Pretty positive review of our latest issue here at BlackGate. Check it out!
Or better yet, buy a copy of Issue 6!
Now that I’ve click-baited you with that misleading title, I’m going to spend some time introducing you to one of The Forgotten Kick-Ass Women of PulpTM – Dark Agnes, the heroine of REH’s Sword Woman. And kick-ass she most certainly is.
According to both howardworks.com and isfdb.com, Sword Woman was not published during Howard’s lifetime, so it’s hard to date. However, C. L. Moore corresponded with him about it at the start of 1935 – she loved it – which gives us a reasonable idea. It’s been published a few times since it was rediscovered, but the version I read was in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard, edited by Glenn Lord, published by Zebra Books in 1976.
Our heroine is called Dark Agnes because of her ferocity, not because of her colouring. In fact, she is one of those redheads that fantasy writers love so much. REH even works that into the first line of the story. “Agnes! You red-haired spawn of the devil, where are you?” It was my father calling me, after his usual fashion.”
So, we are quickly introduced to Agnes de Chastillon, a fiery young woman living in a village in post-mediaeval France. The story starts on the day that she is supposed to be married off to the ‘fat pig’ Francois by her brute of a father, who thinks nothing of knocking her out and dragging her home by the hair when she refuses. In a moving early scene, Agnes’s downtrodden sister gives her a knife with which to take her own life and save herself from a life of drudgery. Of course, this being an REH story, Agnes disdains both choices proffered to her by other people – death or domestic slavery – and uses the knife for something else – to cut her way to freedom. She stabs her betrothed, flees, makes a friend on the road called Etienne Villiers, but is betrayed by him and almost sold into prostitution, beats him up in return, makes another friend, the more honourable Guiscard de Clisson, a leader of mercenaries, then fights again, is shot and so on and so forth, as you’d expect of Howard.
However, this isn’t a manic story, just fast paced. The story is told through lots of action, but the action fits the psychology of Agnes. She is a female berserker, driven with rage to fight her way out of her vulnerable position in society. Indeed, I was convinced enough by her rage and her backstory, which are given in a few vivid strokes by Howard, to overcome my disbelief about her fighting abilities. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a fighting machine, but develops by stages, first standing up to her father, then stabbing her betrothed, and progressing from there. Even so, she is not invulnerable and needs some help in becoming the independent fighting woman she wants to be to escape from the drudgery of domestic life.* Hence, she gains her own martial mentor who is then shuffled off the page, Obi-Wan Kenobi style, when he’s served his purpose. Pulp writers never let a character grow old or outlive their usefulness.
Most of the men who mistreat Agnes, she either kills or beats up herself in one of her rages, or they suffer at the hands of others. In this, she is a catalyst for chaos, but the chaos is already part of her society and she simply brings it out. Her brutal father is ‘marked with scars gotten in the service of greedy kings and avaricious dukes’. The land outside their village is a desperate place filled with criminals, vagrants, wandering mercenaries, and retainers working for unscrupulous nobles. France and the Holy Roman Empire are on the brink of war. It is a turbulent age. No wonder she is so angry all the time.
Agnes is simply someone fighting against her position in a dangerous society, and the same applies to her friend-cum-adversary Etienne Villiers. He is initially her silver tongued rescuer but is later revealed to be a blackguard; however, he does, perhaps, have more fairness buried even deeper still. Both of them are interesting characters with their own sense of honour, their own moral codes, perhaps alien to those of us living in the twenty-first century. It’s their alien codes that gives these characters life, their sparkle.
Despite all the indignities heaped on Agnes, the story isn’t a hate filled screed against men, nor is it a political tract – not that you’d expect any of that from Howard. He just produced a story with a different type of protagonist for his market – a peasant girl. He did give her the expected motivation for many a fictional character – the desire to escape a miserable life – but made sure her motivation was different in other ways – the need to escape a forced marriage to a man she despises, and the need to hide her sex from the world as she flees. That gave Howard interesting material to combine into something new, and it worked. Given Agnes’ background, you would almost think that Howard was writing the prototype of a progressive or feminist story, but in his case the ‘progressive’ elements were there in the service of the story rather than driven by a political agenda.
In fact, Dark Agnes is much more interesting than the gender-neutral characters we see in a lot of stories these days – ‘there are no differences between the sexes’. Thankfully, 1 To use the jargon, she has a character arc. Howard harnessed these differences between men and women, their psychologies and their positions in their society, to produce a vivid and exciting story, much as C. L. Moore did with Black God’s Kiss. It’s no wonder the Queen of Weird Fiction liked this story so much.
My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed ‘Sword Woman.’ It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?
In fact, there were two sequels, Blades for France, which was left unpolished, and Mistress of Death, left unfinished. Howardworks.com and ISFDB list the completed 2 3 and published versions of these stories.
*To use the jargon, she has a character arc.
Paul Lucas is a writer with a story in an upcoming issue of Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine; he can be found here on WordPress.
Torchship Captain is live on Amazon, both the ebook and paper versions. The audiobook recording is in final edits and will be out soon. Please leave a review on Amazon, good or bad. Let people know what you think.
This is the conclusion of the Torchship Trilogy.
Michigan Long blackmailed her enemies into joining the war against the AIs. Now the secret she used is leaking out and the Fusion is shattering. Caught in the middle of a civil war, she will have to use any weapon that comes to hand—her wits, her ship, her mate.
Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.
Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:
Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.
*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.
Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”
Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:
The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.
All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.
Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.
It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.
I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!
Something that didn’t quite register until after yesterday’s post: Fafhrd & Gray Mouser underwent a reboot. This is not the sort of reboot that most people think of today with movies, where a property undergoes a remake and, if it’s a success, it becomes ongoing. Think more of like when Futurama got a reboot via a season of direct to video movies after its cancellation.
Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser was a pulp property whose creator gave it a grim-dark (grimmer-darker?) reboot following the release of the anthology “Two Sought Adventure”.
When people are “reading it in order”, they’re reading prequels first. It’s starting with Phantom Menace.
After other anthologies were released in the late 60s, Two Sought Adventure (1957), which anthologized all but one of the duo’s pulp-era adventures, was rebranded and re-released as “[Volume 2:] Swords Against Death” with additional stories and continuity material, making it something of a “Special Edition Re-release”. Never mind that it was re-released a couple years after what retroactively became volumes 3 through 5.
That’s right, the publication order of Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books is pseudo-II, III, IV, V, with I and II published around the same time, then VI and VII several years later.
The first Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stuff I read was Swords Against Death, which is pretty consistent, though the later stories do stick out like sore thumbs a bit. Yet I heard a lot of gripes from people starting with Swords and Deviltry. So I recommended folks check out the earlier stuff in volume 2 first. But now, reading some of the later stuff myself, I can definitely see where the gripes come from, especially from people who go into it looking for pulpy sword and sorcery adventure.
There were six years between the last pulp-era Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser story and Lean Times in Lankhmar. There had been some lapses earlier (5 between The Sunken Land and Adept’s Gambit and 4 between Adept’s Gambit and Claws from the Night). The first several stories, however, were one after another from 1939 through 1943; and as I’ve noted in my reviews of pulps at Castalia House, a major tonal shift in SFF started taking place in the early 50s. The shift is even more dramatic in the 60s and 70s, the period during which the vast bulk of the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser canon was written.
I’m not saying “Don’t read the later Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories”– not at all. But I am saying I may be closing in WHY those stories feel so different and readers who’ve seen my praise for the pulpy goodness of Swords Against Death feel confused and let down when they jump into the franchise elsewhere.
While the duo have their origins in the pulps, the majority of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories come from the much later New Wave of science fiction and the Sword & Sorcery Renaissance which was in many ways a grotesque of the genre which had birthed those characters.
So, when I’m recommending that people should read Swords Against Death first, “even though it’s the second volume”, think of me like the guy saying “If you want to get into Star Wars, maybe you should watch A New Hope first, even if it is the Special Edition* and the box says Episode IV.”
*:Except really, Bazaar of the Bizarre is a lot better than CGI Jabba the Hutt