Today we’re looking at some of the stories set in the frigid Hyborian north, the lands of Asgard, Vanaheim, and Hyperborea. We’re doing this because Conan the Bold and Conan of Venarium turned out to be mostly compatible with each other timeline-wise, as Conan the Bold doesn’t actually contradict the idea that Conan fought at Venarium, just that he permanently departed Cimmeria immediately afterwards. In this vision of the Conan timeline, Conan’s northern adventures detailed in the Frost Giant’s Daughter, the Legions of the Dead, and the Thing in the Crypt would represent an excursion out of Cimmeria taken between the ages of 14, when Conan fought at Venarium, and 17, when he hunted Taharka with Kalya the Aquilonian. This is also a good chance to snap up some short stories to break up the deluge of novels that form Conan origin stories. For some reason, nobody seems to think that Conan’s departure of Cimmeria could be covered in less than a hundred pages.
While we’re on the subject of the timeline, it’s worth bringing up one of its flaws: The 1980s book were written before the Marek and Rippke chronologies, and many books were written under the assumption of teleporting Conan. For example, Conan the Valorous is a story in which Conan criss-crosses Hyboria to thwart a sorcerer’s plot against Cimmeria, and ultimately ends up with him heading into Vanaheim to link up with the placement of the Frost Giant’s Daughter in the timeline. Short stories set immediately after the Frost Giant’s Daughter directly reference stories set in Turan, halfway across the continent to the east. Basically, while the placement of the Frost Giant’s Daughter early in the timeline easily makes the most sense when looking at just the Robert E. Howard works, the Tor books tend to follow timelines that paid less attention to geography and assume that Conan spends a lot of time making a beeline for his next adventure and apparently having no interesting adventures for weeks or months of travel across the breadth of Hyboria along the way. Some Tor stories fill in these gaps in Conan’s travels (like Conan the Valorous bringing Conan out of the lands between Aquilonia and Stygia, where his early career is largely set, and back up to the far north for the Frost Giant’s Daughter), and others teleport him around even more.
Is there any way to make a timeline of Conan’s complete adventures work without ignoring large sections of the stories – not just a stray chapter in a book that was completely aimless anyway, like Conan of Venarium, but references to previous character interactions that actually drive Conan’s motivations, and thus move out of the domain of minor retcons and into full-on reworking of the stories to fit a unified saga? We’re gonna find out eventually. Right now, let’s go clobber some frost giants.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter
We’re finally looking at a Robert E. Howard story, and one of the first Conan stories ever written. The opening is cold in more ways than one, with Conan introduced standing across from a final enemy in a corpse-strewn battlefield:
Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face.
Both were tall men, built like tigers. Their shields were gone, their corselets battered and dinted. Blood dried on their mail; their swords were stained red. Their horned helmets showed the marks of fierce strokes. One was beardless and black-maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.
I find it noteworthy that despite how married the Tor books Conan was to the fur diaper look, here in the second Conan story ever published the dude is already wearing a full corslet of chainmail. Granted, this is partly because it’s super cold up here, but it’s pretty cold in Cimmeria, too. I’d halfway expect an 80s-era Conan story set in Asgard to depict Conan wearing a loincloth because jackets are for soft, civilized people.
After making quick work of his final foe, Conan is confronted by the titular frost giant’s daughter:
A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly. He looked up; there was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not place or define – an unfamiliar tinge to earth and sky. But he did not think long of this. Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed down at the bewildered warrior. Her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery.
After a full page in which Conan mainly just expresses confusion as to where the Hell she came from and how she’s managing the snow in the nude, he is then baited into a very obvious trap:
“My village is further than you can walk, Conan of Cimmeria,” she laughed. 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?”
“Like Dawn running naked on the snows,” he muttered, his eyes burning like those of a wolf.
“Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?” she chanted in maddening mockery. “Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can not follow where I would lead.”
Timeline placement becomes a big deal here, because if Conan is 15, rising to this obvious bait is a lot more forgivable than if he’s supposed to be somewhere around 22 or 23.
Turns out that she’s not baiting Conan just to fuck with him, though. She’s actually trying to murder him.
He did not wonder at the strangeness of it all, not even when two gigantic figures rose up to bar his way. The scales of their mail were white with hoar-frost; their helmets and their axes were covered with ice. Snow sprinkled their locks; in their beards were spikes of icicles; their eyes were cold as the lights that streamed above them.
“Brothers!” cried the girl, dancing between them. “Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father’ board!”
Conan’s already injured from the fight, weary from pursuing this girl across an indeterminate amount of trackless tundra, and facing two warriors who, by the description, are a minimum of seven feet tall and quite possibly eleven or twelve. Certainly they’re short enough that Conan was able to cut one’s neck with his sword, although that was after he was bent over a bit from having struck the ground with his axe after missing Conan.
After killing her two brothers, Conan goes after the titular daughter. The forcible kisses when he catches up with her makes it pretty clear that his intention isn’t just revenge, but she calls upon her father Ymir, the frost giant god of the north, to save her, and is subsequently teleported away.
Conan blacks out, and when he comes to, his errant allies from Asgard have shown up to save him. They came up to the site of the battle after being delayed by an ambush, and finding everyone dead, followed Conan’s tracks. They dismiss Conan’s encounter with the giants – of which they found no trace – as hallucination, except that Conan still clutches the gossamer garment worn by the frost giant’s daughter.
The whole story is like six pages long, considerably undersized compared to even one chapter of the average Conan novel, and like many Conan stories, it sustains itself in that time pretty much purely on the momentum of its concept. The idea of a beautiful frost giant coming upon injured men in the wake of a battlefield to lure them to their doom is reasonably interesting, even if Conan’s solution to the peril that has claimed so many others is ultimately just “be Conan, and therefore win.”
Of course, our “hero” also tries to rape someone. He’s unsuccessful, which makes this less distasteful, but doesn’t solve the underlying problem that knowing that Conan’s intentions are so vile makes it pretty hard to care which side wins the melee (I didn’t have this problem the first time I read the story, because Conan’s intentions aren’t clear until after the frost giants are dead, but this was a repeat reading). Stories like this really make Conan the Bold’s efforts at a good vs. evil narrative particularly dumb, but in the Bold’s defense, a lot of the Tor books just quietly ignore the more egregious instances of Conan’s villainy from the Robert E. Howard stories, which I generally approve of. There’s a lot to be salvaged from Conan in general, and even this story in particular, if we ditch the morally abhorrent bits.
We’re a tad undersized here, but Legions of the Dead is like 50 pages long and needs a post or two to itself, so we’ll pick up there next time.