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

Part I: The Empowered Woman

The October 1873 issue of Brownson’s Quarterly Review printed “The Woman in Question.” Written by Brownson himself, it set forth the role of women in society:

We do not believe women, unless we acknowledge individual exceptions, are fit to have their own head. The most degraded of the savage tribes are those in which women rule, and descent is reckoned from a mother instead of a father. Revelation asserts, and universal experience proves that man is the head of women and that the woman is for the man, not the man for the woman; and his greatest error, as well as the primal curse of society is that he abdicates his headship and allows himself to be governed, we might say, deprived of his reason, by woman, herself seduced by the serpent, that man fell, and brought sin and all our woe into the world…She has all the qualities that fit her to be a help-mate of man, to be the mother of his children, to be their nurse, their early instructress, their guardian, their life-long friend; to be his companion, his comforter, his consoler in sorrow, his friend, in trouble, his ministering angel in sickness; but as an independent existence, free to follow her own fancies and vague longings, her own ambition and natural love of power, without masculine direction or control, she is out of her element, and a social anomaly, sometimes a hideous monster. This is no excuse for men, but it proves that women need a head and the restraint of father, husband or priest of God.

Although the above quote was written in 1873, it reflects an age old, world-wide attitude toward women.

Presumably his “individual exceptions” included Cleopatra of Egypt, who fought by the side of Mark Antony on the battlefield, and Queen Boudicca of Great Britain, who led her troops against the Roman conquerors and women such as Joan of Arc. Traditionally, though most women lived under the rule of their husband, father, brother or other male relative.

While the women in Howard’s real world had the vote and could own property, the attitude that women were inferior to men still prevailed throughout most of the world during his lifetime. Robert E. Howard’s fictional world was an exception. In it he created women who fought bravely, skillfully and fearlessly beside men as well as against them. In fact, each of Howard’s strong women lived the life she chose for herself and when necessary, she fought to maintain that way of living. Long before the feminist definition of empowerment, Howard’s heroines took control over the decisions and issues that shaped their lives. Among these women was Agnes de Chastillon, perhaps better known to Howard fans as Dark Agnes de la Fere. In his story, “Sword Woman,” Agnes is forced to accept a vile man as a husband. As they stand at the altar, she drives a knife deep into the heart of her betrothed.  As she flees from her raging father and her village, Dark Agnes also escapes the indignities and the restrictions placed upon women in medieval times. When she throws away her bloodstained wedding dress, she carves out a life of adventure for herself as she dons men’s garb and becomes a deadly and feared sword fighter.

Contrast Brownson’s remark, “As long as woman remains in her proper sphere as a dedicated help-meet and mother, she approaches the angelic…” to that of Dark Agnes’ who in the same story eloquently expresses her contempt for any effort to force her to live as medieval societies expected:

“Ever the man in men!” I said between my teeth. “Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk and spin and sew and bake and bear children, not look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord and master!  Bah! I spit on you all!  There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and before I die, I’ll prove it to the world. Women!  Cows!  Slaves! Whimpering, cringing serfs, crouching to blows, revenging themselves by taking their own lives, as my sister urged me to do. Ha! You deny me a place among men? By God, I’ll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress.

Another example of female empowerment occurs in Howard’s pirate tale “Queen of the Black Coast.”  Belit, the pirate queen, like Dark Agnes, also lived as she pleased according to her own code.  Aboard her ship, Tigress, she plundered and raided native villages and hers was a name that was feared even before her first meeting with Conan.  Unlike Dark Agnes, Belit had no objection to taking a lover. After, she performs a sensuous mating dance for him, shechooses Conan to be her mate and king.  And, it was Belit who directed their raids and Conan’s strong arm that carried out her ideas.

In another pirate tale from Howard’s fictional world comes Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, who is introduced in “Red Nails,” one of Robert E. Howard’s best and most definitive tales about decaying civilizations.  Readers are told Valeria’s “deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather.” Her reputation was such that “no living man could disarm her with his bare hands.”  Even Conan respects her skill with a sword.

Other than a physical description of her beauty and her fighting skills, Valeria seems to be one of Howard’s most undefined heroines. While we are told she dresses, lives and fights like a man, she is far more complex than that. Valeria is not defined by what motivates her, so much as by her approach to life. Her story begins when she is fleeing the Stygian authorities for killing one of their officers whose “crime” against her is left unnamed. When she meets Conan,  he tells her she has to expect such things if she will “live in the war camps of men.” Valeria stamps her booted foot and swears, “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” It is the only time in the story she complains. Yet, as her journey with Conan progresses, there is a dragon to fight and treachery to battle within the ancient walled city they enter. Valeria is drugged, almost raped and comes very close to being sacrificed in a ritual intended to replenish the beauty of Tascela the princess of, Tecuhltli, who is so old she does not remember her youth.  In the end it is Valeria who triumphs when she slays Tascela. Most notable is that throughout the story, Valeria seems to take in her stride whatever the Fates hand her and plays it out to her own advantage. Like Conan who also is able to turn events to his advantage, she is skillful, strong and capable of great ruthlessness.

In an earlier and less known tale, “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom,” comes another Howard heroine, Helen Tavrel. Like Valeria, she belongs to the Red Brotherhood and also has a falling out with one of the other pirate members. Both women are very skilled with a sword.  Both dress and fight like a man and are renowned for their ruthlessness. Helen could be a younger, more innocent and vulnerable version of Valeria:

I know I am a monster in the sight of men; there is blood on my hands.  I’ve looted and cursed and killed and diced and drunk, till my very heart is calloused.  My only consolation, the only thing to keep me from feeling utterly damned is the fact that I have remained as virtuous as any girl.  And now men believe me otherwise.

However, she is different from Valeria in her view of herself.  Ironically her lament sounds more like Brownstone’s use of his own word “monster.”  None of REH’s later heroines uses that word to describe herself.

When she is asked for her hand in marriage, her response is less than enthusiastic: “I am far too young to marry yet and I have not yet seen all the world I wish to. Remember I am still Helen Tavrel.” Like all strong women, she knows who she is.

Even more strongly identified with empowerment is Sonya of Rogatino, known as Red Sonya, who is introduced in “The Shadow of the Vulture.”  She has become one of Howard’s most enduring and popular heroines.  Again like other strong women of Howard’s creation, she dresses, drinks, and fights like a man.  She is a heroine who is able to see what must be done and act when the men around her seem unable to do so.  She is equally skilled with pistols, a deadly sword and even cannons, when necessary:

A terrific detonation drowned her words and a swirl of smoke blinded every one on the turret, as the terrific recoil of the overcharged cannon knocked the firer flat on her back. She sprang up like a spring rebounding and rushed to the embrasure, peering eagerly through the smoke, which clearing, showed the ruin of the gun crew. The huge ball, bigger than a man’s head, had smashed full into the group clustered about the saker, and now they lay on the torn ground, their skulls blasted by the impact or their bodies mangled by the flying iron splinters from their shattered gun. A cheer went up from the towers and the woman called Red Sonya yelled with sincere joy and did the steps of a Cossack dance.

Like Red Sonya, most of the women in Howard’s fiction had the courage to live life as they wanted. They not only took and held on to what society denied them, they damned anyone who objected.

It’s true that Dark Agnes, Belit, Valeria and Red Sonya are fictional characters that only exist in Howard’s prose. How does this compare with reality. Does the strong female-warrior archetype exist outside the stories written by Howard? This question is answered by science fiction author and screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, in her introduction to The Sword Woman:

Queen Boudicca led her armies to battle. The white armed German women fought alongside their men and frightened the wits out of the Roman legionnaires. The Vikings had their shield-maidens. And even after the advent of Christianity, exceptional women continued to break out of the trap. They have served honorably as soldiers in many wars, less honorably as pirates and freebooters, but they were all good women of their hands with sword and pistol. The women who helped to open up the far places of the world were not made of custard. They could shoot a rifle and hit what they aimed at, they could withstand heat and cold, hunger, thirst and the ever-present threat of death quite as well as their husbands.

Strong, empowered women did exist and still do and they apologize to no one for it. Today, they fight in foreign countries and in their homelands. These heroines, pioneers in many fields and endeavors, come in many forms and shapes. Among them are the feminists who endured great sacrifice, humiliation and hardship to secure for all women in their countries basic rights such as the right to vote, to be educated, to own property; and to fight in the military. Most of all they secured the right for each woman to think for herself and plan her own destiny.

Part II / Part III