Hither Came Conan: Fletcher Vredenburgh – “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”

Hither Came Conan: Fletcher Vredenburgh – “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”

Frank Frazetta's famous work
Frank Frazetta’s famous work

Submitted in 1932 to Weird Tales, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is possibly the first Conan story of entirely new material (read Keith West on the story’s publication history), and it is also unique in its style. It is stripped down to the bare, primal essences of sword & sorcery, and exists on the lip between reality and nightmare. There’s more of myth and dream to “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” than to any other Conan yarn. When I first encountered it in my younger days, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but since then, I’ve come to appreciate it on several levels.

The lone survivor from a band of Aesir, Conan the Cimmerian finds himself facing Heimdul, the sole survivor from a Vanir war party, on a corpse-littered field of snow. As soon as Conan defeats and kills the Vanir warrior, he finds himself overcome by the blinding sunlight reflected off the blood-stained snow.

He is raised from his stupor by the arrival of an ivory-skinned, red-haired woman of surpassing beauty. She is barefoot and naked, save for a filmy gown. Soon she is taunting him and he is chasing her. Both rage and mad lust drive him after her into increasingly mountainous terrain with a sky streaked by the colors of the borealis. As he finally nears her, two armored giants rise up from the snow and the woman reveals herself to be their sister. She has lured the Cimmerian northward to his doom.

He proves too powerful, though and, driven by a primal urgency, dispatches them quickly. Unable to ward off Conan any longer, the woman calls on her father, the terrible god, Ymir, and in response to her cries a cascade of blinding blue lights from the heavens strike Conan, leaving him unconscious again. He next finds himself shaken awake by some of his comrades from another war band.

A debate follows whether Conan’s experience was real or just the result of the blow to his head that dented his helmet. One old soldier, Gorm, claims to have seen her in his youth. She is Atali, daughter of Ymir, and has lured men to their deaths for ages. Only Gorm’s wounds kept him from following her himself. Despite the tale, Conan is still unsure of what really happened – until he realizes he still clutches a gossamer gown in his hand.

And that’s it. There’s little of the grand world building of other Conan stories; the plot barely qualifies as minimal. Conan evinces little of the sharp-eyed intelligence of the later stories, instead acting with an almost vile savagery. The story reads like an explicit version of Homer’s Sirens or Heine’s Lorelei. While it’s clear Howard intends the reader to understand Atali and the giants are real, even Conan isn’t wholly sure he hasn’t suffered through some grievous nightmare.

Mark Schultz from the Del Rey edition

What makes “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” good is its success at the things one should expect from a Conan story: it is fast-paced and brutal, and there’s an atmosphere of darkness and danger. The prose, the character, and the plot all work together at creating a sword & sorcery work of archetypal intensity.

Howard’s writing is both powerful and poetic. That’s not unusual for Howard, but here it’s in service to a story of stark simplicity; there’s not a bit of fat on it. Every word in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” works to maximum effect. Just read the opening paragraph, a model of mood-setting:

“The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow-covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior-race.”

We immediately know what has happened and where we are. The next paragraph makes it clear Conan is on the edge of the netherworld. Despite the all-too-real carnage on the battlefield, Conan and Heimdul seem like wraiths. They are described as if they are ghosts, as they come “to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world.” At the instant of his foe’s death Conan collapses as he is overtaken by great flashes of light. It’s as if Heimdul’s death pushes him all the way through the portal to another world where both had already been lingering.

The “silvery laugh” of Atali, a woman of unnatural beauty, is what rouses Conan. With it, it’s clear he has truly passed out of the real world into the icy preserves of Ymir and his offspring. Her hair is like “elfin-gold” and is so bright he can “scarcely bear to look upon it.” In her presence, his pulse pounds in his temples. The earth and sky are marked by an “unfamiliar tinge.”

In most of Howard’s stories Conan, despite his ready ferocity, is cagey and usually quite thoughtful. In “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” Conan is a figure of elemental power. Unlike the Bowdlerized version of Conan that’s arisen over the years in movies and comics, this Conan — Howard’s real Conan — is dangerous. When he kills Atali’s brothers and finally corners her, his intent is clear:

“She was running with effort now, her golden locks blowing free; he heard the quick panting of her breath, and saw a flash of fear in the look she cast over her white shoulder. The grim endurance of the barbarian had served him well. The speed ebbed from her flashing white legs; she reeled in her gait. In his untamed soul leaped up the fires of hell she had fanned so well. With an inhuman roar he closed in on her, just as she wheeled with a haunting cry and flung out her arms to fend him off.”

There is no chivalry to this Conan, only violence and ruthlessness. His intentions are only murder and rape. Howard goes on at times (sometimes far too much) about the natural savagery of man, but here, more than in any of the other stories it’s made abundantly clear what that means. There’s always a gruffness to Conan’s nobility, but in this story, Howard exposes the raw barbarousness of the Cimmerian, though in his defense, he is concussed and/or ensorcelled.


Phrolian Gardner from Modiphius’ Conan the Barbarian book

Sword & sorcery’s protagonists aren’t participants in epic quests, or moved by noble goals. Instead, they are driven by the mundane things in life: survival, greed, lust. From the very beginning of his saga we learn exactly the sort of man Conan can be. He is no dog tamed by the virtues of civilization, but a wolf that kills what it will and takes what it wants.

Finally, there’s the villain. Plenty of the villains in Conan stories are memorable in their ways, but how many taunt him as perfectly as this?:

“My village is further than you can walk, Conan of Cimmeria,” she laughed. Spreading her arms wide, she swayed before him, her golden head lolling sensuously, her scintillant eyes half shadowed beneath their long silken lashes. “Am I not beautiful, oh man?”

“Like Dawn running naked on the snows,” he muttered, his eyes burning like those of a wolf.

“Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?” she chanted in maddening mockery. “Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can not follow where I would lead.”

She’s also more terrifying than many other of Conan’s enemies once her true nature is revealed. She’s not tempting Conan just to see him robbed or killed. Most of his opponents just want to kill him, but her objective is far more disturbing:

“Brothers!” cried the girl, dancing between them. “Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father’s board!”

That she has to call on her father, Ymir, in order to evade Conan only speaks to the strength of the Cimmerian. No mere mortal woman nearly overcomes Conan, but the daughter of a god. Evil wizards and courtly conspirators are a common type in Conan’s world, but how many times does he go toe-to-toe with a demigoddess?

“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is the best of the Conan stories. The story is polished to a deadly edge, carving away any fat. It moves with hellish intensity through a bloody, icy landscape. Other stories by Howard are more carefully and logically thought out, with more developed characters, but this story is like something produced by automatic writing; like something pulled down from some grim god’s dream.

If you haven’t read any of the Conan stories yet, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is the place to start. Yes, Conan’s decidedly different and less developed here, the plot is negligible, and there’s none of the exotic atmosphere like in “Red Nails” or other stories, but this is an excellent place to start to get a taste of Robert E. Howard’s writing at peak strength.


From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)

“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl” were submitted to Weird Tales along with “The Phoenix on the Sword.” While “Phoenix” was accepted and became the first Conan tale to be published, the other two were rejected and returned. Here’s editor Farnsworth Wright’s letter to Howard.

Howard changed Conan to Amra of Arkbitana, retitled the story “The God’s of the North,” and it appeared in the March, 1934 issue of the The Fantasy Fan. It first appeared as a Conan story in Gnome Press’ 1953 The Coming of Conan.

Marvel (Savage Tales #1/Conan the Barbarian #16/Savage Sword of Conan #1) and Dark Horse (Conan #2) adapted the story for graphic novels.

The opening of John Milus’ script for his never-produced movie, Conan, King of Iron, was based on this story. There is no battle. Conan is travelling in the ice-encrusted northlands. Atali is hanging out in the forest and beckons him forward. She tells Conan she could love him, but he must slay her two brothers. Which he promptly does. There’s no mention of putting the Cimmerian’s heart on Ymir’s altar. After he kills them, she “lays back on a rock, beckoning him.” Off-screen sex ensues. After, she tells Conan that if he brings her the jewels of the earth, she will give him a son. Okay…

Howard was an admirer of the classic, Bullfinch’s Mythology. There are elements of the Greek myths of Atalanta, as well as of Apollo and Daphne, in this short tale. It is the most controversial story in the Conan Canon.

Prior Posts in the Series:

Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie – The Phoenix on the Sword

Next week, Rogue Blade Entertainment’s Jason M Waltz explores “The Tower of the Elephant.” Watch out for spiders!

Fletcher Vredenburgh is generally on hiatus here at Black Gate, but will stop by occasionally. He’ll still be posting at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about all sorts of different things. His book-by-book review of Glen Cook’s The Black Company was one of the most popular Black Gate features in all of 2018. 


Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).

He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.

He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IVV and VI.

And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.

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This is a very meat and potatoes story. There is some world building. We get to see the people that populate north of Cimmeria. And that there are many gods and at least some of them are real.

It does showcase REH skill writing fight scenes. You get exactly what you need to picture the fights and at no time did a word or phrase catch me off guard and take me out of the moment.

This is my third time reading this over the years and i always thought it was clear that Atali is a siren equivalent. The older man at the end makes that final connection. He’s suffered an almost mortal wound, yet he’s doing everything he can to get up and follow her. No man would do that merely over a beautiful woman.

Also all of the art I’ve seen for the story always depicts Conan with a shield. At the beginning of the story I’m pretty sure it describes him losing it.


I forgot to add, if you need a song to listen to after you read it. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” by The Sword is the perfect companion story.

R.K. Robinson

Excellent analysis, good post. I like this story, along with most of the other Conan ones, but I always try not to over think them. I’m very sorry you saw the need for your caution. Good grief. What a time we live in that every little thing has to make us walk on eggshells.

I’ve been enjoying this series, Bob. Keep it up.


Great post, Fletcher. Thanks for the link.

I’d not considered that Conan and Heimdul are partially in the netherworld. Your argument makes perfect sense and adds additional depth to my reading.

“cagey, thoughtful, a figure of elemental power — dangerous” … all reasons why I love this story! Great write-up Fletcher. This is one of the most powerfully visceral adrenalized tales of vigor, energy, passion ever. It pours off the page, like you share, every word punching forward, driving, doing, daring. And you’re absolutely right – there is no other foe Conan faces similar to Atali, a demigoddess whose diabolical impersonation of the idea of the Valkyries deceives Conan like none other will ever do. She performs her divine role well in delivering her tempting mockery within his fugue of battle and nearness to death to goad him into performing as she’d countless times before done — only to learn to her dismay and then fear that there does indeed exist a mortal soul filled with enough passion for living to hold her wiles at bay long enough to not only not succumb to them but draw near enough to grasp her. Imagine her stark fear at this impossibility! Then her horror as her brothers are slain! Makes me wonder how many millenia passed before she drew comfortable enough to be anywhere near as close to her next victims.


IMO this could be argued the best because it is a good ‘introductory’ story – to get the reader wanting more and more. Its often the first comics adapted story one reads, yes for the T&A of the beautiful Frost Giant lassie. Other stories have more depth and backstory revealed and drama, but this is perfect and indeed the verse – “Like dawn running across the snow” is amongst the most beautiful.


Bye-the-bye, John — keeping up-to-date and easing replying via post subscriptions would be a super cool feature to add! https://www.google.com/search?q=how+do+i+add+post+subscription+in+wordpress&rlz=1CAPPDO_enUS786US786&oq=how+do+i+add+post+subscription+in+wordpress&aqs=chrome..69i57j0.10006j1j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

John ONeill

Thanks for stepping in, Bob. I was about to take more drastic steps with regards to Green’s comment, but I’m satisfied with the way you handled it.


Bob, John, are we going to have EVERY episode of this Conan series hamstrung in some way then in fear of any debate at all?

John ONeill


You crossed the line with that comment. I will not have Bob’s entire series derailed with your grotesque comments on women who deserve rape. I am debating permanently removing your account.

Major Wootton

From Algernon Blackwood’s “The Glamour of the Snow”:

—-…And then he saw her. She stood there waiting in a little clear space of shining snow, dressed all in white, part of the moonlight and the glistening background, her slender figure just discernible.

“I waited, for I knew you would come,” the silvery little voice of windy beauty floated down to him. “You had to come.”
…..He urged his pace, yet did not quite overtake her. The girl kept always just a little bit ahead of his best efforts. . . . And soon they left the trees behind and passed on to the enormous slopes of the sea of snow that rolled in mountainous terror and beauty to the stars. The wonder of the white world caught him away. Under the steady moonlight it was more than haunting. It was a living, white, bewildering power that deliciously confused the senses and laid a spell of wild perplexity upon the heart. It was a personality that cloaked, and yet revealed, itself through all this sheeted whiteness of snow. It rose, went with him, fled before, and followed after. Slowly it dropped lithe, gleaming arms about his neck, gathering him in. . . .The girl, slim and seductive, kept always just ahead, so that he never quite came up with her. He saw the white enchantment of her face and figure, something that streamed about her neck flying like a wreath of snow in the wind, and heard the alluring accents of her whispering voice….But when he plunged forward to hold her, or at least to look, the girl was gone again….—-


Just a footnote to “The Forst Giant’s Daughter.”


Well, I’m sorry, John, I guess I mis-understood the comment. I meant to talk about not debate whether or not Conan was a rapist but the situation that led up to that incident…skating the edge but trying to keep clear… failed I guess, sorry… clearly unpopular with you and Bob, but I like fiery debate but do stand by what I posted.

And ‘de-railing with grotesque comments’ – uh, please…? Like I got on the internet in the 90s when the WWW expanded, though I was going to bbs at the college earlier just not a full student yet. So what I’ve seen you shut down all comments for, when people start arguing essentially… It’s not like this is a Chan board for instance…

But, again I apologize if I crossed the line – I re-read it – seems a little different than when I read earlier – and there will be a separate post to discuss that issue. If I’d seen that earlier I’d have not posted on this one, period for I don’t like things that can’t take debate, but I didn’t.

However – John and Bob, will this entire series be a landmine of “Don’t go there” rules on discussing the stories at all? Or biased one side so you can’t argue the other, unpopular side? I think it quite fair to ask that…


Bob – Something other than … to talk about then…

The Frost Giant’s Daughter is nearly the first story adapted in any decade by any comics company. Marvel did it at least twice, and then Dark Horse did it also.

First – it’s clearly the youngest version of Conan – cutting his teeth fighting Vanir in the north.

Second – well lots of T&A to sell the issue

Third – you’ve established your rules – but let me say it’s a good ‘test of the waters’ on what they can get away with for the rest of the series. The first one even in the printed comics easily passed the Comics Code authority, they were more concerned with not showing hyper violent (“Ultraviolent” me Droogies) gallons of blood and flying gore or outright nipples/other private parts than the “Tales of Ribaldry” Conan otherwise soaked in that kids drooled over.


Another thing Bob – on that issue De Camp had “Plotless little sketch”

There’s a redeeming thing to that too – style over substance.

For instance – Vampire Hunter D – the movies – especially the 2nd one – IMO that is the best “Style over Substance”.

If something is surface only it’s bad normally – BUT – it can be done so it becomes an art form in itself.

IMO – for that issue – REH cut out all the unnecessary slack (and might have been making up 3/4 of it but nowhere near complete then) turning it to a pure action fantasy of verse and I love to say “Blood and Thunder”. So it sticks in people’s minds, even if lot better plot setters (Tower of the Elephant) or more developed story, most others.

I have the impression, especially due to lack of use of images, you haven’t much pursued the comics adaptations… There were lots of really good Conan and especially Savage Sword shorts that were like that. Conan going around chopping up stuff for its own sake, sometimes silent, experimental, the artists doing their best work. IMO that added to it rather than taking from it.


Well, i liked this tale due to the pseudo-Viking theme. In my opinion,Howard simply didn’t write enough tales set in the northern lands of Vanaheim, Asgard and Hyperboria. Actually, I wish Howard had written more tales featuring historical Vikings as well; seems like a natural for the type barbarian hero themes Howard loved. Anyway, this is still an amazing tale and a fun read, great review and in-depth analysis Fletch!


The story Frost Giants Daughter shares some plot points Howard used for his boxing stories starring Steve Costigan. It can be even turned into a Costigan story.

Costigan beats down an opponent and is smitten by a gal who leads him down a dark alley. There he comes upon her brothers that want to rob him. He takes care of them and proceeds after her only to find she has sought the succor of her father.

Howard probably thought of this story based on some real-life experience as opposed to reading it in some book as a Greek fable.

The question is why did Howard make a Costigan story into a Conan story? Probably because the market for boxing stories had dried up and Howard’s only market was Weird Tales. So, he added a sword and fantasy element and sent it to Farnsworth Wright.

This is all conjecture on my part, but the time frame is true.


Aye Bob, I’m a fan of the Cormac tales by Howard.As for the Offutt Cormac novels, it has been hit or miss for me. I enjoyed the two books co-written by Keith Taylor-Tower of Death and When Death Birds Fly. Mists of Doom and Sword of the Gael were kinda slow for me, and had a strange, almost forced ‘Celtic’ vibe to them. Just read Keith Taylor’s Bard stories to see Celtic S&S done right! I still have yet to read the remaining Offutt Cormac novels…

John ONeill

Jason — Thanks for the link! I will check it out.

[…] Robert E. Howard was born on January 22, 1906.  I’ve been reading through the Conan stories for the series at Black Gate. (The latest post is here.) […]

Woelf Dietrich

Awesome post, Fletcher. One of the things I like about Howard’s world is the research he invested in building it.

Interesting tidbit, in Norse mythology, Vanir is one of two primary groups of gods, Æsir being the other. The former was 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, and Loki, etc. Interestingly enough, Conan’s comrades in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” are collectively called Aesir.


“As for my own fantasy writing, whether or not I do any future work in that field depends a good deal on the editors themselves. I would hate to abandon weird writing entirely, but my financial needs are urgent, immediate and imperious. Slowness of payment in the fantastic field forces me into other lines against my will.”
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Feb 1936

At the same time that Tolkien was writing The Hobbit (1937), and expanding the world of Middle Earth which would so define the landscape of literary fantasy in the late 20th century, Robert E. Howard was crafting his own fantastic world—complete with hand-drawn maps, and an elaborate background essay titled “The Hyborian Age.” Some fantasy at this period took on a heroic character and was well-received by readers, including Lord Dunsany’s The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908) and E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922), yet Howard’s tales of an “Age Undreamed Of” often struggled for a market—while many pulps handled sports, detectives, and science fiction, “fantasy” as a distinct genre had not yet been clearly defined, and few publishers handled anything that smacked of magic, myth, or the supernatural—and those that did could afford to be picky. Wright’s rejection of “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” could have ended the Conan series almost as soon as it began – but it didn’t.

“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” has a mythic character that sets it apart from the other Conan tales, with Conan’s pursuit of Atali echoing the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne—albeit with a bit more swordplay. Many of the familiar personal and place names in the story (Valhalla, Aesir, Heimdul, Asgard, etc.) are taken from familiar history and mythology—a practice Howard’s friend Lovecraft lamented, but which in the context of the work implies the mythic status of the Hyborian Age, the visceral reality which became the legend.

echaczyk – great observation and I love your angle. When the bait – no matter the genre – gets caught for doing her/his job so well, ‘deserve’ shouldn’t even be part of the equation. When the bait – no matter the sport – gets blindside-tackled, gored, shot for doing his/her job so well, that doesn’t mean they ‘deserved’ it but it does mean they reaped what they sowed no matter how unlikely it seemed to be. Atali had a starring role in her family’s schemes – it’s not Conan’s fault she performed it so well. It’s her fault for her arrogance and lack of respect by not researching/knowing her prey and believing she was too divine/connected/powerful to be caught at her game. If Conan played that role of bait and goaded his target into following him into a trap, he certainly would not be crying foul of the opponent strong enough to catch him – he’d be simultaneously laughing at his foolish arrogance and swinging with all his might to end the threat he brought on himself.

Brian Kunde

The Forbidden Topic of this article is actually something of a red herring in that the intention is actually thwarted by the same person who incited it–neither Ymir nor Atali, but Howard. This might stand as a course in why there’s so little godly intervention elsewhere in the Conan tales; the gods played with fire and got burned. Once burned, twice shy, maybe?

The mythological connection is rightly pointed out; the possible Costigan one is amusing to contemplate but I’m not sure provable. But the most striking thing about what Howard might have been doing here has hardly been addressed. He was writing for Weird Tales. The essence of a “weird tale” is “something really strange and creepy that happened to me.” Howard was writing a new character, and trying to ensure he would work in the WT market. How better to test the waters than with the most basic, elemental kind of weird tale he could write? And issues of plot or taste aside, that’s what he did here. This story is stripped down, it’s raw, it’s uncanny, and it WORKS.

In my view, Farnsworth Wright, with his “don’t care for it” and de Camp, with his “plotless” dismissal, both missed the boat on this one. IT WORKS.

Brian Kunde

Could be, certainly. But… “dull?” Doubt it. The brevity issue makes sense, since, as noted, the story was so stripped down.

Tony Den

I love so many of the Conan stories that it’s hard to pick a favourite. Bang up job putting this one forward Fletcher. One thing I can say is I read Frost Giants Daughter in the Sphere – Conan of Cimmeria version (with de Camp and Carter as editors/contributors) on the bus on the way home not long after I got my first permanent job. The fact I remember all that and how well the story grabbed me some 27 years ago speaks volumes for its quality.

A theme not touched on here, that I saw, was the whole perseverance to the literal end of ones tether, and perhaps beyond. Where others would have given up Conan champed his jaws ’till they bled and pushed on. I am reaching here but maybe an analogy for the struggles Howard was facing, but keeping on in the face of adversity.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x