft."
 - Bakhtanians "justifying" the concerted verbal abuse which caused a fellow player to drop out

Sword-and-Sorcery has often been accused of being one of those genres that belongs to the past, a different time when "all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple." Sword-and-Sorcery, some might say, is outdated, an embarrassment, relevant in our more enlightened times only to show how far we've come since the bad old days of 1950s advertisements.

Then again...

Is sexism inherent to Sword-and-Sorcery? It's the sort of thing many have wrestled with in print and on the 'Net. Well, I figure the best way to address that is talk about my favourite female Sword-and-Sorcery characters, hopefully showing that not only is Sword-and-Sorcery not the exclusive domain of manly men, but that it never was. And since it's International Women's Day, it seems appropriate to post some of my favourites.


Angus McBride's Eowyn

Yes, I'm counting The Lord of the Rings as Sword-and-Sorcery, what're you gonna do about it?

The Shieldmaiden of Rohan has been hailed and decried as both an example of Tolkien at his most feminist and at his most patriarchal: the fact that she rejects the androcentric order and rides to the front lines of the greatest battle of the Third Age cited as classic girl power, and the resolution of her marrying Faramir and settling down as a "mere" consort to a prince seen as a betrayal of her prior actions. Generally I'm in agreement with this essay on the matter. Even so, much is made about how Eowyn had to disguise herself as a man in order to get to Minas Tirith, but I'd say that this is an example of her boldness and eagerness to get into battle overriding her sense of responsibility. Remember that the reason Theoden has Eowyn stay back at Dunharrow is not to protect her, but because her people would need a leader if the battle at the Pellenor goes awry. Even before that, Eowyn was respected as an authority figure among the Rohirrim: Hama recommended her due to her fearlessness and being beloved by the people. So Eowyn's gender wasn't really the issue at stake: her status as a member of the House of Eorl was.

A woman joining the Rohirrim may have been uncommon enough - the Shieldmaiden tradition stretched back at least four hundreds years before the War of the Ring, where a host of Rohirrim women fought back an Easterling invasion - but Eowyn is clearly a recognisable individual. As such, not only is she disguising the fact that she's a woman, she's disguising her identity. Eowyn leaving Dunharrow to join the battle is thus reckless and impetuous not because some uppity female is getting ideas above her station, but because she's abandoning the rest of her people. It would of course turn out to be for the best, since she turned out to be the one predicted to fell the Witch-King of Angmar.

Likewise, Eowyn marrying Faramir and giving up the battlefield does not mean getting "back into the kitchen": rather, she is the consort of the Prince of Ithilien, and thus in a position of authority.  All this considered, I find it inconceivable that Eowyn would just sit on her laurels and let Faramir run the princedom: I think the Lady of Ithilien would be just as involved in caring for and running the realm as the many female rulers in history who ruled with their husbands. I would argue that Eowyn relinquishing her sword is not a case of relinquishing her control or destiny, but of accepting a greater responsibility: to retire as warrior, and begin as stateswoman.

Regardless of what one may think of her fate at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the showdown with the Witch King is one of the absolute highlights of the book for its unexpectedness and poetic power.


"There are two things you should know about the wise woman. One: she is wise..."
(It's telling that Christina Wald's illustration for the Middle-earth Collectible Card Game is one of the only illustrations I can find of Ioreth.)

I thought I'd give a bit more props to another Tolkien female that I feel deserves more attention. Ioreth is, despite her brevity, one of the most important characters in the final chapters of the book. On the surface, Ioreth would appear to be your average fussy, self-important, meddling nurse, the sort who relies on old folk wisdom over your new-fangled medical expertise, only to grouch when it turns out Science Marches On and whatnot. And yet, very often there is something worthwhile in those old remedies and ideas:

'Indeed we have heard of Fangorn in Minas Tirith,' said Boromir. 'But what I have heard seems to me for the most part old wives’ tales, such as we tell to our children.....'
‘Then I need say no more,’ said Celeborn. ‘But do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.’
 - The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter VIII, "Farewell to Lorien"

Ioreth in particular is notable: like Beregond, she is one of the little people, not a mighty warrior or noble lord, and her perspective is that of the common person in dreadfully uncommon circumstances. And, as Tolkien loved to point out, sometimes it's those common folk who change things. For one thing, Gandalf calls her a wise-woman. Gandalf, a spirit who was present during the formation of the world, calling any mortal wise is not to be ignored. Also consider that her folk wisdom - that which others generally dismiss as the rantings of a silly old woman - directly leads to the establishment of Aragorn as the true king (also in the eight chapter of a book):

Then Gandalf said: 'Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spake Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.'
 - The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter VIII: "The Houses of Healing"

Some would say she's a simple comic relief, a device used to get Aragorn into the Houses of Healing: I would say that Ioreth is a perfect example of one of the most defining themes in The Lord of the Rings - that of the "ordinary hero." It is the little things that shape the destiny of Middle-earth, be it a Hobbit carrying an extraordinary burden, a wretched creature celebrating a reunion too close to a precipice, or an old woman dismissed as a rambling fool:

'Your pardon lord!' said the man. 'I see you are a lore-master, not merely a captain of war. But alas! sir, we do not keep this thing in the Houses of Healing, where only the gravely hurt or sick are tended. For it has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness. Unless, of course, you give heed to rhymes of old days which women such as our good Ioreth still repeat without understanding.
When the black breath blows
and death's shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! coe athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king's hand lying!
It is but a doggrel, I fear, garbled in the memory of old wives. Its meaning I leave to your judgement, if indeed it has any. But old folk still use an infusion of the herb for headaches.'
 - The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter VIII: "The Houses of Healing"

And so when Ioreth is vindicated, it's hard not to share her joy in finally being appreciated, as she enthusiastically told everyone she knew about how Gandalf marked that her words would be remembered, and breathlessly raved about the perian she helped, swearing that two such little ones marched into Mordor by their lonesome to set fire to the Dark Lord's tower.


The art by Mshindo I. Kuumba is just great.

Charles R. Saunders had already cemented his status in Sword-and-Sorcery legendry with Imaro, but he followed up with another trailblazer: a black warrior woman protagonist.

I haven't had the pleasure of reading the Dossouye novels (though I can point to these excellent reviews by Bill Ward, and these two by Ron Fortier) but I have read "Abegwe's Sword": it's uncannily good, and very different from Imaro. I note some commentators like to make the "Imaro & Dossouye = Black Conan & Red Sonja" conjecture, but this only works on the broadest of levels ("male warrior + female warrior" broad), since Imaro is not Conan, and Dossouye most certainly is not Red Sonja. They're much more nuanced to be chocolate-covered Conan - that is, they are distinct, not copies.

Dossouye is immediately different not only from Red Sonja, but Howard's female warriors by virtue of the fact that she is part of an elite fighting force composed of woman-warriors. In Howard's brand of Sword-and-Sorcery, women either fought alongside the men and youths (in barbarian cultures), or were exceptions to the rule. Cimmerians, Aesir and Vanir women were just expected to fight alongside the men, in that any able-bodied individual was expected to fight for the clan: they did not have a professional military force, they were tribes of endemic warriors. In contrast, Valeria, Agnes, Sonya, Helen Tavrel and others had to fight the patriarchy to be taken seriously, working thrice as hard as a male in their position just to be considered as equals on the battlefield.

Dossouye, on the other hand, is part of a society that wholly accepts the concept of a woman warrior as a distinct military unit, and so different from both Howard's barbarian and civilised nations. As such, Dossouye's conflict in "Abegwe's Sword" is not against The Man, nor is it an example of barbarism's savage egalitarianism, but something a bit more personal: a matter of spiritual and existential crisis as she is challenged to take up an overwhelming responsibility. And good old-fashioned betrayal, of course.  For more, I must direct you to her creator's site for more discussions on one of the coolest Sword-and-Sorcery heroines out there.

Fabian's Belit: still the best.

I think Belit is one of the most misunderstood characters in Howard's entire opus. As an example, critics point to her mating dance and deride it as Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfilment: evidently when they ask the question "why did Belit perform a mating dance to a man who just killed a quarter of her crew that she met that day," they don't bother to think of any other explanation beyond "oh, it's because it was written by an isolated unmarried 20-something white male Texan author living in the 1930s, that must be the only explanation." Such a conclusion requires ignoring the many consistent and telling clues in Howard's prose that there is absolutely something deeper going on.

(This is an excerpt from my unfinished 80 Years of Conan series regarding "Queen of the Black Coast")

The wild dance of Belit is, I believe, the most important part of the story. Howard concluded with the literary equivalent of the "fade to black," but the context of the scene strongly hints that Conan and Belit did indeed have intercourse, right there on the deck of the Tigress, with a rapt audience of black corsairs. According to those who adhere to a certain school of Howard "criticism," this is nothing more than a pubescent daydream, where the reader vicariously enjoys the sight of a gorgeous woman performing a striptease and literally offering herself to him within moments of meeting him. When the mating-dance is reduced, diluted, to such a simplistic appraisal, a mere sequence of events, then it's no wonder some may think of Conan as little more than escapism and puerile adolescent wish fulfilment.

Yet to my mind, nothing could be further from what I gleaned from this sequence when I read it as a 16-year-old:

Her eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she tore off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast them at his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering line of naked white, she cried to the desperate horde: “Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance – the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were kings of Askalon!” 
And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping of a quenchless flame, like the urge of creation and the urge of death. Her white feet spurned the blood-stained deck and dying men forgot death as they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan’s feet, and the blind flood of the Cimmerian’s desire swept all else away as he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted breast.
 - The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p128-129

From my point of view, what Howard described is not something so base and meaningless as a striptease, and what Belit was offering to Conan was more than merely her body. What I believe this to be is nothing less than an invocation, a sacrament, a deeply profound ritual enacted by Belit to join herself to Conan - physically, mentally and soulfully. Look at the almost desperate urgency with which Belit offered herself to Conan: does this truly read like a woman who merely wants a flurry of fleeting carnal passion?

Read it again. Belit's eyes were not sultry or seductive, not hooded by her eyelids in a come-hither glance, her eyelashes not batting playfully like butterflies alighting on the face of an ivory statue: they were burning, "like those of a she-panther in the dark." Burning eyes speak of desire, but something more than that: something predatory, something greater than mere lust. Belit did not slowly disrobe of her girdle, nor did she gently slip off her ornaments: she tore them off, and cast them at Conan's feet. That's no burlesque routine, Belit was ridding herself of her garments and accouterments with no sense of theatre, play or allure. They were not props in a cabaret, they were extraneous clutter to be discarded.

Belit revealing her naked body was not, then, the finale of a peepshow: it wasn't the finale of anything. It was the beginning. Belit did not posture brazenly like the ladies of a Stygian gondola, nor was she in any way coy or self-conscious: she stood on her tiptoes, raised her arms upwards, so her body resembled "a quivering line of desperate white." Belit was baring herself bodily to Conan free from the distractions of golden ornaments and silken threads, to show Conan all that she was underneath: she was exposing herself to Conan by every definition. If Belit could do it, I believe she would cast off her very flesh to reveal her naked soul.

Finally, the dance itself. Howard's described sexy dances plenty of times, with at least one in another Conan story, "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula":

From the gilded ceiling four jade-hued vessels were falling. She dodged, but they did not strike her. They crashed to the floor about her, forming the four corners of a square. And she screamed, and screamed again. For out of each ruin reared the hooded head of a cobra, and one struck at her bare leg. Her convulsive movement to evade it brought her within reach of the one on the other side and again she had to shift like lightning to avoid the flash of its hideous head. 
She was caught in a frightful trap. All four serpents were swaying and striking at foot, ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, whatever portion of her voluptuous body chanced to be nearest to them, and she could not spring over them or pass between them to safety. She could only whirl and spring aside and twist her body to avoid the strokes, and each time she moved to dodge one snake, the motion brought her within range of another, so that she had to keep shifting with the speed of light. She could move only a short space in any direction, and the fearful hooded crests were menacing her every second. Only a dancer of Zamboula could have lived in that grisly square. 
She became, herself, a blur of bewildering motion. The heads missed her by hair's breadths, but they missed, as she pitted her twinkling feet, flickering limbs, and perfect eye against the blinding speed of the scaly demons her enemy had conjured out of thin air. 
Somewhere a thin, whining music struck up, mingling with the hissing of the serpents, like an evil night wind blowing through the empty sockets of a skull. Even in the flying speed of her urgent haste she realized that the darting of the serpents was no longer at random. They obeyed the grisly piping of the eery music. They struck with a horrible rhythm, and perforce her swaying, writhing, spinning body attuned itself to their rhythm. Her frantic motions melted into the measures of a dance compared to which the most obscene tarantella of Zamora would have seemed sane and restrained. Sick with shame and terror Zabibi heard the hateful mirth of her merciless tormentor. 
“The Dance of the Cobras, my lovely one!” laughed Totrasmek. “So maidens danced in the sacrifice to Hanuman centuries ago — but never with such beauty and suppleness. Dance, girl, dance! How long can you avoid the fangs of the Poison People? Minutes? Hours? You will weary at last. Your swift, sure feet will stumble, your legs falter, your hips slow in their rotations. Then the fangs will begin to sink deep into your ivory flesh—”

References to Zabibi's "bare leg," the cobras "striking at foot, ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, whatever portion of her voluptuous body chanced to be nearest to them," where she had to "twist her body" - "swaying, writhing, spinning" - in ways that "the most obscene" Zamoran tarantella would deem "restrained" all contribute to the distinct sexuality of this scene. Margaret Brundage must've been (figuratively) salivating as she read it, eager to set her pastels at work. What's more, there's a commentary from Totrasmek, mentioning her "beauty and suppleness," and how eventually she will find her "hips slow in their rotations" before the cobras strike her "ivory flesh". Sure, the primary mood of the scene is Zabibi's desperation, but Howard knew his audience, and so there's a definite element of sexual excitement to this otherwise tense scene.

Most dances with the aim to arouse the audience are slow, with sinuous and elegant movements, punctuated by quick motions, rising and rising in speed and intensity, before an explosive finale. That's how it's been described since Salome, through to Arabian Nights, and beyond. Howard doesn't describe Belit's mating-dance like this at all. He does not linger on her feminine attributes - no heaving bosom, gyrating hips or supple limbs - just as a vague white shape against the dusk. Her movements are never languid or seductive, but fast and furious: from the beginning, she danced "like a desert whirlwind," leapt like "a quenchless flame," compared to the urges of creation and death. Creation and death, not sexuality or the drive to mate, but the two absolute certainties in the sphere of human existence.

What I believe to be happening in this scene is not that Belit is trying to give Conan a show, rather, she is invoking the powers of the universe in a sacred ritual of joining. Many of Howard's most memorable dances are tied to archaic significance: the Dance of the Skull ("Black Canaan"), Zogar Sag's summoning ("Beyond the Black River"), the pagan dances of "The Black Stone," "Red Moon of Zambebwei" and "The Moon of Skulls." There are others with no such relevance to spiritual matters: sometimes a dance is just a dance, as in "The House of Arabu":

The feasters, silk-robed nobles of Nippur, lounged on satin cushions, drinking wine poured from alabaster vessels, and caressing the painted and bejewelled playthings which Naramninub's wealth had brought from all parts of the East. 
There were scores of these; their white limbs twinkled as they danced, or shone like ivorv among the cushions where they sprawled. A jewelled tiara caught in a burnished mass of night-black hair, a gem-crusted armlet of massive gold, earrings of carven jade-these were their only garments. Their fragrance was dizzying. Shameless in their dancing, feasting and lovemaking, their light laughter filled the hall in waves of silvery sound.

It truly saddened me to discover that Brian Wood chose not to adapt this scene, the one I deem the most important of the entire story, because he was concerned with how it would appear. If you'll indulge me a little comment... Brian's concern with cheesiness doesn't seem to extend to dialogue, where Conan is referred to as "barbarian" every other line, nor to what replaced the mating dance: Cloonan depicts a very sweet, tender sex scene with some truly Hitchcockian visual metaphors. It's a sweet, tender moment, but Belit and Conan's love is anything but tender. Heck, you talk about cheesy, it doesn't get more cheesy to me than depicting the climax with a cutaway to a shooting star.  You might as well go to a wine bottle popping it's cork.

As I see it, the mating-dance of Belit is the start of Conan's first great love story. Some may wonder how on earth Belit could be so smitten upon first sight - of a man who was slaughtering her crew, no less - and find it incredulous that she should offer herself to him so readily. Perhaps the very fact that she did so despite those concerns explains it well enough. "Love at first sight" is probably a misnomer: what it should be is "love that began at first sight."


There are no pictures of Zelata I can find on the internet, so here's a very rough scan taken from one of the Giant-Sized Conans.

Although Robert E. Howard created a tremendous amount of kickass female characters, I thought I'd pick one that's somewhat a dark horse.  You can talk about how badass Valeria was all throughout "Red Nails," but for some unfathomable reason, people can't look beyond her initial poor showing against a freaking dragon to the many acts of awesome which follow later in the tale.  For the same reason, people seem to find Belit's first meeting with Conan an insurmountable barrier despite her being the clear leader, master and commander of the story in which she appears.  Valeria and Belit are both described as gorgeous, understandable given Howard was writing for the pulps in the 1930s: while all women are beautiful* taking the time to mention how beautiful a character is can be perceived as pandering to the male demographic. After all, even today a male protagonist can be all shapes and sizes, whereas females are usually models of some description outside of "character" actors (a tautology if ever I saw one).

Zelata's one of the most intriguing characters in all the Conan stories: she isn't a statuesque warrior women, winsome wench or imperious queen.  She's an old witch of the wild woods. Now, she is described as handsome, true, but her appearance is completely secondary to her role in the story and her character at large. She is, first and foremost, a figure of wisdom, intelligence and immense power.  Similarly, though Conan does have to rescue her, it's made clear just how unusual an occurrence this was when her dire wolf comes to rescue Conan himself.

Also unlike some of the other sorceresses in the Conan stories, she isn't evil.  It's arguable whether she's truly good, for that matter: she seems to be a force of utter neutrality outside from the moral conundrums of civilisation and humanity, and her interests just happen to match that of Conan and the rest of mankind.  Zelata's influence is hinted at throughout the rest of the story: she is suggested to be the cause of unrest and rebellion in Aquilonia, disrupting the Nemedians' organisation, and she's the only female character who returns for the climax. Not the young flaxen-haired Albiona, not the young resourceful Zenobia, obviously not the eternally young, seductive Akivasha: the mysterious, older, and decidedly non-cheesecake witch.

And those are really the best kind of S&S females: those that aren't what you expect. I could talk about others - Keith Taylor's Gudrun Blackhair, Ursula le Guin's Tenar*, H. Rider Haggard's incredible Ayesha, Clark Ashton Smith's Vixeela, Michael Ehart's Miri & Ninshi, and especially C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry - but I want to get the post up before the ninth. In any case, this is just a sampler of the great females in Sword-and-Sorcery stories who have courage, intellect, drive and agency. They aren't an anomaly: they're part of the very fabric of Sword-and-Sorcery.

*Cue spotlight, all smiles, starburst.
**And yes, I'm also counting Earthsea as Sword-and-Sorcery. COME AT ME BRO


  1. The problem with Belit is that in "Queen of the Black Coast" we are told so much about her and Conan together and shown so little.

    My own favorite Conan heroine is Olivia. She rescues Conan from the pack of pirates

    1. "Queen of the Black Coast" is, in general, a very different sort of Conan story from Howard's usual style: it's more like Clark Ashton Smith's fables than the Harold Lamb adventures to me. I think that lack of firsthand information is indeed a source of great frustration.

      I always liked Olivia not just because she saves Conan's bacon, because the story is also largely told from her perspective. The Conan stories are notable for this, I think, where the female character who is ostensibly Conan's "prize" is actually the point-of-view character for much of the story.

  2. Great post, Al. I wish you had time to talk about Jirel, though. I'd love to hear your thoughts on her.

    1. Jirel's a very interesting one for me, because she exemplifies a middle ground between the stereotypical "macho" kind of warrior heroine and the archetypal "feminine" one, almost as if she's two characters at once. Thanks, Keith!

  3. The answer to whether S&S is "inherently" sexist is "No." I'm glad you've taken the time to give me such a great explanation of why, for those pesky people who need it. :) Especially happy that you included Zelata!

    1. Thanks, Anarchivist! Well, I had to include Zelata, because she's awesome.

  4. Zelata is probably my favourite character in the Conan stories, even if her appearance is quite brief, her sheer awesome makes up for it. Your assessment of common people in LOTR is spot-on, and it's why Beregond stuck with me so long after I read the novel.

    I'll get to Dossouye after I've tracked down the Imaro books that I can, but the premise is fantastic! (it's disappointing how hard paper copies are to find. I might just have to give in and get an e-reader in the near future since that seems to be the simplest way to obtain Saunders' material).

    1. Thank you, Michal! I still can't believe there are so few illustrations of Zelata outside of comic adaptations. Beregond's actually my favourite character in Lord of the Rings precisely because of this, in addition to just being such a well written character.

      "Abegwe's Sword" is included in the first Dossouye novel, though I read it in J.A.S.' "Amazons!" anthology. That Charles is the only male author in the collection gives you an idea of the story's coolness. I think's the best place to get CRS stuff, though it can be a bit pricey.