Tuesday, 11 February 2014

‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ – Robert E. Howard

Every so often, nothing else will do apart from a Conan story. After a morning spent juggling two small children (not literally, although that would have been easier in some respects…) and my usual fight with the morning commute (I lost, again…) the need to sit down and watch the iconic barbarian hit some stuff with his sword was stronger than ever. It’s not just the swordplay though is it? Howard is a master of fight scenes but his tales also prove, time and again, that he was a man who just instinctively grasped the art of storytelling; both in terms of the worlds that he created and the plots he set loose in them. I haven’t come across a story of Howards yet that I haven’t wanted to pursue to its conclusion and, even though I’ve read it before, this was definitely the case with ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’.

Conan is the last man standing in a fight between rival Vanir and Aesir warbands but is not without injury and his immediate future, amidst the icy peaks of the battlefield, is uncertain. A strange lady appears on the battlefield and Conan’s thoughts turn, somewhat predictably, to more carnal ends but is this mysterious lady running away from Conan… or towards something else entirely? Whatever Conan discovers, will he be in any shape to deal with it?

So, this is the story where Conan basically spends a lot of the pages chasing a woman, Atali, because he wants to have sex with her. Atali’s running is drawing Conan into a trap but it’s clear that sex isn’t on her agenda anyway. It is for Conan though and that makes for some uncomfortable reading; if he catches Atali then he will be raping her, there’s no two ways about it (and Howard makes it clear that, even in his weakened state, Conan could still do exactly that).
As you keep reading though, it becomes clear that Howard has no intention of Conan doing anything like that to Atali; there are more important things to be done here than satiating barbarian urges and Conan’s base desires swiftly become redundant in the face of what is to come. We still have to deal with the thought of Conan being like that but then a whole load of other stuff comes along and, all of a sudden, we’re not talking about dark deeds on a battlefield any longer… All of sudden, Howard widens the focus of the tale and Conan is forced to confront a whole new world beyond the one he is comfortable with. It’s all done very subtly, we know it’s coming but Conan has got his mind on other things and misses it entirely…

And then, BANG! Conan gets a rude awakening and is forced to fight for his life against two frost giants. It kind of serves him right (and hopefully serves as a lesson that he can’t have every girl he sets his eyes on… oh hang on, it’s Conan we’re talking about here) but the reader has to admire the way Conan just throws himself into battle against two giants twice the size of him (even if we know how it will turn out).
There are some forces though that even Conan can’t stop and one of those is the intervention of an angry God. Hopefully this will serve as a lesson that he can’t have every girl he sets his eye on… (Hang on, I’ve said this already haven’t I…) This is the moment where Howard brings two worlds clashing together and I loved the way it then segues into Conan regaining consciousness and doubting whether any of it had even happened. The best time then for Howard to pull out a killer final couple of sentences and make everything crystal clear after all that messing with our expectations. There is a lot going on in ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ then. Not only are two worlds built and displayed for the readers pleasure but we get to see Conan make sense of them in the only way that he can, with the point of his sword and an eye for the ladies. It might get him in a lot more trouble than he would want but it all made for just the right kind of diversion that I needed on the trip in this morning.


  1. "Every so often, nothing else will do apart from a Conan story."

    So true! I was first drawn in to Howard's stories by the Dark Horse comic adaptation of The Frost Giant's Daughter that came out several years ago. After reading that graphic novel I was hooked and had to find out what the actual Howard stories were like. I quickly devoured several volumes. What surprised me was exactly what you mentioned: Howard knew how to craft story. I think memories of seeing Arnie as Conan as a kid colored my perception of what these stories would be and I had this idea that they would be useless pulp drivel, not worth spending time with. Instead they were/are intelligent and well-crafted and present a much more developed character than I had ever expected.

  2. I switch and swap between Dark Horse adaptation and the real deal, I've always found it amazing how well Howard's work translates into comics although I'm not 100% about some of the Conan comics that weren't based on the REH tales (even though they're still a lot of fun).
    I tihnk 'The Frost Giant's Daughter' is becoming a firm favourite of mine;
    not only does it have everything, Howard fits it all into a few pages and makes it look easy. I wish I could write like that...