“Who are you to swear by Ymir?” she mocked. “What know you of the gods of ice and snow, you who have come up from the south to adventure among an alien people?”
A Warrior Race
Of the eighty men who joined battle that day, only Conan of Wulfhere's reavers and Heimdul of Bragi's wolves remained by the end of the battle. From a narrative standpoint, Howard may have done it thusly not just to add drama, but to explain to the reader exactly who these people fighting were with the minimum of exposition. How many occasions are there in history where not only the defeated, but the victors are annihilated almost to a man? Even in cattle raids there are routs, tactical retreats and outright flight, but in this battle, not a soul save Conan's survives. Howard was too well-versed in history, and expected better of his audience, to treat this occurrence as anything but highly unusual. There are battles elsewhere in the Conan stories which don't result in almost complete mutual destruction - so why here? What could cause these men to slay each other to literally the last man?
The Æsir and the Vanir despise each other for reasons that are never completely explicated. Unlike the feud between the Cimmerians and Picts, it is never explored in detail: it could be a cycle of revenge whose origin has been lost to time, or something more sinister than that. The James Allison stories involving the Æsir and Vanir are similarly bloody: evidently their feud is bitter indeed. My personal opinion is that their bloody cult has much to do with it, and since it is clear by this story's climax that Ymir is a real entity, then his - or its - part in their cult cannot be ignored. In every story the Æsir or Vanir appear, Howard stresses that they are, above all, a warrior race. The Tlazitlans are another, and their endemic warfare is so engrained that they wipe each other out in a war caused by a malevolent figurehead: just like Tascela, perhaps forces the Æsir and Vanir to battle eternally so that their dread master could feed. Is it any wonder the battles of the crimson and golden-locked are so devastating?
Yet Conan is neither red nor yellow-haired, but black-haired and beardless - the only one in the story mentioned as such. Conan does not belong here: he is a stranger in a strange land, and that is hinted from his first appearance in the story:
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.
One was beardless and black-maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.
He turned away from the trampled expanse where yellow-bearded warriors lay locked with red-haired slayers in the embrace of death.
Conan opened his eyes and stared into the bearded faces that bent over him. He was surrounded by tall golden-haired warriors in mail and furs.
Beards in Howard's characters are unsurprisingly a mark of maturity: youths and young men are rarely, if ever, bearded, with facial hair the domain of elders, leaders and seasoned veterans. Since the Æsir and Vanir are uniformly described as "bearded," this not only shows they are different from Conan, but that they are probably older than Conan. Conan never grew a beard in any of the Conan stories, but if FGD is indeed the story alluded to in "The Phoenix on the Sword" and the Miller-Clark letter, then Conan could well be the youngest warrior in the battle - another possible indicator as to why he survived, his youthful vigor winning out.
Marching to Valhalla
Conan's journey through Ymir's realm is very familiar on a number of levels. In his essay "On Howardian Fairyland," Don Herron discussed Howard's use of transitions from the "real world" into a supernatural one. He used "Queen of the Black Coast" and the voyage up the Zarkheba River as his example, but I think this is equally applicable to "The Frost-Giant's Daughter":
Don Herron did a riff a long time ago about "Howardian fairyland," a real short bit that I reprinted in The Dark Man #2. He used the example of Howard's description of the Tigress' progress up the Zarkheba River to illustrate how REH worked his transitions from the "real" or "mundane" world to the realm of the supernatural. That opened my eyes to looking for this transition in other of Howard's fantasies, and damned if it isn't there in virtually every one. We think that we are reading a fantasy from the beginning of the story, but we're not -- the set-up is usually about the world that we used to call "consensus reality" back in my Religious Studies days. In the case of Conan, of course, it's the "consensus reality" of the Hyborian Age, but it is recognizably a real world. Then, at some point in the story, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, comes a transition to another "reality," this one a realm of the supernatural.
- Rusty Burke on "Howardian fairyland"
In fact, it is reminiscent of the "Journey to the Otherworld" mytheme found all across Indo-European mythologies:
There is no evidence for a consistent picture of the (Proto-Indo-European) otherworld. We do not know where it was, but it appears that the abode of the dead is reachable by boat, cf. OIr. tír inna mban, which is an island, as is the tech Duinn "the house of Donn." Likewise, the island of Avalon in the British legend is the resting place of heroes, such as King Arthur (Welsh Arthwr). OCS navъ "the otherworld" is derivable from the word for "boat,' PIE *nehu- (Lat. nāvis, Skr. naú-, etc.), and in the Greek belief, one has to cross the river Styx to reach the otherworld. The idea that one crosses the river is here combined with the other one, namely that the realm of the dead is underground; in the Old Irish sagas, you enter it via the fairy mounds, the síd (< PIE *sēdos "seat"). In a few traditions we find the idea that the dead abide in a wonderful meadow, rich in horses, cf. Hitt. wēllu- "meadow (of the otherworld)," Gr. (W)ēlýsion pedíon "Elysean fields," RV 10.14.2: "this cow pasture is not to be taken away“, OIr. mag mell; in TochA the word walu, "dead“ may be related, as well as ON val-höll "Valhalla."
In the Rig Veda, we find a belief that the realm of the deceased ("the fathers," pitaras) is in the sky, more precisely in the Milky Way (svarga-, which is compared to Gr. ólbios "blessed" < *swel-gw(H)o-).
The otherworld may have been ruled by the original progenitor of mankind, *Yemo- (Skr. Yama-, Av. Yima-), see above.
Could the story of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" be comparable to mythic journeys to the otherworld?
Most of these journeys have certain common elements: the details may differ, but the roles are related.
- First is the hero, who must journey to the Otherworld: obviously, Conan is our hero for this adventure.
- Reasons for the hero's journey vary: it could be search of secrets and knowledge (Gilgamesh, King Arthur, Aeneas), rescue (Orpheus, Theseus) or heroic trial (Herakles). Conan's journey could be interpreted as something of a twist on Orpheus' attempted rescue of Eurydice - if Eurydice tried to lure Orpheus into Hades so he could be rent apart by Cerberus.
- The journey itself is usually over a body of water: a river or lake of mysterious properties, among them the washing away of memories. Conan "forgot all else in the world" during his pursuit of Atali
- There is nearly always a psychopomp, a guide or guardian who aids or hinders travel between realms: Charon of the Styx, Wepwawet of Duat, Manannán mac Lir of Mag Mell - and of course, the Valkyries, the Choosers of the Slain. Atali is clearly evocative of the latter.
- A monster is a common feature, be it as a guard or denizen of the Otherworld: the hero usually slays or passes the creature. One immediately thinks of Cerberus, the three-headed hound which patrols the entrance to Hades. Garmr, another great canine, watches the gates of Hel in Norse cosmology. Sometimes there are dual guardians: in Vedic mythology, the dead must pass two great dogs, the four-eyed children of Sarama. In addition to Conan's foes being referred to as "Bragi's wolves," the Ice-Giants he faces are two brothers.
- For a man to journey to the otherworld whilst alive, and return so, is a mark of heroism. Every Nordheimr who falls in battle will travel to Ymir's realm, leaving the earth behind forever. Conan undertook this journey, and he came back alive - bruised, battered, concussed, half-dead and practically delerious, but alive.
But this is a very particular journey into a very particular otherworld: the Nordic afterlife. Consider: Conan is clearly addled and finding it difficult getting his bearings - indeed, he almost blacks out shortly after that smite on the head - so his perception of the world is altered. He is exhausted and half-dead from the battle, fading in and out of consciousness - and, one could argue, in and out of reality as he knows it. He encounters a strange apparition, a girl walking naked in the snow, with no indication of whether she is real or unreal. The very ground upon which Conan treads is many-coloured, with bright and vivid lights dazzling him - not unlike how Bifrost, the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, may have awed fallen warriors. First, he must pass a guardian - and who is this? None other than Heimdul.
Heimdul, of course, is reminiscent of Heimdallr, the sword-wielding gatekeeper of Bifrost, he who watches for Ragnarok's coming, and occasionally counted among the Vanir (though his true parentage is rather spectacular). He decides who is allowed passage to Valhalla, usually accompanied by the Valkyries. It might be coincidence, but isn't it fascinating that Conan, a foreigner and outsider, slays Heimdul, and traverses a many-coloured route in a northern setting to a mystical otherworld peopled by those who meet the fallen?
Conan's unfamiliarity with the Gods of the North may well be why he survived his encounter at all. Consider: several Conan stories note that hypnosis or mesmerism only works, or at least works most effectively, on individuals who are from cultures where the power of hypnotism has been reinforced for centuries:
Khemsa’s sorcery was based on hypnotism, as is the case with most Eastern magic. The way has been prepared for the hypnotist for untold centuries of generations who have lived and died in the firm conviction of the reality and power of hypnotism, building up, by mass thought and practise, a colossal though intangible atmosphere against which the individual, steeped in the traditions of the land, finds himself helpless.
But Conan was not a son of the East. Its traditions were meaningless to him; he was the product of an utterly alien atmosphere. Hypnotism was not even a myth in Cimmeria. The heritage that prepared a native of the East for submission to the mesmerist was not his.
He was aware of what Khemsa was trying to do to him; but he felt the impact of the man’s uncanny power only as a vague impulsion, a tugging and pulling that he could shake off as a man shakes spider webs from his garments.
The Æsir and Vanir have been raised in the ways and mysteries of Ymir, Atali, and her sisters for generations. When they see her shimmering form on the battlefield, she surely doesn't have to work hard to incite the flames of passion, for her coming has been signposted to them for their entire lives. When she beckons, they cannot resist: they know she is Atali, she lures the stricken from the battlefield to her brothers, where they are slain, their hearts offered to Ymir. And so, for millenia, Atali has undertaken this grisly role, and the tale has been repeated to every Æsir and Vanir child, so that if they do see a white flame with a golden-red crown as they lie dying, they know that she has come for them. And the crushing pessimism, the miasma of futility and inevitability, would mean that when the Ice-Giants bear down upon them, it does not even occur to them to fight back.
But just as Conan was no son of the East, he was no child of the North. He knows nothing of Atali, and likely only the merest inkling of Ymir from what he could deduce from his Æsir comrades. He has none of the traditions or preconceptions of his fellows, and thus, none of the obstacles which would render even the mightiest of blond and red-headed warriors helpless. In Atali, he sees not the dread servitor of his god, but an incongruous slip of a girl naked in the wastes; in the Ice-Giants, he does not see the hallowed undertakers of ritual sacrifice, but blood-ravened monsters of ice and death. In a strange twist of fate, it is Conan's utter unfamiliarity with Nordic religion which is his greatest strength.
Similarly, Conan's indecision over whether his experience is a dream or otherwise fuels him. He encounters a woman running naked in the snow. Ridiculous comics aside, the presence of a practically nude woman comfortably lounging in arctic temperatures which affects even Conan is about as strong an indicator of unreality one can get. Indeed, one could argue that Conan's chase is not just because of Atali fanning the flames (more on that later), but because in his own confused mind, he has to touch her to confirm to himself that she - and by extention, everything he is experiencing - is real. With all the colours and strange lights in the sky, our Cimmerian is feeling frustrated and desperate. There is only one thing in this world which seems real to him, and he will not stop until he knows for sure. Conan's pursuit across the wastes is thus not just a lustful barbarian running after a mocking temptress, but a man racing after his very grip on reality.
But what would happen if he does catch her?
The Lady of Frozen Death
In "Hyborian Genesis," Patrice Louinet puts forward the possibility that "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" may have been inspired by Bulfinch. The names Asgard, Bragi, Frost-giants, Heimdal, Horsa, Vanaheim and Ymir can be found in The Outline of Mythology, and indeed, it's a compelling theory:
The innocent cause of so much sorrow was a maiden whose face you might truly say was boyish for a girl, yet too girlish for a boy. Her fortune had been told, and it was to this effect: “Atalanta, do not marry; marriage will be your ruin.” Terrified by this oracle, she fled the society of men, and devoted herself to the sports of the chase. To all suitors (for she had many) she imposed a condition which was generally effectual in relieving her of their persecutions – “I will be the prize of him who shall conquer me in the race; but death must be the penalty of all who try and fail.” In spite of this hard condition some would try.
- Bulfinch, pp. 141-142
Louinet also suggests the myth of Apollo and Daphne as an inspiration, only reversing the roles of pursuer and pursued, and deity and mortal - the love-addled god Apollo chased the mortal Daphne, whereas the lust-addled mortal Conan chases the goddess Atali:
Apollo loved her, and longed to obtain her (…) He followed her; she fled, swifter than the wind, and delayed not a moment at his entreaties. (…) The nymph continued her flight, and left his plea half uttered. And even as she fled she charmed him. The wind blew her garments, and her unbound hair streamed loose behind her. The god grew impatient to find his wooings thrown away, and, sped by Cupid, gained upon her in the race. It was like a hound pursuing a hare, with open jaws ready to seize, while the feebler animal darts forward, slipping from the very grasp. So flew the god and the virgin - he on the wings of love, and she on those of fear. The pursuer is the more rapid, however, and gains upon her, and his panting breath blows upon her hair. Her strength begins to fail, and, ready to sink, she calls upon her father, the river god: “Help me, Peneus! open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger…”However, recently Brian Leno put forward an alternative inspiration, in a Hyrkanian Award-winning essay, "Atali, The Lady of Frozen Death": that being Leonard Cline's "The Lady of Frozen Death," published in Ghost Stories August 1928 under the rather less evocative name "Sweetheart of the Snows" and his pseudonym Alan Forsyth. Leno's case is extremely persuasive, with several points of comparison:
- Bulfinch, pp. 20-22
It was a girls' laugh, blithe, and seductive, and mocking... Glancing back over one shoulder at me with a pucker of taunting lips.
- "Sweetheart of the Snows"
A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly... Her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery... With a shriek of laughter she leaped back and ran, laughing at him over her white shoulder.
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
In both stories, the supernatural female's "mocking" laughter is the first thing which alerts the heroes, and she leads them away, laughing over her shoulder.
I saw a figure naked as the trees within that flurry of snow, gathering the very snow itself about hips and bosom like a diaphanous gossamer shift...
- "Sweetheart of the Snows"
Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day.
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
Both women are almost entirely naked, are compared to trees, and their modesty is protected by "gossamer" veils or shifts.
In the brief instant of that glance the face impressed itself on my memory so that today I see it as plainly as then: eyes that were green as lichen on an old stump, green-gray with one fleck of strange and subtle vermillion in them; and lips gray as the eyes, and a flowing wealth of hair, fine-spun and young and sweet, and gray as the lips.
- "Sweetheart of the Snows"
His gaze went again to her unruly locks, which at first glance he had thought to be red. Now he saw that they were neither red nor yellow but a glorious compound of both colors. He gazed spell-bound. Her hair was like elfin-gold; the sun struck it so dazzlingly that he could scarcely bear to look upon it. Her eyes were likewise neither wholly blue nor wholly grey, but of shifting colors and dancing lights and clouds of colors he could not define. Her full red lips smiled, and from her slender feet to the blinding crown of her billowy hair, her ivory body was as perfect as the dream of a god.
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
Obviously the hair and eye colour of both the Snow-Woman and Atali are different, but what I find interesting is that both womens' eyes are noted to have multiple shades: Atali's shift and dance, while the Snow-Woman's are alternately green or gray-green, while flecked with "strange and subtle vermillion."
Clear in the snow were the footprints of one running figure... only one. Yes, I had seen truly; there were two shapes in the moonlight over the snow, but only one of them with heavy mortal feet had trod it down.
- "Sweetheart of the Snows"
Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned... His mailed feet broke through the frozen crust; he sank deep in the drifts and forged through them by sheer strength. But the girl danced across the snow light as a feather floating across a pool; her naked feet barely left their imprint on the hoar-frost that overlaid the crust...
“Did you not find her tracks? Or the giants in icy mail I slew?”
Niord shook his head.
“We found only your tracks in the snow, Conan.”
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
The old ghost-story surprise, that there is no evidence of one character's existence save to the protagonist, is identical to both stories: the chasing male treads roughly and heavily through the snow, while the woman leaves little to no tracks at all.
In the full, chill light of the moon two figures were running down the hill, over the snow, toward the woods, both naked and unashamed. One of them was a girl's; her smooth young body seemed to be all a soft jade green in the moonlight, and the long wild locks of hair that streamed across her bare shoulder as she ran were of a cool, delicate, luminous gray. She looked back over her shoulder, with a smile on her strange face that for one moment transfixed my heart with utter desire. And the other figure, running stumblingly after her, knee-deep sometimes in the snow, with both hands held out beseechingly, was a man's. It was Baldur Blake.This is also the final twist in the Algernon Blackwood story "The Glamour of the Snows,"* which may have been an inspiration for both stories:
- "Sweetheart of the Snows"
“Not so!” cried an older man, whose eyes were wild and weird. “It was Atali, the daughter of Ymir, the frost-giant! To fields of the dead she comes, and shows herself to the dying! Myself when a boy I saw her, when I lay half-slain on the bloody field of Wolraven. I saw her walk among the dead in the snows, her naked body gleaming like ivory and her golden hair unbearably bright in the moonlight. I lay and howled like a dying dog because I could not crawl after her. She lures men from stricken fields into the wastelands to be slain by her brothers, the ice-giants, who lay men’s red hearts smoking on Ymir’s board. The Cimmerian has seen Atali, the frost-giant’s daughter!”
- "The Frost-Giant's Daughter"
He urged his pace, yet did not quite overtake her. The girl kept always just a little bit ahead of his best efforts.... And soon they left the trees behind and passed on to the enormous slopes of the sea of snow that rolled in mountainous terror and beauty to the stars. The wonder of the white world caught him away. Under the steady moonlight it was more than haunting. It was a living, white, bewildering power that deliciously confused the senses and laid a spell of wild perplexity upon the heart. It was a personality that cloaked, and yet revealed, itself through all this sheeted whiteness of snow. It rose, went with him, fled before, and followed after. Slowly it dropped lithe, gleaming arms about his neck, gathering him in....
Certainly some soft persuasion coaxed his very soul, urging him ever forwards, upwards, on towards the higher icy slopes. Judgment and reason left their throne, it seemed, completely, as in the madness of intoxication. The girl, slim and seductive, kept always just ahead, so that he never quite came up with her. He saw the white enchantment of her face and figure, something that streamed about her neck flying like a wreath of snow in the wind, and heard the alluring accents of her whispering voice that called from time to time: “A little farther on, a little higher.... Then we’ll run home together!”
... Indistinctly he recalls the murmur of men’s voices, the touch of strong arms that lifted him, and the shooting pains as the ski were unfastened from the twisted ankle... for when he opened his eyes again to normal life he found himself lying in his bed at the post office with the doctor at his side. But for years to come the story of “mad Hibbert’s” skiing at night is recounted in that mountain village. He went, it seems, up slopes, and to a height that no man in his senses ever tried before. The tourists were agog about it for the rest of the season, and the very same day two of the bolder men went over the actual ground and photographed the slopes. Later Hibbert saw these photographs. He noticed one curious thing about them — though he did not mention it to any one:
There was only a single track.
In all three stories, the protagonist is compelled to chase after the female to their very deaths: only Conan's sheer vitality saves him, or he would've shared the fate of countless others. Other sources cited in the past include Charles M. Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, William Morris' The Roots of the Mountains (L. Sprague de Camp, "Robert E. Howard's Fiction"), and Morris' The House of the Wolfings (Steve Tompkins, "Mind Forg'd manacles? Back to School with Robert E. Howard"), all of which Leno discusses in his article. One other story which I'll discuss at length in a later post is Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," a tale which Howard admired greatly, and one which I think may be key to understanding Ymir and Atali. The mythic inspirations are another discussion which will come later.
Whether Howard was inspired by Bulfinch, Cline, Merritt, or other sources, one thing is very clear to me: Atali is not human.
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 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
Don Herron, "On Howardian Fairyland," The Dark Man #2
*As an aside, I don't think I've read a single Blackwood story I didn't enjoy, and that didn't give me at least a brusque shiver. "The Glamour of the Snows" is, along with Conan Doyle's "The Captain of the Polestar," Clark Ashton Smith's "The Light from the Pole" and "The Coming of the White Worm," and Blackwood's own "The Wendigo," a fine example of a northern horror. "Arctic Gothic," perhaps?