Conan: The Frost-Giant’s Daughter

Frost Giant’s Daughter is not the name of the eighth story published in the Conan canon of Robert E Howard’s Hyborian Age tales, but it belongs in eighth place in a complete list, if it belongs anywhere. A word of explanation is in order.

This was originally a Conan story, and, based on the internal chronology, his first adventure, when he was still a barbarian wanderer and warrior among the northern tribes.  Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, rejected it. Thrifty as all writers must be, Howard renamed the main character “Amra of Akbitana” retitled it Gods of the North, and under that name published it in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan. In its original form as a Conan yarn it was not published in Howard’s brief lifetime.

I regret to say that Farnsworth Wright’s decision is a defensible one: this story is below Robert E Howard’s expected level. Were one to read it with the name of the author hidden, it would not be recognized as his work.

Howard’s Conan stories are known and famed for driving, nonstop plots, memorable characters, for vivid descriptions of dramatic action sequences, for the portrayal of raw savagery (and its concomitant superiority to the corruption and softness of civilization), for  exotic locales, eldritch horrors, memorable prose. Here, each element was muted, or missing.

It is short, a hair over three thousand words. But do not think it is the brevity that prevented the inclusion of the elements needed to make a proper Conan story. Something up to Howard’s normal par could easily been included in that space.

There is so little by way of plot, one is tempted to call this a vignette.

Conan is found standing in a snowy battlefield, which is strewn with the corpses of two armies. One last enemy and he exchange vaunts. Conan kills him in a single blow. Then he sees a blonde maiden barefoot in the snow, supernaturally fair, clad only in a wisp of gossamer.

She taunts him with her beauty. He chases her. He vows that if she leads him into an ambush by her kinsmen, he will kill them. She laughs. She is as light and swift as a nymph, and leaves no footprints. He runs for hours in a maddened rage, crazed with lust, until they reach a glacier. She leads him into a ambush of her kinsmen, and he kills them, as promised.

The girl is now frightened for the first time, and for no particular reason loses her supernal swiftness. She is caught, and Conan is preparing to deflower her, but he has only time to steal her gossamer scarf and steal a kiss before she calls upon her father, who is a god, and is whirled out of his grasp by the Northern Lights.

He faints, and is later revived by a search party. One soldier is skeptical of Conan’s report, but the other reveals the evil, supernatural nymph was none other than an evil, supernatural nymph. The first man dares to scoff, but then Conan holds up his fist, still clutching the gossamer scarf of the frost maiden.

Now, there are many a story which ends with the surprising plot twist that what the protagonist, upon waking, might he tempted to think a dream or a vision turns out to have left some solid clue behind, so that his stolid conviction that such things are not real is shaken. The Mark Twin book read by Clarence the angel in Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has this role, as does the chess book Conductor 71, also a angel, returns to David Niven in the finale of STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH).

In this case there is no surprise whatever, and no frisson of the numinous. Both Conan, and the reader are well aware that eldritch and supernatural beasties throng the Hyborian Age. Conan himself has fought more eldritch monsters than he has bears or lions.

There is no mystery surrounding the girl’s identity: she tells him plainly to be who she is and what she intends, and her actions bear this out. The ambiguity needed to pull off this plot element as a twist or surprise is utterly absent. If anything, the soldier who scoffs at Conan’s report is the surprise: it would be like hearing a sailor stationed off the coast of Greenland scoffing at a report of an iceberg off the port bow.

Conan’s character is usually vividly realized and seen in action. Here, there is nothing about him worth note except, perhaps, for the gross ugliness of his motive. A randy gangster chasing a harlot through the cold streets of Chicago for hour after hour, urged onward by his sadistic lust  to beat then ravish her, would be equally compelling, or not. This seems like a mean caricature of Conan written by an unsympathetic imitator, not writ from the author’s own pen.

Typically, a Conan story goes out of its way to show how Conan’s easygoing barbaric tolerance and rough chivalry is superior to the exploitative and narrow-minded conniving of the corrupt and over-wealthy civilizations whose thrones he tramples under his sandaled feet. That is, in fact, the perennial theme of Conan, the one thing a Conan story cannot do without. But this story has the opposite. Basically, Conan’s barbaric nature makes him here beastly and despicable.

One cannot picture Solomon Kane nor Aragorn son of Arathorn nor Lord Spitfire of Mercury nor John Carter of Mars nor D’Artagnan nor Robin Hood , nor, indeed, any other swashbuckler nor swordsman of any story, present or past, chasing after a nude with rape on his mind. One would think the snow would have the same salutary effect as a cold shower.  And the fact that he knows it is an trap and that he runs into anyway just seems dimwitted.

Instead of lurid descriptions of exotic locales, we a treated to lengthy descriptions of ice fields and northern lights. This is not bad, but it is not Howard at his best.

There are two fight scenes in the vignette. Both are remarkable for how brief and boring Howard somehow makes them. Both consist of a one paragraph description of an exchange of two blows. Allow me to quote the second:

A frosty blade flashed before his eyes, blinding him with its brightness, and he gave back a terrible stroke that sheared through his foe’s thigh. With a groan the victim fell, and at the instant Conan was dashed into the snow, his left shoulder numb from the blow of the survivor, from which the Cimmerian’s mail had barely saved his life.

This action is so sparse and sketchily described that a reader is unlikely to realize one antagonist is dead until he sees in the next sentence the other antagonist is referred to as ‘the survivor.’ One normally does not think of a blow to the thigh as instantly fatal.

The description moreover is unclear as to who struck whom (since both are simply “he” and “him”) and one is momentarily puzzled as to whether ‘the victim’ and ‘the Cimmerian’ and ‘the survivor’ are three persons, or two, or one.

Not to worry, though, the survivor swings at the prone Conan, and misses, and is instantly decapitated at Conan’s first stroke.

Robert E. Howard has a well merited reputation for writing vivid, clear, and thrilling action sequences. But nothing here adds to that reputation.

The two beings Conan is fighting in this scene are supernatural giants, frost giants, in fact, Sons of Ymir. That he kills them both handily in two strokes, one of which (a beheading stroke) is taken from a prone position makes them seem far less a threat than, to use examples from stories reviewed hitherto, a mercenary warlord or a pirate chief. One gorilla-man, for example, gives him far more grief and danger than two frost giants attacking from both sides.

The speedy and abbreviated nature of the fight with two giants, the lack of any tactics or maneuvers, make what should seem an eerie and supernal threat instead seem like two greenhorn footpads in the nasty quarter of the city waiting to jump a drunk lured into an ally by a harlot, but then getting easily gutted by some veteran.

Giants are supposed to be more dangerous.

None of the elements present in the story are actually alien to Conan, or necessarily do him discredit. He is portrayed as bold, manly, and deadly. No one dare face him with a blade, not even Frost Giants. He chase after the girl is described as a strange madness, she is called a witch, so the implication is that he was out of his right wits, under an enchantment meant to lure him to his doom.

For true aficionados and completists only.