Friday, April 12, 2013

Random Thoughts: On the Origins of Red Sonja

So, in some very small circles I'm considered a genre writer. (One friend has called me the Queen of Ick Lit, another person has dubbed me an inventor of White Trash fantasy because of the novella Fork You which appeared in Panverse One.  )

That said, I am woefully under-read in that which might be considered the genre classics. This is because I have a reading list that is ridiculously long and while I tend to write fiction with paranormal, fantastical, and science fiction elements what I read is everything from reference materials to literary fiction, science to mythology, palmistry to biography, history to essays.... I could keep going, but you get the point.

I'm divided about whether or not this is a serious problem. I think it would be a larger issue for a writer to not also be a reader, no matter what form those word-built creatures called stories take.

It is pretty awesome to have friends who are more knowledgeable about genre than I am. I get to learn stuff, and they get to point stuff out to me that I haven't considered.

Enter my friend Richard, who is a bit of an expert on all things related to comics, genre fiction, genre film, and the career of Patton Oswalt. Over the holidays this year he gave me several genre books that I had not read before. It turns out that some of these books are/were kind of a big deal in terms of genre. This is the stack that I turn to when I am between new book purchases or I am not in the mood to re-read old favorites. I won't list all the authors, but there is one in particular that has my brain kind of buzzing.

Sword Woman by Robert E. Howard, precedes his version of Red Sonja and later versions said to have been based on multiple other red-haired, swashbuckling adventuresses. Dark Agnes de Castillon is an interesting figure to have emerged in the 1930s. The edition of the book that I have includes an introduction by Leigh Brackett.

Red Sonja in later fantasy/comic stories is one of those scantily clad heroines where sexualized imagery has a ridiculously large part to do with the reader appeal. Agnes de Castillon is a very different character than that. (Whether or not various versions of the cover art reflect it is a different topic best left to Jim C. Hines and John Scalzi if you recall this bit of gender-bending genius.)

"But I did not wear doublet, trunk-hose and Spanish boots merely to show off my figure, and the morion perched on my red locks and the sword that hung at my hip were not ornaments."

The statement, made by the heroine remains true throughout the narrative. While there is an awful lot of attention paid to her attire, which granted, is unusual for a woman in 16th century France, I can't help admiring that for the most part, Red Sonja's predecessor Dark Agnes remains dressed for battle rather than a debauched spring break as later versions would have it. To be fair it is also true that the attire of male characters in the story is also paid heed. It seems to follow a convention in the sword and sorcery genre that clothes tell you, the reader, the status/role of the characters.

Gender plays a huge role in Dark Agnes' story of origin in that it is her desire to escape a pre-scripted destiny due to her social status as a woman. She kills the bridegroom that her child-beating father is trying to force her to marry and flees. In the course of that adventure she finds that she rather likes sword-fighting and from there the narrative is a series of swish-slice-blood and narrow escapes from physical danger. You know, all the stuff of an adventure story.

Leigh Brackett explains Dark Agnes' appeal as a heroine and how she is a character who appeared well before her time in the aforementioned introduction. While the female protagonist with sword skill was beginning to rise in popularity in the fantasy genre, the sword-wielding woman was not popular in adventure stories of the 1930s. She describes Dark Agnes as an honest, pragmatic and active character not prone to self-pity. The character makes decisions, takes actions and sticks by those choices, unyielding. (What we might think of those choices in a modern context is a different discussion.) What I find remarkable here is the introduction of a strong female action hero during a time in fiction that I was unaware such a thing existed. I am not a Howard scholar, so I have no idea if when he wrote this it was his intention to break down boundaries in the world of fiction when it comes to women characters, or if it was just a new and different way to tell a story.

In the interests of full disclosure, this is a book that I would probably not have chosen for myself, but it has proven to be educational to me, and interesting in terms of the things it made me think about.

(*Cheesy blog-ending question alert*)

So, dear readers, what books have you been given that you would not have chosen that were eye-opening or thought-provoking for you?

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