Dark Agnes: A critical overview of Robert E. Howard’s Sword Woman
Written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Robert E. Howard was a great storyteller. Perhaps not a skilled writer in technical terms, but nonetheless, his fiction is powerful in an awkward, honest, direct manner — not unlike many of his heros. Certainly his style is appealing, as his popularity has continued in spite of his imitators’ every effort to bury his genius with insipid copies — though even this may be the fault of fans demanding “more” from someone too long dead to provide it.
It is indicative of his talent that he could do what few adventure writers can do even today, that is, depict a strong woman. Further, he did it in an atmosphere of rank misogyny: the male-defined pulp era of writing. He created Belet, at whose feet even mighty Conan had to sit; & he created Agnes de Chastillon, a Frenchwoman whose swordskill was unmatched in her time.
Rarely had women in sword & sorcery tales been portrayed as positively & strongly as Dark Agnes. I’ve no idea what Howard’s ideas about women were; through much of his fiction he seems fundamentally naive about women, yet comparatively far less exploitive in the way his female characters are depicted. Possibly he knew a rough, hard, endearing Texas woman who influenced him; possibly his love of history uncovered too many amazon figures to ignore. Perhaps he even gave thought to issues we consider modern & feminist. Maybe none of these things approached his thinking at all — but he saw, as lesser storytellers rarely see, that tales about whining, meek, abused chattels & sex objects are not as entertaining as stories about a woman loathe of those positions.
Myself a long-time Howard fan, I’ve been put on the defensive for my fondness by some of my feminist friends, though I no longer hide my Donald Grant editions. I feel Agnes justifies my respects for REH’s writing. I believe that even in Howard’s most violent, male-dominant tales there is an underlying respect & concern for the position of women that very few of his imitators ever captured in the retellings. Agnes is a feminist warrior, capable of being a good comrade-in-arms to any man, but just as capable of cutting him to ribbons if he forgets she’s a comrade.
Howard only wrote two tales of Agnes, & left a fragment completed by Gerald W. Page. It is doubtful if much of this latter story is really Howard’s, however, as it so mishandles the character of Agnes that one wonders if she’s the same woman at all. More on this later.
The first story, “Sword Woman,” tells the origin of Dark Agnes. It is a tough, angry story about a girl who could not be tamed, not even by a father who beat her regularly. SHe slays her disgusting husband-to-be with wicked delight, then sets off to adventure. She is a woman of moral character even so, living by a code of her own.
In the introduction to the original Zebra paperback of The Sword Woman (there was later a Pocketbooks edition), the late Leigh Bracket — one of the handful of women who achieved great success as pulp adventure writers — pointed out that the title story holds one of the most eloquent statements written on the subject of women’s freedom & individual pride. In this scene, a captain of mercenaries has turned down Agnes’ offer to ride with him as a soldier. He says, “Don thy petticoats as becomes a proper woman. Then, well — in your place I might be glad to have you ride with me!”
Livid, Agnes threatens him, saying:
“Ever the man in men! Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk & spin & sew & bear children, not look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord & master! Bah! I spit on you! There is no man alive who can face me with weapons & live, & before I die, I’ll prove it to the world. Women! Cows! Slaves! Whimpering, cringing serfs, crouching to blows, revenging themselves by — taking their own lives, as my sister urged me to do. Ha! You deny me a place among men? By God, I’ll live as I please & die as God wills, bit if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress. So go yet to hell … and may the devil tear your heart!”
Intense, pointed, true — Agnes has swore herself to celibacy, aware that even to share a bed with a man, in her society & ours, is to be bridled. Howard captures the essence of a politic few men dare realize — a concept usually dismissed by men as the madness of man-hating lesbians, or whoever else can be blamed for men’s own limited comprehension. This aspect of Agnes’ character is important to both of the stories Howard wrote, so one would guess it a concept Howard was consciously exploring. In the third story, however, it is absent as a theme — which is one reason I strongly suspect he did not write much of that one at all.
“Sword Woman” has one minor lapse of logic. In this & the second story, Agnes credits Guiscard de Clisson with teaching her swordskill & fighting techniques. Yet, she knew him scant days — barely the time it took a companion to heal from wounds (& it is stated he healed quickly). It is not credible that her tutor invested his many years of hard-gained war-skills in one eager pupil in a few days of lessons. However, this lapse is forgivable, perhaps even rational, if we take literally Agnes’ assertion that, though previously unfamiliar with weaponry, she had an instinctive rather than tutored knowledge. “Sword Woman” remains, then, a rich, satisfying, believable story. When agnes says blithely in the end that, “I am no longer a woman,” there is more irony in it than truth — for in fact she is every woman, unleashed & free.
“Blades of France” is a less eloquent story with rougher edges, too obviously written by a history buff, but still very satisfying. It has some truly rare moments, as when chaste Agnes receives her first kiss — from another woman! In the end, when Agnes’ comrade is moony over having held that noblewoman in his arms, Agnes is silent. But a wise reader will know what’s in Agnes’s mind: Ah, but she kissed me.
This second story is a bit less insistent than the first in establishing & re-establishing that Agnes is shapely & beautiful. This is the one failing common to most adventure writers’ depictions of presumedly strong women. However, though other writers seem to include this aspect because they can’t help but eroticize women at the expense of their humanity, with Howard it seemed to be the only way he knew to establish the fundamental normalcy & logic of Agnes’s choices. He never conceived the notion of androgynous beauty, nor seemed to realize “beauty” itself is cultural. He felt compelled to establish that Agnes was traditionally beautiful in spite of herself, as if to say, “See — she is a woman despite her choices.” It adds nothing of character or realism, though it establishes, in the only way the author knew, that Agnes is not a warrior because she was too ugly or too stupid or too abnormal ever to be a wife or mother.
In this story Howard somewhat overcomes this need to beautify Agnes in such typical terms. Had he written more stories of Agnes, surely he’d have been done with “excusing” her strength with her beauty. Sadly, the only other story of Agnes is a poor collaboration, detracting from the fine concepts Howard devised on his own.
In both “Blades of France” & “Sword Woman” Agnes is repeatedly confronted by men who want only to bed her, by force if necessary. She answers each with her sword, saying, “Must I slay half the men in France to teach them respect?” The reader knows her frustration; & the message is clear to Agnes: the men of the world still want her to be a broodmare & drudge. But Agnes remembers her pitiful sister, & all the other women who had not escaped their restricting roles — & she kills the men who would not let a woman grow.
Once again Howard has proven capable of appreciating the type of woman most mean fear to confront even as an archetype, much less as a fictional character or a real-life feminist freedom fighter.
Had a woman written of Agnes in a similar manner, the author would have been charged with man-hating, frigidity, being a castrating bitch, a crazy radical. But it was written by a man — a man who was a wonderful storyteller — a man whose vision far exceeded the imagination of his imitators & of detractors from feminist camps. That the author was male, incredibly, makes it “all right” to many readers. This phenomenon is echoed in the fact that science fiction author John Varley achieved praise & bestseller status using the same feminist themes Joanna Russ was often brutalized over. And James Tiptree, Jr., won an award for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” about male astronauts discovery of an all-female world & that culture’s slow realization that these “man” creatures really must be killed. Afterward, when it was discovered Tiptree was a woman writer — a fact unknown when the story was being praised — critic Damon Knight reread the story with a new headset on his pea-brain &, in a lecture to a convention audience, explained that the real James Tiptree, Jr. — Alice Sheldon — was the equivalent of a Nazi. This judgment was often echoed resulting in one of the field’s greatest writers ceasing to write altogether during her last years. And the unreasonable thing is only a woman would be so judged. The fascism inherent in most of the writing of Heinlein, Anderson, Pournelle is never so venomously attacked by respected critics like Knight.
How incredible it is that in this patriarchal world of ours, men’s privilege extends even to the right to depict strong women without being ostracized as would be a woman writer!
“Mistress of Death” is a wholly unsatisfying story. It is repetitive, clumsy, lacking the honest forthright boldness of Howard at his best. Worst of all, the character of Agnes is contradicted on almost every count. There is only one moment in the whole story when the true character of Agnes comes through, true to the previous stories.
When she thinks she’s been betrayed by a strumpet, Agnes is intent on giving the woman a hearty spanking. She says, “Margot, if an open enemy deserves a thrust of steel, what fate does a traitress deserve? Not four days agone I saved you from a beating at the hands of a drunken soldier, & gave you money because your tears touched my foolish compassion. But Saint Trignon, I have a mind to cut the head from your fair shoulders!”
It turns out that Margot was innocent of treachery, & the true culprit was, again, a man scorned by Agnes (hell having no fury like a prick deflated). But when Agnes thinks the worst of Margot, & frightens her considerably, there is yet a rough concern in Agnes’s attitude for the street-damaged Margot. As the kiss of a lady was important to Agnes in “Blades for France,” so has she empathy for the plight of women who could not escape their “proper” places & ended up wives, slaves or, like Margot, prostitutes.
If any fragment of “Mistress of Death” is truly Howard’s own writing, the above quotation must be his. That’s hard to judge, I know, & I could be entirely wrong. But fora fact, it is one of the few moments in the story that Agnes is the same strong willed woman as in “Sword Woman” & “Blades of France.”
Other aspects of the story that make it seem little of Howard’s work is the fact that it is the only one of the three to be strongly fantasy oriented. Agnes’s previous stories reflect Howard’s love for history; this one is standard kill-the-wizard fare. It is vaguely possible he was revamping the nature of the unsold stories for fantasy markets — but even were this the case, since Agnes is still placed in an historic milieu, where has the knowledge of European history flown? Additionally, for no reason, Agnes’s comrade Etienne Villiers is missing. At the end of both earlier stories, it is made clear that she & Villiers will continue to travel together, all the way to Italy eventually. There is a clue that a later adventure will have to do with Agnes’s father trying to kill her — not dealt with in the last story at all. Clearly Howard intended a logical progression of stories with Agnes & Etienne together. But for “Mistress of Death” John Stuart the Scot appears in Villiers’ stead, for no discernible reason.
What flaws existed in the first two stories are magnified here. A far greater do-do is made of the fact that Agnes is beautiful & couldn’t pass as a man if her life depended on it (though in “Blades” she disguised her figure well enough). As pointed out earlier, this is something Howard was less inclined to reiterate in the second story, but on this collaborative effort it is harped on relentlessly.
Sometimes, lines are quoted verbatim from previous stories — which might have been less annoying were the stories not lumped together for comparison. Howard is hardly a subtle author, but he managed a certain suave balance that allowed him to overstate without being redundant. However, the exaggerated reiterations in this story, that Agnes can “drink, swear, march, fight & boast with the best of them” becomes, by now, little more than burlesque.
Unfortunately, this really is a John Stuart story over all; though told from the point of view of Agnes, Stuart is the key character in every scene save the final one, when a spell by a wizard freezes him & Agnes finally acts. I seriously doubt a story of this nature was ever Howard’s intent. Either he never finished it because of his error, or the error was his “collaborator’s.”
Subtle things absent from the first two stories establish, in this last tale, that Stuart is the dominating personality: “John Stuart’s form moved agilely through the gate & I followed” (p113); “He headed for the stairs & I followed after” (p116); “He rushed toward it & I followed after him, almost causing the candle to flicker out in my haste” (p116); “He stepped through the opening & I followed after him” (p118); “I drew my sword & followed John Stuart down the stairs” (p119). It’s impossible to believe this is the same Agnes who was never before portrayed as the sort to carry light like a servant & follow in some man’s wake.
Stuart, not Agnes, discovers the magician’s route of escape from a bedchamber; Stuart, not Agnes, recognizes the strange coweled figure for who he was; Stuart speaks up first when guards come to arrest Agnes; Agnes’s error, not Stuart’s, brought the evil magician to life in the first place. One must seriously ask why none of these confirmations of male superiority over Agnes exist in the other two stories, which Howard wrote alone!
But the worst offense is in the final weak scene of this poor tale: though Agnes does slay the magician herself (she had to do something), afterwards she “whimpered like a child & turned away from the pit into the welcome arms of John Stuart that closed around me…protecting…” He then actually carries her off in his arms! Chaste Agnes, if not Howard himself, must be spinning in their graves over the bastardization of a woman hero who turned to no man save as equal in all things. This is not the same Agnes who in “Sword Woman” said she never cried — & did not say it out of self pity, but as observation. In both the earlier stories, there came a moment when she had to look into her own soul — & each time found it devoid of fear. Can anyone think the whimpering Agnes who was carried away in John Stuart’s arms is the work of the same author who portrayed Agnes earlier as the sort who laughed & danced after her first killing?
I like Howard’s writing & am the more impressed by him for creating Agnes, but if “Mistress of Death” is always to be included with the pieces he wrote himself, I fear this last tale will leave a bad taste in many a reader’s mouth, & reflect back on the earlier pieces. If new stories about this woman hero are to be written (& I’m of mixed feeling whether such legal plagiarisms should exist at all), they’ll need to be written by someone with the kind of knowledge, insight, & concern that Howard felt — or always Agnes’s character will be reduced to a sappy, boring caricature of the singular woman Howard intended.
Note from the website owner:
This critical overview of Robert E. Howard’s Sword Woman is borrowed from web.archive.org from 28th of December 2007. It is written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and appeared originally in Robert T. Garcia’s American Fantasy #1, 1982. It was reprinted in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism #8, 1982. I chose to preserve it here since the original website is gone.Return to Dark Agnes