“Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Æsir…”
Robert E. Howard in a letter to P. Schuyler Miller.
“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is well-beloved by Conan fans, with good reason. While containing moments of true poetry, it still packs wain-loads of bloody action into a few short pages. Some have theorized that this yarn is the very first adventure in the Cimmerian’s career, chronologically. Such would seem to be indicated by Robert E. Howard’s 1936 letter to P. Schuyler Miller.
While I have a few niggling doubts as to that placement (such doubts to be addressed at a later time), that doesn’t stop me extrapolating therefrom. If “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is a chronicle from that period of “some months” when Conan first ventured out of Cimmeria into Nordheim (as Howard wrote to Miller), then clues within that tale possibly cast light on the Cimmerian murkiness of Conan’s years immediately prior to his bidding farewell to his homeland.
Robert E. Howard depicted Conan in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” as being clad in chain mail from head to foot (or, at least, neck to foot). Conan’s armor is described by Howard as a “corselet.” To be fair, the Nordheimr in the tale are also clad in “corselets,” according to REH. However, the armor of Heimdul the Vanir is of “brass scales.” Howard specifically mentions Conan’s “mailed arm” and “mailed feet.” I’ve been an aficionado of arms and armour since childhood. Robert E. Howard’s description of Conan’s gear seems to imply the Cimmerian was battling Heimdul ‘armed’ (in the old sense) with a suit of medieval-style cap a pie chain mail.
Robert E. Howard never depicted any of the Nordheimr in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” as possessing such comprehensive chain mail (technically, it’s just “mail” but REH never bothered with that convention). Reading through all the descriptions of Nordheimr in all the extant stories written by Robert E. Howard, there is never a mention of them wearing chain mail. “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “Marchers of Valhalla” are both cases which illustrate the contrary; all self-respecting Nordheimr being warded by corselets of scale-mail. Nor does any Howardian Nordheimr ever stride across a blood-soaked battle-field clad in “scale-mail” that encases his feet. There is absolutely zero evidence of that.
While I am not of the camp that believes Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age Nordheimr are simply “xeroxed Vikings,” I do feel that Dark Age Scandinavian sea-farers (as he saw them) were a major influence on Howard’s conception of the people of Nordheim. Nearly none of the historical Vikings that REH wrote about wore chain mail. The Vikings depicted by Howard almost invariably wore scale-mail armor, an exception being Brodir the Black from “The Grey God Passes” (one of my favorite Howardian characters). Read (or reread) “Kings of the Night,” and all of the Cormac Mac Art and Black Turlogh yarns. Nearly every one of the cold-eyed Nordic killers depicted therein were clad in scale armor. There is also every indication that Conan’s Æsir comrades and Vanir foes (and the Frost-Giant’s sons) were arrayed in brass scale armor, while the Cimmerian bestrode that frozen battle-field south of Ymir’s mountains bedecked in ferrous chain mail from his neck to his toes.
If Nordheimr metallurgy (Howard noted the skills of Æsir smiths in “Queen of the Black Coast”) was not the source of Conan’s panoply, might it have come from Cimmeria? There seems little reason to think so. While there were numerous opportunities for Robert E. Howard to sing paeans to the Cimmerian aptitude for smithery (and mail-crafting) throughout the Conan yarns (and his supplementary notes), he studiously avoided doing just that. Looking slightly further afield in Howard’s fiction, we see that mail-clad Gaels are quite rare. After he describes Cormac na Connacht’s mailed horsemen in “Kings of the Night,” REH states, “Celts, Gaelic or Brythonic, were prone to judge a man’s valor by the amount of armor he wore.” Howard uses similar language in “The Grey God Passes,” Turlogh and Dunlaing O’Hartigan being a singular and solitary pair of armored Gaels in that yarn. The only explicit mention of Cimmerian iron-working by Robert E. Howard in the entire Conan canon is in The Hour of the Dragon, wherein the Cimmerian notes that his sire was a blacksmith. This is off-set and countered by the “flint-tipped” spears of the “Cimmeria” poem.
The “corselet” of mail that Conan wore in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” does not seem to have originated in Nordheim nor Cimmeria. So, from whence did it come? In “Wolves Beyond the Border (Draft B),” the Gundermen guards of Valerian are described as wearing “corselets of chain mail.” It’s arguable whether the “corselets” of the Gundermen extended to their toes, but it seems fairly evident that their suits of mail lacked a camail or coif. Conan’s armor in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” appears to share that characteristic. A “footed” suit of Aquilonian chain is definitely attested in “The Scarlet Citadel,” a tale written by Howard just a few months after “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” In that yarn, the “black-mailed figure” with “iron-clad feet” is none other than Conan, king of Aquilonia. I suppose one could theorise that Conan was decked out in a suit of chain complete with plate-armor sollerets, but that seems ludicrous and unlikely, in my opinion. Robert E. Howard, in “The Scarlet Citadel,” equipped Conan with a panoply of cap a pie mail armor; a panoply that (apparently) lacked a camail or coif, armor similar to Conan’s mail in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”. Mail fit for a king.
In “Beyond the Black River,” Conan explicitly states that it was the Gundermen who pushed the frontier north into Cimmeria and it was they who built Venarium (“Vanarium” in the later “Miller letter”). Balthus just calls the agents of empire “Aquilonians.” Throughout the Conan series, REH describes suits of mail in use by Aquilonians (including the Gundermen) which closely matched that worn by Conan in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.”
Did Conan win his suit of mail amid the reeking, bloody chaos within the walls of doomed Venarium? In “Beyond the Black River,” Conan reveals to Balthus that, “I was one of the horde that swarmed over the walls.” Mail has always been expensive. It requires outlays of iron (relatively scarce in pre-industrial times), time and skill (this reminds me of the ludicrous beginning of Ridley Scott’s The Kingdom of Heaven, but that’s another blog). Historically, workaday warriors, even in lands where mail was relatively common, could rarely afford mail, if they were not members of an “entourage” or “company.” As “The Scarlet Citadel” demonstrates, wearing mail was not ‘beneath’ the king of Aquilonia (nor below the dignity of Amalrus or Trocero). The odds of Conan trading the pelts of “mountain beasts” (or something similar) for such a princely suit of mail as seen in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” are not high. To me, the likeliest opportunity for the fifteen years-old Conan to gain such a treasure was in the orgy of violence that was Venarium.
Perhaps that bit of plunder was the motivation for the youthful Cimmerian to venture north instead of south in his first foray beyond Cimmeria’s borders. Conan may not have been a “named” outlaw in the northern reaches of Aquilonia, but if he, a Cimmerian, walked into an Aquilonian outpost or town wearing such a trophy, the effect probably would’ve been analogous to that of a Lakota brave, wearing Custer’s jacket, swaggering into Ft. Laramie shortly after Little Big Horn. On the other hand, such an extravagant piece of ironmongery would command respect north of Cimmeria (as long as the owner could back it up). In the end, Conan was the last man standing on that snowy plain in Asgard, possibly (in part) because of the prize he gained at Venarium.
This blogger would like to acknowledge the inspiration and assistance for this essay from Chris Hale and [redacted].
TC READER IAN STURROCK WRITES IN: Hi — I enjoyed this post, but thought it worth noting that, strictly speaking, a “corselet” of armour only covers the torso. So, probably, Conan in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is wearing a scale corselet, Nordheimer-style, with mail sleeves and footed mail chausses.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your argument is wrong — just that Conan appears to be wearing the same armour as the rest of the band, but with the addition of a set of Venarium-looted mail sleeves & chausses. Mail sleeves were made in real-world medieval armouries to go with other torso defences, usually brigandine. Could Conan have slain a well-armoured foe, discarded the corpse’s riven brigandine, & detached the undamaged pieces of armour? Or did he work together with another Cimmerian warrior, and split the loot accordingly?
(Incidentally, Howard used the standard term for his era: “chain mail.” Although pedantic medievalists and amateur historians, like me, prefer to use “mail” these days, “chain mail” was absolutely correct English, either in the US or the UK, in the 1930s, and arguably still is today.)
Great blog, by the way — very interesting & informative!
DEUCE RESPONDS: Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Sturrock. I was aware of the technical definition of “corselet,” but felt that, perhaps, noting such would be straying into overly-pedantic, ‘deCampian’ territory. Robert E. Howard seems to have had a pretty good general grasp of the nomenclature regarding weapons and armour, but he was no expert. An article (written by whomever) examining all of REH’s uses of various terms such as “corselet” and “morion” would definitely be appreciated by yours truly. I’m just not sure exactly what Howard meant by “corselet,” since he is known to have played a bit fast-and-loose with nomenclature in other instances. How did he view a “hauberk” in comparison to a “corselet,” for instance?
Your vision of young Conan being clad in a hybrid mail/scale panoply is certainly plausible, but I’m not aware of Robert E. Howard ever describing such a thing in his fiction or letters. I always try to build my views regarding REH’s sub-creations based on how he used various terms elsewhere in his writings. That said, your idea certainly cannot be ruled out. Since it does not substantially alter my central thesis, that’s even better.
I’m fully aware of the historical manufacture of mail sleeves. I can’t say that I was able to ascertain from the text of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” exactly what type of armour Conan’s corselet was composed of. The fact that the sleeves and leggings were of “mail,” and that Howard had never described such a hybrid “mail/scale” outfit elsewhere, led me to conclude that the corselet was also of chain mail. There does appear to be some evidence in the Conan tales for the brigandine/mail-sleeved ensemble you mention. However, it is seen only in a Kothian context. In “The Scarlet Citadel,” the Kothian pikemen are depicted by Robert E. Howard as wearing “mail brigandines.” Unless REH was envisioning some wholly new form of armour unknown to history, I’d say the pikemen were wearing something similar to the historical model you describe. The Gundermen were predominantly pikemen as well, the best of the Hyborian Age, according to Howard. Perhaps “mail brigandines” were something of a tradition amongst elite Hyborian pikemen. Such a tradition might even go back to Acheronian times, as a few other ethnically Hyborian military conventions seem to do.
As for how Conan came by that (possibly partial) suit of chain, I’m still not convinced that he did not swagger away from Venarium with an entire (but damaged) panoply of mail rolled, tied and slung over his youthful shoulder, a triumphant grin on his face. We know that Hyborian nobles and royalty donned such panoplies for battle. We also know from tales like “Beyond the Black River” and “Wolves Beyond the Border” that such nobles involved themselves in Aquilonian frontier enterprises (on both sides of such conflicts, it would seem). It is in no way out of the question that a personage of noble blood was at Venarium when the Cimmerians came howling over the walls, with Conan at the forefront. Keeping in mind Robert E. Howard’s favorite story-telling tropes, one cannot rule out the possibility that the Cimmerian harbored a grudge of lethal proportions against that august (and mailed) personage.
There is little doubt in my mind, when Conan separated the owner of that armour from his life, that said armour would have been damaged. However, despite any perceived aspersions I may have cast upon the skills of Cimmerian blacksmiths in the essay above, I feel it is entirely possible that Conan, or more likely, his father, could have repaired Conan’s looted panoply.
I’ve read many references in pastiches (most notably, de Camp’s Conan and the Spider God) and testimonials from Conan fans trumpeting Conan’s proficiency in the art and science of blacksmithing. I challenge anyone to quote a reference from Robert E. Howard himself to this effect. I have several thoughts on the matter, but I’d be writing myself out of another blog if I blathered on further.
Regarding Robert E. Howard’s use of the term “chain mail” as opposed to the more succinct “mail,” I was not denigrating REH in any way. From my various (though not comprehensive) readings of the pertinent literature of the time, it seems that “mail” (as opposed to “chain mail”) was used fairly often. REH also alternated in his use of the two terms.