Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: The Gods of the North aka The Frost Giant’s Daughter

Last week I blogged about accepting the Pre-Tolkien Challenge. You can read that post here. Other blogs taking part in the challenge can be read here and here. And you can find the originating post that started this challenge here.

In short, I have to identify three short stories published before Lord of the Rings. That is to say, three stories published before 1954. And in my review, I have to look at the differences and/or similarities with Tolkien’s world. Today’s my first entry in this exciting challenge so let’s get started.

I grew up reading Conan stories.

Before I even got to other fantasy tales, Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan kept my time occupied with their adventures. It would seem natural that for my first short story in this challenge I would reach out to a Conan tale.

One of Howard’s earlier Conan tales, originally titled “Gods of the North”, was published in 1934 in The Fantasy Fan after Howard had to first amend parts of it, including the title.

From the Barbarian Keep:

“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” was originally submitted by Howard to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright at the same time as the first Conan story,”The Phoenix On the Sword”. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was summarily rejected with Wright stating “I do not much care for it.” Howard rewrote the story, re-naming it “The Frost King’s Daughter,” and submitted it to Charles D. Hornig for publication in The Fantasy Fan (March 1934), an amateur magazine. In this re-written story, Howard changed the character’s name from Conan to Amra of Akbitana because he felt it imprudent to give away a Conan tale when most were being bought by Weird Tales. Howard fans will remember that Conan is sometimes known as Amra. Hornig accepted the story and published it under the title, “Gods of the North.”The story would only be published in its original form after his passing.”

L. Sprague de Camp apparently found the original manuscript and rewrote quite a bit before publishing it as “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” in 1953 in Fantasy Fiction. I don’t know how much of the story de Camp rewrote, but as far as I can tell, I read the original Conan story for this challenge. You can read it for yourself here or here.

The “Frost Giant’s Daughter”— I prefer “Gods of the North” — is one of Howard’s more well-known tales and is the earliest of Conan’s adventures, chronologically speaking. The story takes place in the frozen wastes of Nordheim where we find Conan the mercenary in the throes of killing off the last of his enemies after a fierce battle with the Vanir. Incidentally, In Norse mythology, the Vanir are one of two primary groups of gods, Æsir being the other group. The former is associated with fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future while the latter is better known in popular culture as the main Nordic pantheon and features Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, and Heimdall to name a few. Interestingly enough, Conan’s comrades in “Gods of the North” are collectively called Aesir.

Anyway, once again right out of the gate I’m reminded of Howard’s control over words. His poetic mastery is evident:

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 black­maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.

After slaying the last of his foes leaving him drained and utterly exhausted, Conan is visited by a beautiful woman, naked except for the transparent veil-like garment that covers her pearl-white skin. She mesmerizes Conan who can’t tear his eyes from her visage. She calls herself Atali and teases him and mocks him. Atali riles him and uses magic to enthrall him, and, as she must have done with countless luckless warriors before, Atali awakens a supernatural-fuelled lust in Conan which quickly turns to anger at her taunts. When Conan leaps at her she evades him effortlessly, seeming to glide across the show, but Conan is stubborn and angry and strangely lustful, given that he was near death just a moment ago. He gives chase, his weary muscles recharged by an obsessive desire, no doubt fuelled by witchery.

He follows Atali for miles over the jagged icy landscape, barely noticing the strange kaleidoscope of colors that play and dance across the white plains and hills around him until two frost giants block his path.

Atali has led him into an ambush!

The giants are the girl’s brothers and Atali invites them to feast on Conan’ heart. By then, and maybe this is my own interpretation, Conan’s natural savagery corrupted the magic spell Atali had cast over him making him even more formidable as he quickly cuts down the giant brothers before continuing his mad chase after the girl. Atali is shocked by the turn of events, frightened she runs as if possessed but the Cimmerian keeps on coming, never stopping, and he is catching up, his strength and endurance frightening to behold. Laced with magic Conan is near unstoppable.

Atali no longer mocks him and Conan sees the horror etched on her face, the sheer terror of seeing the Cimmerian’s defiance of her magic spell. Conan finally reaches the girl when her own strength falters and he grabs hold of her. Somehow she manages to twist free and before Conan can do anything Atali calls upon her father Ymir to save her. Lightning flashes, the girl disappears, and Conan gets knocked unconscious.

When he regains his senses Conan is surrounded by his Aesir companions and no sign that he had just fought two frost giants or got knocked out by the god Ymir. Conan writes it off as a silly dream but notices the torn veil still tightly clasped in his hand.

Apparently, this story has been criticised for being light on plot but I agree with those that consider Howard’s intent here more as a mythical experiment than anything else. One of my weaknesses as a writer is a penchant for purple prose, which happens when I write with emotion or get excited, but if utilized correctly, it can be pretty powerful. Howard is a master in this area and his poetic capability shines through in “Gods of the North.” It’s a short tale but serves as a vehicle for Howard’s prowess, showcasing his ability to spin magic with the imagery in the most ornate of ways. The proof is right there in front of you: He makes snow look exciting, imbuing it with elements of the supernatural and mystery, all at the same time.

When comparing Howard’s earth to Tolkien’s Middle-earth you’ll find well-hewn realities with intact mythologies and solid histories, both using roots of Norse mythology in their respective tales. In “Gods from the North,” Howard uses Ymir, which you’ll find mentioned in the Poetic Edda as well as in the poetry of skalds. His choice in names for his comrades and the enemy warriors he battled, all point to a direct Nordic influence.

Tolkien’s Middle-earth, on the other hand, is an almost a literal translation of Midgard of Norse mythology, home of the humans. Midgard or “middle earth” is located in the middle of the world, below Asgard. Midgard is surrounded by a huge ocean, although, in terms of Tolkien’s created world as a whole, it would probably be more accurate to refer to it as Arda which is what Tolkien calls earth.

Where Tolkien’s Middle-earth can be considered an alternate earth, Howard’s world, most notably the fictional Hyborian Age of Conan, takes place on an antediluvian earth, a prehistoric time period before the great flood but after the drowning of Atlantis, although this too forms part of Howard’s fictional earth in his stories of Kull of Atlantis.

In his essay “The Hyborian Age”, which you can read here, Howard explains how the mythical northern land of the ancient Greeks, Hyperborea, inspired his creation. Howard described the Hyborian Age as taking place after the disappearance of Atlantis but before the beginning of recorded history at around 10,000 BC.

Tolkien has said that Middle-earth is the northern continent of Earth in an imaginary period of its past. He placed the end of the Third Age, which is the period during which Lord of the Rings takes place, at about 6,000 years before his own time. In my humble opinion, this only works if you accept Tolkien’s world as an alternate earth and not one existing in prehistory. I say this because of my research into Sumerian history, which I did for The Seals of Abgal. Sumer was permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people. This was way before even the bronze age. So, to me, Tolkien’s Third Age wholly takes place on an alternate earth and I will qualify my view below.

Tolkien himself admitted that Middle-earth is imprinted on Earth:

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century) of midden-erd>middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumene, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by enchantment of distance in time.

And I think here is the key difference between Howard’s Hyborian Age and Tolkien’s Third Age. For a long while as a kid, I thought of Middle-earth as taking place on earth but on a different plane that you could access through an inter-dimensional gap somewhere in England where humans and creatures of myth could freely wander through, so to speak. It was only later that I understood it as just an alternate earth.

And yet, I never felt that with Howard’s earth. When I look at his world, the idea of a young earth populated by mystical beasts, where magic was tangible and frightening, and warriors fought all manner of creatures, it is more grounded in a kind of reality. An imaginary world, I think, that is not so far-fetched. This enthralls me more than Tolkien’s Arda, even though you have far more fantasy elements in Lord of the Rings than in any Conan story. But maybe that is the attraction for me. I am drawn to the mysteries of the past, and where Middle-earth is pure fantasy Howard’s earth is a might-have-been during a dark period.

Howard describes earth as “a mythical time before any civilization known to anthropologists. Its setting is prehistoric Europe and North Africa (with occasional references to Asia and other continents).” Howard conceptualized the Hyborian Age as a time during which the Mediterranean Sea is dry, the Nile is called the River Styx, which in Greek mythology leads to the underworld, and the west coast of Africa is under water.

Although not pertinent to this post or review, for writers out there, the following from Howard’s essay is an important piece of advice for world-building and writing:

It is simply a fictional background for a series of fiction stories. When I began writing the Conan stories a few years ago, I prepared this ‘history’ of his age and the peoples of that age, in order to lend him and his sagas a greater aspect of realness. And I found that by adhering to the ‘facts’ and spirit of that history, in writing the stories, it was easier to visualize (and therefore to present) him as a real flesh-and-blood character rather than a ready-made product. In writing about him and his adventures in the various kingdoms of his Age, I have never violated the ‘facts’ or spirit of the ‘history’ here set down, but have followed the lines of that history as closely as the writer of actual historical fiction follows the lines of actual history. I have used this ‘history’ as a guide in all the stories in this series that I have written.)

This is why we still read Howard’s stories, why we are able to analyze and discuss the world and characters created almost a century ago. Not only was Howard an amazingly gifted writer but he took the time to support his stories with well-developed histories and mythologies. It could be argued that Tolkien invested more detail in creating Middle-earth but I think the mystery of Howard’s world is the things that are left unsaid. This approach creates a unique ambiance that allows for easy immersion in the stories. Tolkien, on the other hand, made you work and this created a completely different atmospheric experience. By Crom! Tolkien even went so far as to design multiple languages!

In a nutshell, although Howard’s Conan falls in a subcategory of fantasy, that being sword & sorcery, it’s still fantasy, and as we have seen both Howard and Tolkien borrowed from Nordic myth and others to piece together their respective worlds.

An argument could be had that Tolkien’s world is more fully realized and possibly richer in cultures, but I’d counter that with this:

Middle-earth does not have a Conan the barbarian.

Woelf

11 thoughts on “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: The Gods of the North aka The Frost Giant’s Daughter

  1. Excellent post. I’ve stayed (and will continue to stay) away from Howard in this challenge for the same reason I’m going to stay away from Dunsany and Hodgson. There are too many people far more knowledgeable than me who can do a better job writing about these authors.You pointed out the differences and similarities of Middle Earth and the Hyborian Age quite well. I especially liked your statement that there are more fantasy elements in Tolkien than in Howard. At first my reaction was along the lines of “Huh?” But the more I thought about it, the more I think you’re right. Tolkien is writing in a pure fantasy world. Howard is writing in a mundane world that contains elements of fantasy. And as you said, that creates a very different reading experience.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. There certainly is magic in Conan’s world, witchcraft, and demons, but it reads like a desolated world with very little rules apart from the ones made by those in power. That is why I love Conan’s world. It feels like a place that could have existed a long, long time ago.

    I have chosen Dunsany’s The Sword of Welleran for the next installment, mostly because I have never read anything from this author and a lot of people recommend him quite strongly.

  3. You’re welcome. I think I’ve read “The Sword of Welleran”. I really liked Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter best of all the things I’ve read by him.

  4. “For a long while as a kid, I thought of Middle-earth as taking place on earth but on a different plane that you could access through an inter-dimensional gap somewhere in England where humans and creatures of myth could freely wander through, so to speak. It was only later that I understood it as just an alternate earth.

    And yet, I never felt that with Howard’s earth. When I look at his world, the idea of a young earth populated by mystical beasts, where magic was tangible and frightening, and warriors fought all manner of creatures, it is more grounded in a kind of reality. ”

    These lines tell us the great difference between the two writers. Well done, this is a great post. Personal, entertaining and, dare I say it, educational.

  5. Good article, Woelf Dietrich. You likely already have read it, but just in case, since you enjoy Sumerian history, you would probably like Howard’s story “The Lost Race.”

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