Feminism and the Women in Robert E. Howard’s Fiction — Part II

Part II: Inner Strength and Resolve

Many Howard fans consider his heroines such as Dark Agnes, Belit, Valeria and Red Sonya, with their swords and pistols, to be the only strong women in his fiction. But skill with weapons is not the only way for women to control the decisions and issues that shape their lives. Howard also created women with great inner strength and resolve. When these women were not able to right a wrong personally, they enlisted the strength of others.

Among those who showed this inner strength was the Devi Yasmina. In “The People of the Black Circle,” she seeks to coerce Conan to do her bidding when the death of her brother, the ruler of Vendhya, is brought about by the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha. The Devi is not strong enough to avenge her brother’s death by herself and devises a plan to get Conan’s help. She imprisons seven of his men intending to bargain their lives and freedom for the death of the sorcerers. Her plan backfires when Conan abducts her. As she and Conan flee from her soldiers, her life as the Devi of Vendhya is left behind. Yasmina is carried “on the saddle-bow” of a man she considers to be a hill chief, “like a common wench.” Although shamed and humiliated by this rough treatment, she remains adaptable. When she changes her tattered silk skirt for the garb of the hill people, Yasmina undergoes a further transformation:

It was indeed as if the changing of her garments had wrought a change in her personality. The feelings and sensations she had suppressed rose to domination in her now, as if the queenly robes she had cast off had been material shackles and inhibitions.

Now all the accoutrements of her royal and almost divine status as the Devi are gone. Conan comments when he sees her: “You were a goddess–now you are real.”

Ultimately Yasmina is captured by the Master of Yimsha, a sorcerer who decides to keep her for his own slave. Outraged, Yasmina says she will never yield, but the Master tells her that she will:

“Fear and pain shall teach you. I will lash you with horror and agony to the last quivering ounce of your endurance, until you become as melted wax to be bent and molded in my hands as I desire. You shall know such discipline as no mortal woman ever knew until my slightest command is to you as unalterable as the will of the gods. And first, to humble your pride, you shall travel back through the lost ages and view all the shapes that have been you.”

In one of the most unique forms of torture in Howard’s stories, Yasmina is transported back through time to her own beginning:

There was a sensation of all sanity and stability crumbling and vanishing. She was a quivering atom of sentiency driven through a black, roaring, icy void by a thundering wind that threatened to extinguish her feeble flicker of animate life like a candle blown out in a storm. Back beyond the dimmest dawns of Time she crouched shuddering in primordial jungles, hunted by slavering beasts of prey…She saw walled cities burst into flame, and fled screaming before the slayers. She reeled naked and bleeding over burning sands, dragged at the slaver’s stirrup, and she knew the grip of hot, fierce hands on her writhing flesh, the shame and agony of brutal lust. She screamed under the bite of the lash and moaned on the rack, mad with terror she fought against the hands that forced her head inexorably down on the bloody block. Her own consciousness was not lost in the throes of reincarnation…Life merged into life in flying chaos, each with its burden of woe and shame and agony, until she dimly heard her own voice screaming unbearably, like one long-drawn cry of suffering echoing down the ages.

Later, Yasmina tells Conan of her experience:

“I met the Master,” she whispered, clinging to him and shuddering. “He worked his spells on me to break my will. The most awful was a moldering corpse which seized me in his arms – I fainted then and lay as one dead.”

Although she fainted, Yasmina’s will was not broken. After the destruction of the Master, Conan leaves Mount Yimsha with Yasmina and her inner strength is tested once again when Conan declares he will keep her for himself. The Devi protests, saying that she cannot stay with him. When Conan finds his men are trapped and Yasmina’s army is approaching, he has to choose between keeping her or saving his men. The Devi points out he can save his men by letting her go. When he agrees, she and Conan go toward their own men and their combined armies overcome their mutual enemy. After the battle they meet as equals. When she laughs and gathers her reins, “Conan’s eyes shine with fierce appreciation and admiration and he steps back to allow her to pass, indicating that her road was clear before her.”

For modern feminists, empowerment means taking control over the decisions and issues that shape their lives. However, in most worlds, whether fictional or real, slaves have little control over anything. Howard’s fiction is an exception. In his stories, slavery is not always equated with weakness or helplessness. Nor does it mean once a slave, always a slave. In The Hour of the Dragon, Conan is rendered helpless by a three-thousand year old magician who has been reanimated. Zenobia, who is the slave of Tarascus, Conan’s enemy, rescues Conan from his underground dungeon. Drugging the bodyguards, Zenobia hands Conan the keys to his manacles:

“I am only a girl of the king’s seraglio,” she said, with a certain proud humility. “He has never glanced at me, and probably never will. I am less than one of the dogs that gnaw the bones in his banquet hall. But I am no painted toy, I am of flesh and blood. I breathe, hate, fear, rejoice and love. And I have loved you, King Conan, ever since I saw you riding at the head of your knights…My heart tugged at its strings to leap from my bosom and fall in the dust of the street under your horse’s hoofs.”

Zenobia’s inner strength contrasts sharply with her slave status in society. She was not a weak or helpless person. At great peril to her own life, she leads Conan out of the castle and provides him with a formidable knife as well as a fast, strong horse for his escape. As he promised her, Conan returns to defeat the eons-old magician and the armies of his foes. He also captures Tarascus. When Tarascus asks what ransom he must pay for his person, Conan responds, “There is a girl in your seraglio named Zenobia…She shall be your ransom and naught else…She was a slave in Nemedia, but I will make her queen of Aquilonia!” As a result, Zenobia, whose heart “tugged at its strings” at the sight of King Conan, becomes his queen.

Also strong in Howard’s fiction were evil women like Salome in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salome bears the witch mark of the red half-moon between her breasts. Left to die in the desert as a child because of this mark, she becomes a vicious, sadistic witch. In revenge, Salome imprisons, cruelly tortures, and usurps the throne her twin sister.

In a reign of debauchery and terror, Salome almost destroys her sister’s kingdom. While she has the inner resolve to seize the throne of her twin, she cannot hold it. Once the impersonation is discovered, not even her witch’s wiles that can summon forth monsters, can save her:

Valerius whirled on his toes, quick and fierce as a jungle-cat, glaring about for Salome. She must have exhausted her fire-dust in the prison. She was bending over Taramis, grasping her sister’s black locks in one hand, in the other lifting a dagger. Then with a fierce cry Valerius’s sword was sheathed in her breast with such fury that the point sprang out between her shoulders. With an awful shriek the witch sank down, writhing in convulsions, grasping at the naked blade as it was withdrawn, smoking and dripping. Her eyes were inhuman; with a more than human vitality she clung to the life that ebbed through the wound that split the crimson crescent on her ivory bosom. She groveled on the floor, clawing and biting at the naked stones in her agony.

While none of these women had the personal skill to put sword or pistol to effective use, each of them, through their strength and resolve, used whatever means available to achieve her purpose. For Yasmina, this purpose meant enlisting Conan’s help in the destruction and death of the sorcerers who brought about her brother’s death; Zenobia planned and bravely rescued Conan and subsequently became Queen of Aquilonia; and Salome’s dark inner strength allowed her to use her witch’s wiles to sit briefly on her sister’s throne.

Part I / Part III