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

 Part III: A Different Kind of Strength

 We’ve seen what strong women can accomplish in both Howard’s fiction and in the modern world. But, what of those women who because of the circumstances of their lives, do not have any control over their life or safety—those who are not “born to rule” and are unable to fight. Howard described the disenfranchised woman in his Untitled poem, “A cringing woman’s lot is hard:”

Let cringing woman kneel and fawn—
Her speech and actions guard,
And naked, writhe and tremble on
The knees of her harsh lord.

In his fiction there is compassion for those “cringing” women who live in a world where there are they have no rights and who do not have the strength to fight for them. The trademarks of the empowered Howard heroines are swords and pistols and a strong will. But to the disenfranchised woman he gave a special kind of weapon: the strength to survive.

This concept of survival mirrors the viecrovwpoint of the Third Wave feminists who see themselves not as victims, but as survivors. Howard’s mirror reflects the strength of the women who endure incredible hardships and horrors and yet manage to survive.

In one of his most harrowing tales, “The Stones of Destiny,” the unnamed narrator, a young Russian emigre to the United States, is sold into slavery to a wealthy ranch owner deep inside the Mexican border. During the years of her captivity, she is repeatedly beaten and endures every kind of abuse:

That first whipping was a scarlet purgatory which other lashings equaled but never excelled. I fainted before it was over and how long he flayed my unconscious form, I do not know…In terrible fear of another lashing, reeling, half able to stand, I went to him, half insane from shame, yet overpowered with cringing fear—I came to him…my innocence filled him with a beastly delight and he never tired of inventing ways to outrage my modesty and decency. Sometimes when intoxicated upon mescal, he would enter my room at night and torture me in various ingenious ways until sometimes his brutality would actually render me unconscious.

In spite of the humiliation and degradation he has inflicted on her, her attacker knows she hasn’t been “tamed.” When he tells her this, she is confused. “I could not see how a woman could be more ‘tamed.’ I hastened to comply with his every wish. I cringed and fawned on him to avoid punishment and after cruel whippings I crawled to him and kissed his hands.” Her abuser replies, “You are pliant, yielding—and the more a thing gives, the more difficult it is to break. You are my slave now but if you should escape tonight, in a few months none could ever tell that you had been used as I have used you.”

She manages to live through this punishment and torture for three years until a neighboring rancher seeking revenge on her captor, offers to help her escape. Not knowing whether it is a trap or a test to see if she will try to escape again and even knowing she could be killed, she resolves to meet her rescuer. He does lead her to the border. Once she is across the Rio Grande and back into the United States, she celebrates her freedom:

I could hardly believe I was free. I laughed, I sang, I waved my arms. Any one seeing me would have thought me insane. Free! After three years, three centuries! Three eternities! Ah, no one can appreciate that freedom is the greatest of all blessings unless one has been like myself, a slave.

And, survival itself also carries a price. It means living with the memories of her three-year nightmare. When she returns to her aunt’s home in New Orleans, she knows she is not the same person:

Three years of shame and torture since I had left New Orleans, young, pure, vibrant for life and love, a child of seventeen; I returned a woman of twenty, and far older in experience, violated, defiled, broken like a flower upon the stones of Destiny.

The narrator in “Stones of Destiny” is a young woman of seventeen when she is lured away from her aunt’s home by the false promises of a man she believes loves her. In the Solomon Kane adventure, “Moon of Skulls,” Marylin, is a small child, little more than a baby, when she is kidnapped from her home by a cousin who fears she will inherit the estates he covets. He sells her to a Barbary pirate who in turn sells her to a merchant out of Stamboul. The merchant’s ship is set upon by a Portuguese slaver and sunk. Marylin becomes the captive of the slaver. Again, she is saved when the slave ship is ambushed on the African West Coast. This time she is taken inland as a part of a tribute.

After years of searching on a trail that had many times gone cold, Solomon Kane, who knew Marylin as a child, eventually finds her in the power of Nakari of Negari, a demon queen of a demon city, whose monstrous lust for blood had set half a continent shivering. Marylin tells Kane that all her earlier captors sought to either sell her or ransom her back to her family; so she was not harmed by them. But, it was different in Negari. He asks her if they misused her in the castle:

Marylin lay back on the couch and the blood drained slowly from her already pallid features until she was deathly white. Her response “Ask me not. There are deeds better hidden in the darkness of night and forgetfulness. There are sights which blast the eyes and leave their burning mark forever on the brain. The walls of ancient cities, recked not of by men, have looked upon scenes not to be spoken of, even in whispers.”

Subsequently, Kane refuses Nakari’s offer to make him king of Negari. In a passionate fury, she tells him Marylin “shall be punished as I have punished her before – hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons.” Later, another captive, who is the last descendent son of Atlantis, tells Kane that even worse horrors were endured by Marylin:

She has danced with the Star-maidens at Nakari’s command, and has looked on the bloody and terrible rites of the Black Temple. She has lived for years among a people with whom blood is cheaper than water, who delight in slaughter and foul torture, and such sights as she has looked upon would blast the eyes and wither the flesh of strong men. She has seen the victims of Nakura die amid horrid torments, and the sight is burned for ever in the brain of the beholder.

Like the young Russian emigre in “The Stones of Destiny,” Marylin survives by being compliant. After Kane kills Nakari and rescues Marylin from the castle, he sees her smile for the first time and he sighs with relief. Already the ghosts were fading from her haunted eyes and he looks forward to the day when her horrible experiences should be as a “dimming dream.”

And survival in Howard’s fiction comes in many forms, including the acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“The Pool of the Black One,” begins with a description of Sancha, who is a willing member of the pirate crew aboard the Wastrel, under the command of Captain Zaporavo:

Sancha, once of Kordava, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortable on the ermine-fringed silk spread on the carack’s poop-deck. That the crew watched her with burning interest from waist and forecastle she was lazily aware, just as she was also aware that her short silk kirtle veiled little of her voluptuous contours from their eager eyes.

 While Sancha is lying on the deck, Conan, swimming from a leaky boat, climbs aboard the ship. As she eyes him with interest, Howard describes her background:

No great length of time lay between her and the palaces of Kordava, but it was as if a world of change separated her from the life she had lived before Zaporavo tore her screaming from the flaming caravel his wolves had plundered. She, who had been the spoiled and petted daughter of the Duke of Kordava, learned what it was to be a buccaneer’s plaything, and because she was supple enough to bend without breaking, she lived where other women had died, and because she was young and vibrant with life, she came to find pleasure in the existence.

Sancha is resilient and she has adapted to her new life. But, her existence on the ship is not all sun-bathing on ermine-fringed silk spreads. She is Captain Zaporavo’s captive, literally a slave without rights, and inside him exists a “lurking devil” that frequently hurts her without cause.

The young Russian emigre, Marylin and Sancha lived through the physical, mental and emotional abuse inflicted on them during their captivity and each managed to survive in her own way. And, while their stories are fictional, the strength to survive is not limited to fiction. The names and some of the circumstances change but the stories of the young Russian emigre and Sancha appear on the front pages of modern world newspapers far too frequently. Headlines today give examples of real life women and children who survive similar atrocities and live. One of these incredible tales of survival is that of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was found alive eighteen years after she was kidnapped at age eleven. During this time, she bore two daughters by her kidnapper, one when she was fourteen and the other three years later.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart is another young girl who showed strength and resilience. She was snatched from her bedroom and, at knifepoint, was told that if she screamed she would be killed. Nine months later she was found alive. At the trial of her kidnapper, Smart testified to being threatened, bound, and raped daily while she was held captive.

Not only did Jaycee Lee and Elizabeth survive their ordeals, they also continue to heal and to thrive; they are learning not to be defeated by what happened. Today, survivor Elizabeth Smart speaks of focusing on a positive future as her approach to healing. At a conference in California, the twenty-one-year old Smart tells of “overcoming the unimaginable” by not letting what happened to her “disable her from doing what she wants to do” with her life.

In Howard’s fiction, there is also healing. His stories tell of resilience and bending without breaking as a key to survival. Sancha and the young Russian emigre, as well as many other captives, both real and fictional, found a way to survive and to come to terms with the kidnapper/rapist on whom their lives depended. The young Russian woman was, in her own words, “violated, defiled, and broken like a flower.” But more than that, she and other disenfranchised women in Howard’s fiction showed more than survival skills: they also displayed the strength to heal and to thrive. Again in the words of the young Russian woman four years later, “My slavery no longer haunts my dreams, and the whole seems as a dim nightmare.” Solomon Kane sees Marylin’s healing as soon as she smiles with the “quick eagerness of a normal young girl.” He knows in time the ghosts will fade. And finally, paraphrasing Howard’s statement in regard to Sancha, “And because she was young and vibrant with life, she came to find pleasure in existence” gives some insight into the healing process itself.

The women in Howard’s fiction reflect those in the modern world. Both contain strong, empowered women who make decisions on issues that affect their lives. There are also the disenfranchised ones who use a different kind of strength, one that enables them to survive in a world where they are powerless to control any of the “unimaginable” and unthinkable events that happen to them. The strength to live through the pain and torture of abuse makes them, according to the Third Wave feminists, survivors, not victims.

Not all modern women and feminists adhere to the Third Wave beliefs regarding self-determination and survival. But, no matter what their beliefs, perhaps, they, as well as Howard’s fictional women, can agree that Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism, said it best: “[Feminists are] just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.”

Part I / Part II