“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”
—The Nemedian Chronicles
Know, you scholars of the occult, that during the patriachal years of Hyborian Age the crazy and decadent kings established their totalitarian kingdoms under the sky: Nemedia, with its spurious and imprecise chronicles; Ophir; Brythunia; Zamoa, where young girls were forced to prostitute themselves in dark temples; Zingara and her presumed knights; Koth, who sold their daughters as slaves to the harems of Hirkania to be covered with silk and gold chains. But the greatest and most powerful was Aquilonia, the tarnished jewel of the West in the hands of conceited and incapable men.
And from Cimmeria came Collwen, a free and indomitable woman from the north, with black hair as the firmament, eyes as intense blue as the hottest flame and the animal profile of a wild mountain panther; sword in hand and ready to crush with her footsteps the arrogant patriarchs of the world.
Imagine that the ultimate hero of sword and sorcery, no matter how much the misogynist chronicles had distorted it, was a strong and indomitable woman. Imagine that a daughter of CImmeria would have been the protagonist of thousands of adventures as mercenary, pirate and chief of men; and that her inimitable feats, marked with the tip of her sword, deserved not to be forgotten again.Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One
Most of Robert E. Howard’s heroes were men. A survey of the pulp magazines those characters appeared in during his life such as Weird Tales and Oriental Stories showed that this focus on male protagonists was common. It was unusual for there to be women protagonists in those pulps, and rare indeed to see a woman serial character such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who first saw life in “Black God’s Kiss” (1934).
When Jirel appeared, two years after Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian first took to the page in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” readers of Weird Tales hailed her as a veritable female Conan—but that wasn’t strictly accurate. Jirel was not an alternate-gender version of Howard’s most famous barbarian, nor were the stories of Jirel of Joiry the same kind of hardboiled fantasy rooted in historical adventure fiction that the Conan tales were. If there were any characters like that, they were in Howard’s own stories: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; Valeria of the Red Brotherhood; Red Sonia of Rogatino; and Dark Agnes de Chastillon—the latter of whom never saw print during Howard’s lifetime, but Moore would read her story and gush about it in her letters with Robert E. Howard.
The first pastiches of Howard’s particular style of fantasy did not see print until after his death. Weird Tales tried to fill the gap the pulpster had left in their pages with Clifford Ball’s fantasies “Duar the Accursed” (WT May 1937) and “The Thief of Forthe” (WT Jul 1937), and Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis in “Thunder in the Dawn” (WT May-Jun 1938), “Spawn of Dagon” (WT Jul 1938), “Beyond the Phoenix Gate” (WT Oct 1938), and “Dragon Moon” (WT Jan 1941). Very likely, the dismissal of Farnsworth Wright and the ascension of Dorothy McIlwraith as editor of Weird Tales signaled an editorial policy shift away from heroic fantasy, a field that was rapidly becoming competitive.
Musclebound barbarians of any gender were not the norm in fantasy fiction during the 40s and 50s, although male protagonists still dominated in fantasy fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The 1960s, with its paperback reprints of Howard’s Conan and other fantasies, saw a revival of interest with a new generation of writers. Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniboné with “The Dreaming City” (Science Fantasy No. 47, June 1961), and Joanna Russ created her swordswoman Alyx with “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (Orbit 2, 1967), among others.
Marvel Comics obtained a license from the Robert E. Howard estate, and in 1970 published Conan the Barbarian, which would run for decades and hundreds of issues, spawning many different series, graphic novels, and related works. In Conan the Barbarian #23 (1973), series writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith introduced the character of Red Sonja—inspired by Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonja was created to be a female swordswoman in the Howardian mold, a female counterpart but not clone of their successful Cimmerian. Red Sonja would go on to have her own series, guest star in various comics, serve as the protagonist in six fantasy novels by David C. Smith and a 1985 film, and her adventures continue today.
Unlike Conan, Red Sonja had no single main writer, and because she is a licensed character, her continuity has seen a great deal more flux. Where most of the official Conan pastiches by writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Robert Jordan kept the Cimmerian firmly grounded in Howard’s Hyborian Age, Sonja’s career has been more varied. There is no single “Probable Outline of Red Sonja’s Career,” the way there is for Conan. While her comics often have long story arcs or reoccurring characters like the villainous wizard Kulan Gath, they do not exist in a single rational chronicle.
Many of these stories are little more than generic quasi-medieval European fantasies with a female swordswoman protagonist who happens to be Red Sonja—and various writers and artists have taken advantage of this fact by writing their own versions of the She-Devil. Marada the She-Wolf (1982) by Chris Claremont and John Bolton was originally planned as a Red Sonja story, but was changed because of licensing issues. Frank Thorne worked on Marvel’s Red Sonja stories, and when he left the book created his own, more explicitly erotic version of the character, Ghita of Alizarr in 1979.
There are many many more examples that could be cited. For instance, Jessica Amanda Salmanson’s Amazons! anthology in in 1979, which introduced the Sword & Soul character Dossouye, inspired by the real-life women warrior society of Dahomey; and Marion Zimmer Bradley began the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series in 1984. The point of this brief history is threefold:
- There are plenty of women protagonists in heroic fantasy.
- They are not just Conan the Cimmerian with the serial numbers filed off and a pair of breasts.
- Their stories are not simply Robert E. Howard pastiches.
These are important points to keep in mind when considering Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019), because this is a work which exists in a specific context, and it has to be evaluated both for what it is, and what it is trying to be, as far as the author Matthew N. Sneedon has stated in his introduction.
Unlike Jirel, Red Sonja, Dossouye, etc., Collwen the Cimmerian is a deliberate and explicit gender-swapped version of Conan the Cimmerian. While their adventures are not identical, the basic descriptions, attitudes, and activities of the characters are substantially similar, and they are operating in the same milieu: Sneedon has set Collwen’s adventures in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, in the cities and countries from the Conan stories. In this respect Collwen the Cimmerian is perhaps a bit closer to fanfiction or The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez than any of the original heroic fantasy women about such as Jirel or Alyx.
There are two stories in Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One: “The She-Master of the Dark Conclave” and “The Offspring of the Depths.” Both are serviceable and straightforward pastiches; “The Offspring of the Depths” has some initial similarities to Howard’s Conan story “Gods of the North” but turns into something more Lovecraftian before the end. Collwen is a perfectly adequate female pastiche of Conan, played absolutely straight: there are no jokes, no sly asides about gender trope reversals like rescuing and bedding princes, and very little about Collwen’s sexuality at all. The one time it comes up in any substantial way is a single passage:
Collwen had left her homeland to travel the world on her two powerful legs, not on a palanquin. She did not wish to spend years lying on a couch surrounded by maidservants to fatten up and let a round merchant impregnate her with a dozen cubs. She was not motivated by gold or gems. She just wanted to make the most of life; to see all the forgotten corners and wonders of the world, from the western coasts of the Picts to the eastern jungles of Khitai; to eat, drink, love and, above all, fight. She had not board to Stygia to obtain a sack full of gold, but to relish the war that had seen her being born.Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One
Robert E. Howard’s Conan never explicitly denied the desire to settle down with a wife and have a bunch of kids after a big score. He never had to: there were fewer social expectations for men in the 1930s to settle down and procreate compared with women. Most male protagonists in heroic fantasy don’t have to consciously address or even acknowledge the gender and sexual expectations of their period; by contrast, women fantasy protagonists like Jirel and Red Sonja have had to explicitly deal with these social norms and mores, and how these issues are brought up and dealt with has changed over time.
In her own series of Marvel comics, for example, Red Sonja was noted for an oath to maintain her virginity unless defeated in battle—a point which allowed the series to titillate in her chainmail bikini but avoided the appearance of promiscuity that Red Sonja would have had if she had engaged in as many casual sexual liaisons as Conan did. Her oath of celibacy was essentially a hard-coded example of the double standard about sexual experience between men and women in the 20th century. Gail Simone’s 2013 soft reboot of Red Sonja discarded both the character’s celibacy and her heterosexuality, making Sonja both bisexual and removing the supernatural onus against casual sex; writers since have played with both ideas in their own interpretations of the character.
Sneedon doesn’t spend much time on this particular aspect of Collwen’s character, nor does he necessarily have to: having a female character doesn’t necessarily require talking about such issues any more than a male character might. However, in the context of the opening paragraphs to these two stories, it is interesting to note that Sneedon spends little time or effort to actually depict the patriarchal nature of the Hyborian Age. There are a few echoes of the casual sexism that punctuated Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (like calling a grown woman “girl” as a diminutive), but less sexual discrimination or efforts to violently enforce gender norms than perhaps might be expected given the explicit contrast apparently intended between Conan and Collwen’s sagas.
If the patriarchy that Collwen is supposed to rebel against isn’t well-defined, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One unfortunately fallen into one of the traps of pastiching fantasy fiction from the 1930s: racism in the setting. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was marked by a combination of contemporary racial attitudes and ahistorical social conventions. Slavery existed, and it was largely slavery as practiced in antiquity or Biblical times—not restricted to a single race or by skin color, as was the chattel slavery of the South before the American Civil War. Yet when Howard speaks of that slavery he sometimes casts it in explicitly contemporary racial terms:
“Valerius does not protect his subjects against his allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have been sold to the Kothic slave-traders.”
Conan’s head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.
“Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan they will live out the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.[“]Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon
In the 1930s, Howard could get away with explicitly exporting contemporary racial attitudes into his mythical Hyborian Age simply because they were so utterly common and widely-held that few readers or editors would find fault with such sentiments; he would lean more heavily into such ideas in describing the racially segregated society in “Shadows in Zamboula,” and would be most explicit about the racial and sexual dynamics in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967).
Writers who choose to pastiche Howard thus face a challenge: how to be faithful to the spirit of the world Robert E. Howard created and maintain continuity with his stories without explicitly continuing or endorsing those same racial prejudices and attitudes in their own fiction. It can be a fine dance: it is appropriate in a historical story to have a character with historically accurate racial prejudices; it is not appropriate for that character’s prejudices to be portrayed by the narrative as true or accurate. The failure of writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to observe this distinction in their own Conan pastiches was specifically called out in “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011) by Charles R. Saunders.
Sneedon has not managed to find the correct balance. For example, one character states:
Ngozi is my servant. She was a real princess in her tribe, but here she’s worth less than nothing. We must fear nothing of her. She’s a brute and an ignoramus, incapable of understanding what we expect. But she does understand what would happen to her if she tried to betray me.Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One
Having a character be racist toward another character is unpleasant, but can help to define a character as unsympathetic or evil, and the relationship between the characters can be defined by that tension of racial prejudice with its arrogance and potential violence. Yet at no point does Sneedon do anything with Ngozi to disprove this prejudice, or to develop this relationship along those lines. Ngozi has no agency, no real voice for her own perspective, no chance to defend herself or deny or defy the stereotypes. The betrayal never takes place, and perhaps was not even planned. It is an attitude that a Howardian villain might well have expressed in a Conan story, but it was written in the 2010s, not the 1930s…and that is terrible. Sneedon should have known better.
Whenever a reader or critic comes across a work like this one, which takes a familiar character and setting and then changes some fundamental aspect like the gender of the main character—questions have to be asked: why Collween the Cimmerian? What is it about the Hyborian Age in particular that made it the correct setting for Collwen as a character? How is Collwen different from Conan, and how is that difference integral to the stories written about her? Is it just fanfiction, or is there any deeper purpose to these pastiches that serves as contrast to and comment on Robert E. Howard’s stories?
Unfortunately, answers aren’t very forthcoming.
Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon is available on Amazon Kindle.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).