The Frost King, The Frost-Giant, and Their Daughters

It’s been bitterly cold here on the South Plains of Texas for much of the last week.  Temperatures were near record lows for several days.  Just when it looked like things were going to warm up again, we got more snow Sunday.  And that made me think of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, which made me think of “The Frost King’s Daughter”.  And I knew what the next post on this blog would be.

The tale (or tales, if you prefer) concerns the lone survivor of a battle in the frozen north.  Having just killed the only member of the opposing army left standing, he sees a beautiful young woman wearing only a gossamer veil walking among the dead.  She taunts him with her body, and he pursues hers.  Of course, this is a trap.  After a time, she calls her brothers forth, two ice giants, to kill the man.  Instead, he defeats them, captures the girl, and is about to ravish her when she calls on her father, Ymir.  The girls is transported into the sky in a blaze of blinding light that leaves the hero unconscious.  He is awakened by a band of his allies who were delayed by an ambush.  After he tells his story, one of the older men in the group tells the warrior he saw Ymir’s daughter Atali, who haunts battlefields and lures survivors to their deaths so that she might present their hearts to her father.  The old man claims to have seen her as a youth when he was too wounded to follow her.  Everyone thinks the old man had his brains addled by a sword stroke until the hero unclenches his fist to find a veil.

This pair of stories are essentially the same, only the names have changed.  “The Frost King’s Daughter” concerns Amra of Akbitana, while the “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is an early Conan story that was rejected by Farnsworth Wright (more on that later) and wasn’t published until the August 1953 issue of Fantasy Fiction.  Unfortunately, that version was rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp.  It wasn’t until 1976 that Howard’s version saw print in Donald M. Grant’s Rogues in the House.  This was a hardback collectible volume, not a mass market edition.  “The Frost King’s Daughter”, on the other hand, was published in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan.  You probably couldn’t afford an original copy of that little fan publication, provided you could find one.  Fortunately, the entire run has been reprinted in facsimile (details on how to order are here.)

The first mass market publication of Howard’s original version of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” wasn’t available until 1989, when both stories were printed side-by-side in Karl Edward Wagner’s Echoes of Valor II.  If you aren’t familiar with the series, it ran to three volumes (as far as I know; if there was a fourth I missed it).  Wagner, a fan and writer of sword and sorcery who deserves to be better remembered, compiled collections of rare heroic fiction.  While many of the stories Wagner selected have been reprinted in recent years, especially the Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore pieces, there are still some tales that haven’t seen the light of day since and make the volumes worth seeking out.

In his introduction, Wagner states that Howard wrote “The Frost King’s Daughter” first and that the Conan version, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was the rewrite.  How he knows this to be true, Wagner doesn’t exactly say.  He supports his case by saying that “The Phoenix on the Sword” was a rewrite of the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule” (documentably true), and that “Frost-Giant” was a rewrite of “Frost King”.  We know Howard would recycle stories if they didn’t sell, at times changing the names of major characters, and we also know that sometimes the details of his stories would change from one draft to the next.  Furthermore, there is evidence that Howard was still developing the character of Conan as well as the Hyborian Age for the first several Conan stories.  Patrice Louinet, in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” (The Coming of Conan), does a thorough job of showing this development.

And here we encounter a small problem.  Louinet suggests that Howard changed the title of the story and Conan’s name to Amra when he sent the story to The Fantasy Fan.  His evidence seems to be the publication date of “Frost King” as well as an unreferenced letter from Howard to Charles D. Hornig, editor of The Fantasy Fan.  Patrice Louinet is one of the leaders in the field of contemporary Howard scholarship.  Wagner was one of the foremost authorities of his day.  So who is correct?  Was “Frost King” the rewrite, or was “Frost-Giant”?

As far as their respective texts are concerned the stories are almost identical.  I compared them, and there was only one significant deviation I found.  This one:

“Far have I wandered, from Zingara to the Sea of Vilayet, in Stygia and Kush and the country of the Hyrkanians; but a woman like you I have never seen.”

So who do you think said this, Conan or Amra?  Based on the place names, which are the settings of other Conan stories, you would probably think Conan, right?

Well, you would be wrong.  Amra said this.  In the Conan version of the story (Frost-Giant), the wording is “Far have I wandered, but a woman like you I have never seen.”  Conan’s wanderings and the Hyborian geography are never mentioned.  The only reason that I can think of for Howard to add place names from the Conan stories to a rewrite of a Conan story in which he changes the name and nationality of the viewpoint character is to clue readers in that Amra is really Conan.  And since it had been established by the time “Gods of the North” AKA “The Frost King’s Daughter” was published in The Fantasy Fan that Amra was one of the names Conan was known by, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this was Howard’s motivation.  But why would he do this?  The only explanation I can come up with was that because Conan was a Weird Tales character, either Howard had an agreement with Farnsworth Wright not to try to sell a Conan story to another market (I’m unaware of any such agreement) or he felt that do sell a Conan story to another market would, in a sense, be dishonorable.  It was standard practice in the pulp days for an author’s character(s) to only appear in one magazine.Howard may have been abiding by that practice.

On the other hand, it could be that “Frost-Giant” is the rewrite.  The passage quoted above, the one with the place names, tends to disrupt the flow of the story.  Certainly, its prose is more purple than the same passage without the travelogue.  It could very well be, since as far as I know the exact composition date of either version of the story is unknown, that Howard was already working out the geography of the Hyborian kingdoms and simply hadn’t settled on a final name and nationality of his principle character.  I will be the first to admit that the evidence isn’t conclusive either way, but this is the interpretation I favor.  I’m sure if there’s information I’ve overlooked, Howard fandom will let me know about it.  Quickly.

There’s one other thing I want to address.  Wagner says Wright rejected “Frost-Giant” because it was too racy.  Considering the sexual imagery in some of C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories (another topic for another day), not to mention the sex implicit in some of the other Conan tales, I’m not sure I buy this line.  If Wright was that uptight, why did he publish some of those Margaret Brundage covers?  (I know, I know, racy covers on pulps had nothing to do with the contents.)  Wagner says Wright’s view of Conan was of “a noble barbarian out to perform deeds of chivalrous heroism.”  Again, Wagner doesn’t provide details to back this position up.  In fact, Wright’s rejection of the story, which Wagner quotes, simply says Wright didn’t care for the story and gives no reasons as to why he didn’t care for it.  The general consensus I’ve heard for years on this point was that Wright didn’t like the hero attempting to commit rape.

But is this what Conan/Amra really does?  In the interest of stirring up trouble taking a deeper interpretation of the story, let’s look closely at what happens, shall we?  Atali taunts Conan.  “Spreading her arms wide, she swayed before him, her golden head lolling sensuously, her scintillant eyes half shadowed beneath their long silken lashes.  ‘Am I not beautiful, oh man?’ ”  Sounds to me she’s trying to entice him to pursue her.  This is born out at the end of the story, when the old man Gorm tells Conan Atali lures men to their deaths.  Gorm also describes her as beautiful and naked.  Atali continues to taunt Conan, essentially daring him to follow her.  Conan’s reaction is described as a madness that sweeps away his pain and fatigue.  Howard makes the pursuit sound as though Conan were possessed.

Rather than trying to commit rape, I read the story as Conan being put under a spell of desire by Atali.  Only Conan is stronger than she bargains for.  When he kills her brothers, she realizes she can’t control him nor reverse the spell.  Otherwise, why would she have to call on Ymir for help?  Am I saying Atali was asking for it?  You bet.  Even a casual reading of the story would tend to show that was the case.  What I’m NOT saying is that every (or even any) attempted rape victim was asking for it, so please don’t read that into my remarks.  I don’t consider what Conan/Amra does here to be attempted rape because I don’t interpret his actions as being of his own free will.  This is a fictional story, a fantasy, in which an evil woman’s spell goes wrong and she can’t control the desires she has deliberately cultivated in a man, with the outcome being other than what she intended.  I don’t for a minute think that’s how the real world works, and in spite of some of Howard’s detractors, I don’t think Bob meant that here either.  I think he was telling an entertaining story in the best way he could with a character whose personality he was still developing and exploring.  And in that, he succeeded.

So, to sum up.  I think “Frost-Giant” is probably a rewrite of “Frost King”, and furthermore Conan has gotten a bad rap these many years, accused by some critics of attempting a crime of his own free will when in truth he had no choice about.  Those are my thoughts on this cold winter night.

6 thoughts on “The Frost King, The Frost-Giant, and Their Daughters

  1. David J. West

    I agree with your consensus. The blanket “rape” tag never sat right with me either and I’m glad you elaborated on it.

    When I first read the tale in dogeared (and DeCamp marred) copy of Conan of Cimmeria, I thought it was excellent and never understood others complaints against it. I wondered why Wright rejected it-it’s an absolute classic.

    Reply
  2. Ironmammoth

    As most consider Frost Giant to be a story set early in the career of Conan, it would seem logical to assume that Howard removed that line from the Conan version as it would suggest he had many adventures before encountering Atali.

    To my mind that would suggest the Conan version followed The Amra version.

    Just my thoughts and I am no Howard scholar…

    Reply
  3. Keith

    David – I agree. It’s a classic and one of my favorite Conan stories. Short, intense, with setting and mood you can almost feel at times.

    Ironmammoth – You make an excellent point. I wondered about where the story fell in Conan’s personal timeline while I was writing the post (and for the very reason you mention), but I didn’t follow through on the thought. I’m glad you did. You strengthened my case that “Frost-Giant” is a rewrite of “Frost King”.

    Reply
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  5. deuce

    I’m glad you independently arrived at the “not a rape; it was a badger game” conclusion. The discussion had been going around that a lot at the old conan.com forum in 2006-2007.

    Patrice likes to talk about the parallels with Atalanta legend, but this yarn can also be looked at as REH’s inversion of “Valkyries as Choosers of the Slain”. Instead of spiriting away DEAD heroes from a battlefield to go party with Odin, Atali and her sisters — REH stated there were more than one in “The Garden of Fear” — lure survivors of battles to be the main course for All-Father Ymir.

    Just read Atali’s “replies” to Conan. She’s not really interacting. More like she’s reading from a script.

    Reply
    1. Keith West Post author

      I’ve never made the Valkyrie connection before. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll definitely keep it in mind the next time I read the story.

      I’ve never bought the Conan as rapist in this story. It just doesn’t fit his character. And Atali is definitely leading him on.

      Reply

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