Although pulp swords and sorcery books feature plenty of scantily clad women on their covers, sometimes there is a different kind of woman inside. She fears neither man nor beast, leads men into battle, captains pirate ships, and lures men to their deaths. Belit and Valeria fought alongside Conan as equals, while Jirel of Joiry was the Lady of a city who led her men into victory over and over, and Dark Agnes could terrify a man through her reputation alone.
While Red Sonja is arguably the most famous swordswoman of the pulp era, she wasn’t alone. With our recent coverage of the Swords of Sorrow crossover event from Dynamite, I decided to look into some of these legendary women of pulp. I read several sword and sorcery books to get an idea of how women were portrayed in pulp novels about swords and sorcery. First was Queen of the Black Coast and The Frost Giant’s Daughter from Robert E. Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria; Red Nails; and The Sword Woman, also by Howard; plus Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore. I rewatched Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja and perused my comic collections of Red Sonja and Conan, especially Song of Belit, while listening to music like The Sword.
Belit is a legendary pirate queen when she first runs into Conan. Howard describes her as a panther to Conan’s lion, and she is the one who plans their raids. Belit is beautiful and shrewd, but ultimately it is her greed that leads to her downfall. However, Belit has her own implied history, and her choices are definitely her own. She leads her crew, and they are described as loyal to the death for this woman. Her love for Conan was strong enough to overcome death itself.
Valeria, on the other hand, scorns Conan’s attention. She is a mercenary used to taking care of herself, and she wanders where she will, although she does get some shocks when she finds herself in a jungle. Valeria is a city girl at heart and is much more comfortable stealing her way into a night’s worth of drinking and a soft bed than facing off against giant lizards.
Jirel is the leader of a city and the general of its army and is frequently mistaken for a man while armored. She rides a warhorse into a castle and tramples its defenders beneath her horse’s hooves. Jirel is Christian, but removes her cross and journeys willingly into hell so that she may get revenge. She heads in a second time to save the man she loves, who is also the man who seized her castle and treated Jirel like a possession. That’s where the author lost me. While C.L. Moore was trying to portray a complicated, nuanced women, the author resorted to the nasty cliche of a woman falling in love with her abuser.
Dark Agnes starts off as an ordinary peasant girl with an abusive father intent on marrying her off to the richest suitor. Rather than follow through with his plan, however, Agnes stabs her bridegroom and runs off into the wilderness, where she eventually trains to become a deadly swordswoman. Agnes doesn’t have much regard for other women, but honestly, she doesn’t really like anybody.
Since these stories rely on pulpy tropes, like deadly, beautiful women exploring lost cities with incomparable warriors, they aren’t without problems. There is also some serious racism to go along with those tropes. The “soft white flesh” of these women contrast the “inky black” men who are described as savages. Although the women are described as being animalistic and primal, there’s a correlation between white and noble, while everyone with dark skin is little better than an animal. It’s pretty gross. All of the women are curvaceous with alabaster skin; not exactly the physiques of Olympic athletes, yet they’re able to swing a sword for hours and control a massive warhorse.
Dark Agnes and Jirel both have red hair to match their tempers, while Valeria is blonde and Belit the sole brunette. Their dress is exotic: Dark Agnes and Jirel wear full suits of armor, Valeria wears weird culottes, and Belit runs around topless with her girdle and jewelry. Apparently, sunburn wasn’t a concern for the pirate queen with her oh-so-white skin.
Of these four women, Dark Agnes was the most interesting to me. There is a lack of gendered norms seen in her misanthropism, and she scoffs at any concern that would lead her away from her career. Apparently, Howard had intended to write more about her, but he died before completing the third Dark Agnes story. The hallucinogenic imagery in the Jirel stories is amazing and worth wading through the ickiness of the love affair for. I wish there had been more stories about her, like how she rose to her position. There’s at least one more about her that I haven’t read, which includes another of Moore’s characters, Northwest Smith. Valeria isn’t as big a figure as Belit is in the Conan mythology, and I’d definitely skip the Belit comic in favor of the original short story. The depiction of her crew is awash in racist tropes, but the love story between Belit and Conan surprised me with its depth. Two well-matched lovers sailing the sea with the might of his arms and the sharpness of her wits? That’s a story I would have read more of.