By Dale E. Rippke
This essay originally appeared in REHUPA #203, February 2007
This essay is dedicated to the late Robert Anton Wilson, who taught me that “Reality is what you can get away with”.
I tend to find the study of the Conan series written by Robert E. Howard an absolutely fascinating look into the nature of psychology. I’ve read many scholars expound at great length on the merits of who the character of Conan is and how he will respond in any given situation. The conventional wisdom created by this doesn’t really seem to me to accurately reflect the information relayed by his author.
That conventional wisdom is probably founded in the way that we perceive “heroes” and the very nature of “heroic action”. Our perception of what it means to be a hero tends to run in certain predetermined channels (i.e. Archetypes) and that hero’s actions outside of our expectations seem to engender a fair bit of psychological resistance and discomfort for the reader. It is the mental conflict between our currently held beliefs and “reality”. This conflict is a psychological phenomenon described as cognitive dissonance. We naturally attempt to alleviate our mental discomfort by attempting to rationalize and explain away the conflict. This in turn leads us to project our own biases onto the material at hand; we “read into” the story things that aren’t necessarily there.
I’m going to attempt to show how the conventional wisdom in a typical Conan yarn may be due more to how we wish to perceive the story, than to its actual reality. The tale I will use is The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.
Chronologically the first Conan tale, The Frost-Giant’s Daughter features a teenaged Cimmerian in his first real run-in with the supernatural. The wounded last survivor of a band of northern warriors, Conan encounters a dazzlingly beautiful girl who goads him into pursuing her.
Conventional wisdom takes the line that Conan is not, at heart, a rapist and that Atali drove the young Cimmerian into the madness of extreme lust through some type of spell or enchantment. It also takes the position that the tale takes place in the reality of Conan’s world and that the yarn’s strangeness is all due to Atali’s spell. A specific reading of the story in particular and the Conan series in general shows that this is not necessarily the case.
First, I want to touch briefly on the notion that Conan’s pursuit of Atali was “out-of-character” and the result of Atali’s spell. That is completely and undeniably false. Several Conan stories feature the Cimmerian in pursuit of a woman, complete with sexual subtext (The Devil in Iron and The Vale of Lost Women). But far and away, the most damaging to the “out-of-character” notion is the events at the beginning of Red Nails. That yarn describes a pursuit sequence not unlike the events of The Frost-Giant’s Daughter. In that story, Conan is a bored mercenary soldier that has taken a completely sexual interest (Howard is explicit about that) in the new girl in town, Valeria. When she flees town because of a murder rap, he decides to pursue, due to his interest in her. According to the tale, the chase lasts several weeks before Conan catches up to her. He makes it clear once again that his interest in her is sexual, and that Valeria’s refusal of his advances don’t really change matters all that much to him. While the story doesn’t feature a rape scene, Howard clearly implies that Conan’s intentions weren’t all that honorable.
The point of all of this is to illustrate that if a sex-obsessed Conan is determined enough to pursue a woman for weeks without being under the influence of a spell of any kind, then his jaunt through the snow in pursuit of Atali isn’t remotely out of character.
Next, I’ll deal with the notion that this is all due to a spell or enchantment, because I don’t really buy into it. The idea of Atali enchanting Conan makes no sense when examined logically. First big red flag is that there is absolutely no mention by Howard of Atali doing ANYTHING to Conan other than some talk and fleeing from him. Secondly, we supposedly have a demi-goddess who can magically make herself invisible to all but her intended victims, as well as magically inflaming their lust, who has been doing this for many years, yet is completely unable to save herself by dispelling her enchantment or just making herself invisible to Conan after everything goes pear-shaped. Howard was not writing the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” here. Powerful magic-user one minute and weak, helpless woman the next doesn’t mix particularly well.
I’ve studied this story closely and it is my belief that something completely different is going on in this story. I finally discovered the key to understanding the story when I realized that Howard is writing this story entirely from the perspective of Conan’s consciousness. Conan passes through three distinct levels of consciousness in this story, yet he as the observer doesn’t realize it; it’s all reality to him as its occurring. I believe that Howard intuitively created a powerful meditation on the nature of reality. This is what I think is going on in The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.
"Heimdul roared and leaped, and his sword flashed in deathly arc. Conan staggered and his vision was filled with red sparks as the singing blade crashed on his helmet, shivering into bits of blue fire. But as he reeled he thrust with all the power of his broad shoulders behind the humming blade. The sharp point tore through brass scales and bones and heart, and the red-haired warrior died at Conan's feet.
The Cimmerian stood upright, trailing his sword, a sudden sick weariness assailing him. The glare of the sun on the snow cut his eyes like a knife and the sky seemed shrunken and strangely apart. He turned away from the trampled expanse where yellow-bearded warriors lay locked with red-haired slayers in the embrace of death. A few steps he took, and the glare of the snow fields was suddenly dimmed. A rushing wave of blindness engulfed him and he sank down into the snow, supporting himself on one mailed arm, seeking to shake the blindness out of his eyes as a lion might shake his mane."
There are various methods to achieving an altered state of consciousness; dancing, chanting, drugs, exhaustion, and extreme pain. Conan is exhausted and has taken a blunt-force trauma to the head. His brain isn’t working as it normally does; his neutrons are shorting out and misfiring. He is the perfect candidate for what is about to befall him. While the default setting of his brain usually receives cable channel 3 (the mundane reality), it now has switched to channel 4 (where the supernatural resides). He has entered the twilight zone world of altered consciousness.
It is interesting in that Howard plays with the idea of nested realities. This first appears in the 1928 Kull yarn, The Screaming Skull of Silence. In it, Howard expounds on the nature of reality: “All is illusion, all outward manifestations of the underlying Reality, which is beyond human comprehension, since there are no relative things by which the finite mind may measure the infinite. The One may underlie all, or each natural illusion may possess a basic entity..” The supernatural world is usually invisible to the mundane world, while the supernatural incorporates the mundane world into its reality. The supernatural world, however, isn’t exactly the same; its appearance is somewhat strange; it shimmers and its colors are heightened. The supernatural realm is a magical fairyland of enchantment. And it has its own denizens; beings that are usually unable to interact with the creatures of the mundane world. Atali and her brothers.
When Conan’s consciousness starts channeling the supernatural reality, it seems that the influx of information flooding into his brain from both realms causes his brain to try to shut down into unconsciousness. This manifests itself as blindness and he attempts to shake it off through sheer willpower. He becomes aware of Atali through hearing her laughter; presumably she is happy because she has found a victim. He is aware of the strangeness of the world, but has decided to ignore it. He is having problems seeing Atali clearly, though. He can’t tell if she has red or golden hair; it blinds him with its brightness. He is struck by her extreme beauty and has a physical reaction to her; the blood starts pounding in his temples. Conan ignores his reaction and he and Atali chat a bit. He then begins to use his rational mind to worry about his comrades and whether Atali lives close by. Conan’s rationality will eventually present a problem, since it will reject the supernatural reality and kick it back into the mundane world, given half a chance. Atali would lose him, so she can’t let this happen; she asks him pointedly “Am I not beautiful, oh man?”
She does this so that he really takes a good look at her. She needs to inflame his physical and emotional reaction to her for one good reason. Atali needs for Conan’s rational mind to be swamped and swept out of existence by his desire for her. She needs to do this because it will effectively anchor him to her supernatural reality. He won’t be able to slip back into the mundane world.
I want to touch for just a moment on whether Atali uses a spell on Conan. She doesn’t ever obviously cast a spell on him, but then Howard doesn’t really need her to. Conan is in an altered state of reality. The rules of the mundane world no longer apply. His passions could be inflamed due to the nature of the enchanted world he is in, due to her killer pheromones, or simply because she is the most desirable woman he has ever seen. Atali doesn’t need to use magic on Conan; her effect is innate to her character. It’s what she is. Conan isn’t ensorcelled so much as he is enthralled by Atali.
So anyway, she anchors Conan to her reality by appealing to his lust, but she also has an agenda; she needs to lure him away from the battlefield. So she enrages him by flat-out stating that he’s not “man” enough to follow where she leads. It all comes together, the lust, the rage, and the diminished capacity for rational though brought on by the head trauma and Conan experiences a type of strange madness; the compulsion to rape the icicles off of this taunting frost-princess. He arises due to sheer strength of will; almost mind over matter.
So they take off across the enchanted landscape (it should be noted that she does leave footprints in her reality, but just barely), Conan forging deeper into the Supernatural Realm. Howard describes the realm in fantastic terms; an aurora glowing fantasyland. He has bought completely into Atali’s reality. It doesn’t even faze him when he is beset by her brothers; the two ice-giants. Conan dispatches them after a brief struggle; now he’s really enraged.
Now this is the point where Atali, if she actually had any magic, would use her spells to become invisible or strip her enchantment from Conan. She doesn’t do that because she can’t; she has no magic. Atali doesn’t control anything. She is just a supernaturally enhanced girl in way over her head and caught by her own trap. Left to her own resources, she does the only thing she can; she runs.
Actually, it’s not a half bad idea. Conan is fixated on her, and that is keeping him anchored to the supernatural realm. If she gets far enough away, he will lose his fixation and exhaustion, coupled with his head trauma should drop him back into mundane reality. Howard describes Conan’s fixation on Atali in the final chase and the effort it takes for him to accomplish her capture in grim detail.
Conan captures Atali and she writhes out of his grasp, stripping herself in the process. She beseeches the god Ymir, her father, to save her. He does; she disappears in a flash of light and a clap of thunder. As an aside, I love how Ymir doesn’t actually inhabit the Supernatural realm; Howard makes the supernatural world itself a nested reality of a larger invisible God’s-world. Howard’s view of reality is that it has layers, like an onion.
When Atali disappears, Conan is cut off from his anchor in the Supernatural world and Howard describes the Cimmerian’s vertigo, as fatigue and trauma pitch him headlong back toward the mundane world and unconsciousness;
“Then suddenly the borealis, the snow-clad hills, and the blazing heavens reeled drunkenly to Conan’s sight, thousands of fire-balls burst with showers of sparks, and the sky itself became a titanic wheel which rained stars as it spun. Under his feet the snowy hills heaved up like a wave, and the Cimmerian crumpled into the snows to lie motionless..”
If the previous paragraph wasn’t proof enough that the story is being told from the perspective of Conan’s conscious perceptions, then the next one positively does, since Howard details what Conan experiences while unconscious.
"In a cold dark universe, whose sun was extinguished long ago, Conan felt the movement of life, alien and unguessed. An earthquake had him in its grip and was shaking him to and fro, at the same time chafing his hands and feet until he yelled in pain and fury and groped for his sword..”
Conan comes to, back in the mundane world and his rational mind begins to convince him that he experience some type of dream. He makes a statement: "A strange madness fell upon me when I looked at her, so I forgot all else in the world. I followed her. Did you not find her tracks? Or the giants in icy mail I slew?" Now, I have seen people use this statement as the rational that Conan was under a spell, but all a “strange madness” really signifies is that he was suffering from a type of mental aberration that he had never encountered before. Any idea that this implied a spell is simply reading something into the statement that isn’t there. Also, Conan’s statement reiterates Howard’s depiction of reality being a series of nested worlds. The Supernatural realm contained the mundane world, but the people in the “real” world are completely unable to see Atali’s track or the dead giants. They aren’t “real” to them.
The only Aesir that believes Conan is Gorm. He saw Atali when he was wounded in battle as a youth. Like Conan, he had taken a sword blow to the head, which seems to be the consistent way to experience her appearance. Unlike Conan he was unable to follow her, although he howled like a dog because he couldn’t.
The story ends with a twist, where Conan discovers Atali’s garment in his hand. Conan brought it back with him because she was so real that he incorporated her into his reality paradigm. His belief was enough to make the garment real. This is Howard’s way of telling us that reality is an illusion made concrete by the application of consciousness.
One final thought; some people might think that this theory of “altered-consciousness” is kind of “out there”. Just remember that Conan experiences states of altered reality several times during the Conan saga. In fact, in the story that Howard wrote just prior to this on, The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is in an altered state (dream state) when he talks to Epemitreous and that the sage places the symbol of a phoenix on Conan’s sword, and like Atali’s garment, it appears in the mundane world. Howard was consistent in the way he handled reality in Conan’s world.
I don’t expect to convince everyone that my way of looking at this story is the correct way. I do feel that my theory makes more sense than conventional wisdom allows although I understand that I may simply be projecting my own biases onto the material. In the end, I’m really only providing food for thought.
The Frozen Landscape of Reality essay Copyright 2007-2010 Dale E. Rippke
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