The Sword Woman
By Gary Romeo
Robert E. Howard fans proudly promote Agnes de Chastillon as a modern liberated fighting woman. She is as much a Howard hero as Conan the Cimmerian. When Wandering Star published The Illustrated World of Robert E. Howard in 2004, Agnes de Chastillon, also known as Dark Agnes de La Fere, was given the full-page treatment.
Howard definitely had plans for Dark Agnes. “Sword Woman” is chronologically the first story in the series. He had sent a copy of the manuscript to C. L. (Catherine Lucile) Moore who was winning fans in Weird Tales with her Jirel of Joiry stories. Jirel was referred to, even then, as a sort of female Conan. Ms. Moore was impressed with Howard’s story, “My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword Woman.” It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?”
Who knows why Howard sent C. L. Moore a copy of his story? Perhaps to foster a pen-pal romance or simply to get a feminine opinion of how he handled the character. In any event, C. L. Moore went on to marry fellow pulpster Henry Kuttner and Howard wrote only two more Dark Agnes stories, one of which remained unfinished. Agnes never found a market and Howard had to move on.
It has been suggested that Howard’s relationship with the independent minded Novalyne Price might have been the catalyst for the creation of Dark Agnes. But Howard had strong female characters throughout his writing career. “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom” written in 1928 featured a gun-toting Helen Tavrel. From the Conan series are Belit and Valeria. And Howard’s fiery Red Sonya of Rogatino from “Shadow of the Vulture” became the basis of the popular comic-book character Red Sonja. However Agnes is the only one featured in more than one actual Robert E. Howard story.
Noted critic and editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson suggested that “Possibly [Howard] knew a rough, hard, endearing Texas woman who influenced him….” Howard could have realized the long suffering and restrictions placed on women through simply observing his mother’s life. It is easy to imagine that Howard saw some lost potential in his mother with her marriage to Isaac Howard. Hester Howard encouraged Howard’s writing and especially his poetry. If his mother’s lot were different she might not have married and become a poet herself. A smart imaginative son like Howard could not hesitate to see unfulfilled potential in his mother (and women in general). Like his would-be self, if born in another time, seeing women as warriors and fighters. It has been said that later in life Howard “often took his father to task” regarding his father’s treatment of his mother. This, more so, than Howard’s conversations with Novalyne, were undoubtedly the beginnings of his progressive views toward women.
The Dark Agnes stories did not see print until the “Howard Boom” of the 70s. “Sword Woman” first appeared in REH: Lone Star Fictioneer #2 published in 1975, then reappeared in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard in 1976. “Blades for France” first appeared as a chapbook in 1975. The unfinished “Mistress of Death” first appeared in Witchcraft & Sorcery in the January-February 1971 issue and was completed by Gerald Page. The three stories featuring Agnes De Chastillon were finally collected in Zebra Book’s The Sword Woman in 1977. Along for the ride, were two non-Agnes stories, “The King’s Service” and “The Shadow of the Hun” which also first saw the light of day as chapbooks.
Unlike Howard publishing today, where fans write the introductions and notes, in the seventies it was the norm to try to get a recognizable name to write the introductions. A popular female science-fiction writer, Leigh Brackett, was called upon for the task and like C. L. Moore she enjoyed the character. In her introduction she states, “It’s too bad that Robert E. Howard didn’t write more stories about his Sword Woman. She was quite a character… more intelligent than Conan, more attractive than Solomon Kane, and as fine a swashbuckler as any of Howard’s heroes.” Brackett speculates that strong women characters were not a big draw in Howard’s time. Jirel was an exception because of her fantasy setting. Brackett suggests that Howard threw in supernatural fantasy into the third story, “Mistress of Death” to possibly get Agnes a foothold in Weird Tales. But alas he did not finish the story and Gerald W. Page was left to complete the story.
Brackett makes further comment: “[Sword Woman] makes absorbing reading, and not by any means for women’s libbers only. Agnes is forthright, honest, unselfpitying, likable human being, and she has you in the corner from Page One. She has that quality which transcends sex, since it is found as often in little girls as in large men… the quality of courage. And her defiance of Guiscard de Clisson, when he attempts to relegate her to her “proper place,” is as eloquent a statement of individual pride and self-respect as you are likely to read anywhere.”
Salmonson wrote: “It is indicative of [Howard’s] 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.”
References to “women’s lib” and “misogyny” are still relevant today but sound somewhat outdated and odd in a time when both “The Pussycat Dolls” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton” are presented as “empowered women.” Howard fans, and especially Conan fans, are probably never going to be looked upon as progressive males. There are too many passive female characters in the stories and too many scantily clad ones on the covers. But perhaps by discussing the Dark Agnes stories once again a step can be made in that direction.
My first reaction to these stories was the oddness of REH writing a female character in the first person. It seemed natural. I was impressed. The story starts with Agnes being hectored by her father. It is her wedding day and she is not ready. Agnes does not love the would-be husband and refuses to get married. Her father beats her into submission.
When Agnes wakes, she is dressed as a bride. Her sister Ysabel at first tries to comfort her but ends up telling her: “Life is a hard thing for a woman. Your tall supple body will grow bent like mine, and broken with child-bearing; your hands will come twisted – and your mind will grow strange and grey – with the toil and weariness – and the everlasting face of a man you hate.”
Howard really does seem to have a modern feminist perspective in this story. This dialog between Ysabel and Agnes about women’s fate is still quite compelling even today. Ysabel gives Agnes a dagger. Instead of suicide, the dagger is used to kill her would-be husband. Agnes flees and narrates: “a wild surge of freedom flooded me, so I felt like dancing and singing like a mad woman” but instead she cleans the dagger. A feminist interpretation could be that Howard is implying that what men call a “mad woman” is a woman free from male domination.
Agnes meets up with Etienne Villiers and possibly makes a wrong judgement about a man. “Perchance it was natural that I should unburden myself to the first friendly stranger – beside Etienne Villiers had a manner about him which induced women to trust him.”
Etienne offers to take her to a town to find work. She disguises herself as a boy but her femininity is obvious according to Etienne. Etienne is a scoundrel who planed to double cross her and sell her to a brothel. But Etienne has troubles of his own. He is pursued by the Duc d’Alencon, so he attempts to sell her to a man named Thibault. Agnes overhears the plot and kills Thibault and attempts to kill Etienne. He pleads for his life and mentions he is wanted by the Duke. Agnes’ “fear and distrust of the nobility” leads her not to kill him.
Howard is very implicit here. If Agnes had not been a fighter, forced marriage or prostitution would have been her fate. There is no direct comparison of marriage with prostitution in the text, but to have Agnes fight so hard to deny either fate has to be looked at as a very radical subtext. Howard was years beyond his era in implying that for a woman to have true freedom she needs to make her own way in life and fight when she has to and make love when she wants too.
Agnes helps Etienne escape his enemies and they meet up with Guiscard de Clisson, leader of the Free Companions. Guiscard mentions that Agnes could be another Black Margot of Avignon. I could not find any historical reference for this person. At first I thought it might be a reference to Alexander Dumas’ Queen Margot. Queen Margot was the daughter of Catherine de Medici and King Henry II. The Dumas novel focuses on her love affair with the Protestant La Mole and her marriage to Henry IV against the backdrop of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. But Queen Margot died a natural death, not one on a battlefield. “Black Margot” appears to be a Howard creation. Perhaps he planned a series featuring this character. Also “Queen Margot” takes place far too late to be connected with this story. In 1515 Francis I won the battle of Marignano and in 1516 the Treaty of Noyon was signed. Spain guaranteed France’s possession of Milan. Charles V refused to recognize the agreement. In the story, Guiscard mentions to Agnes that “the Emperor is trying to sweep de Lautrec out of Milan.” Vicomte de Lautrec was driven from Milan in 1521. So “Sword Woman” takes place shortly before that event.
Guiscard denies Agnes request to join the Free Companions. She says, “Ever the man in men! Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk and spin and sew and bake and bear children not look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord and master! Bah! I spit on you all. There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and 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 and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress.” In our modern age when a woman has the choice to be a housewife, CEO, or something in-between this comes across as a little shrill. But Howard was writing of an age when women were truly limited in their choices.
Salmonson says: “Intense, pointed, true – Agnes has swore herself to celibacy, aware that even to share a bed with a man, in her society and 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.”
I disagree with Salmonson here. It seems more of a promise never to be submissive to a man rather than a vow of chastity. Howard’s heroic women were attracted to men. Even Agnes helps and trusts Etienne at first.
Whatever the intent Howard is truly taking the woman’s view in this story but he also remains true to his usual alliances with the poor and downtrodden. There is a hint of sympathy even with Agnes’ tyrant of father in the comment that introduced him, “a tall man, gaunt and bitter, darkened with the suns on many campaigns, marked with scars gotten in the service of greedy kings and avaricious dukes.” Howard tells us of Etienne’s life. “… my memory runs back to the gutters of Poiters, where I snatched for crusts and lied for pennies as a child, and got my first knowledge of the ways of the world.” Howard presents the men as in the wrong when they are imposing their force on Agnes but remains somewhat sympathetic to them as individuals scarred by a system that favors the advantaged and wealthy.
Later Etienne and Agnes are attacked and escape. Guiscard instructs Agnes in the art of sword fighting. Salmonson dislikes this device. “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.” Agnes’ instincts had her killing her would-be husband, “my dagger was sheathed in his pig’s heart before he realized I had struck.” Then Thibault, “my blade was sheathed in Thibault’s heart before he could rise.” Then she damn near killed Etienne, “my blindly driven steel tore the skin over his rib.” Then she killed a whole passel of rogues. A bellowing fellow named Tristan, “I cut that bellow short as my sword sheared through his thick neck muscles and he went down, spouting blood, his head hanging by a shred of flesh.” She then shoots a man in the face, “blasting his skull into a red ruin.” She “split the head of Conrad the German, as a man splits a melon.” She spills the bowels of Gaston the Wolf. In an “arch of crimson” she has Jehan “staring stupidly at [his] spouting stumps.” One could argue that the mayhem barely changes after Guiscard’s instruction. When next attacked she “drove my sword so fiercely through his teeth that the point transfixed his skull.” Agnes appears to be a natural born killer and not prone to use any finesse that Guicard might have taught.
Another attack occurs and Guiscard is murdered. The target was supposed to be Etienne. Agnes escapes. She meets back with Etienne and they seemed poised for further adventures as “brothers-in-arms.”
“Blades for France” is the sequel. Agnes kills a man by “severing jugular, wind pipe, and spine at one thrust.” Agnes and Etienne are on the run from the Duc d’Alencon. They have a plan to meet up with a pirate named Roger Hawksly and escape to Italy. Agnes has no regrets about her situation and narrates her disdain for marriage, “Better a short life of adventure and wild living than a long dreary grind of soul-crushing household toil and child-bearing, cringing under the cudgel of a man I hated.”
Salmonson wrote: “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 and detractors from feminist camps.”
Agnes had taken the man’s cloak and is mistaken for him. After a bit of intrigue and a failed murder Agnes meets back up with Etienne. Etienne tells Agnes that Hawksly’s pirates were attacked and their plan to flee France is no more. Etienne is puzzled by the fact that it was noblemen who attacked the pirates. While talking, a rider approaches. Dark Agnes shoots and nearly kills the beautiful woman. Etienne recognizes her as the King’s mistress, Francoise de Faix. Agnes is not impressed with the status the woman has acquired by sleeping with a prominent man and refuses to kneel before her as Etienne instructs her to. Agnes feels she is the more honest woman.
The mistress is under the thrall of another woman, Louise of Savoy. She, unlike Agnes, longs for a simple life, “It was she who made me what I am. Else I had been, not the mistress of a king, but the honest wife of some honest man.” A plot is afoot to kill the king and she is the bait. The conspirators are the same people chasing Agnes and Etienne so they agree to help Francoise. She is grateful to Agnes: “With a sob she rose and threw both her soft arms around my neck and kissed me on the lips […].” After a good bit of running around and some swordplay they save the king and are still on the run stuck in France.
Salmonson thinks Howard intentionally played with lesbianism in the story: “[Blades for France] has some truly rare moments, as when chaste Agnes receives her first kiss – from another woman! In the end, when Agnes’ comrade is moody over having held that noblewoman in his arms. Agnes is silent. But a wise reader will know what’s in Agnes’ mind: Ah, but she kissed me.”
I’m not sure I agree with Salmonson on this. Howard is definitely playing with contradictory ideas though. Agnes seeks adventure and rejects a married life. Francoise is extremely beautiful and could use her beauty for self-gain but wishes for a simpler life. Louise of Savoy is a calculating woman using her weak son and the beautiful Francoise as a power-seeking man would. Howard shows us three women here and clearly prefers the self sufficient Agnes.
“Mistress of Death” was finished by Gerald W. Page and features a supernatural menace. The story starts with Agnes being attacked by several ruffians who had just killed a sorcerer. Agnes had followed them into an alley to stop the killing. She is rescued (!) by a finely dressed man named John Stuart. He has heard of her in Scotland. Apparently there are some untold Agnes stories where she spreads her fame. I kept thinking Stuart was going to betray her at some point but by the end of the story they are probably fated to be lovers. This is a pretty weak story and Agnes is nowhere near the strong character of the previous stories. I’m not sure how much Page changed the original; maybe not much, maybe Howard was looking to sell this to Weird Tales and decided to make Agnes a little more approachable and thus maybe get a sale out of Farnsworth Wright. Leigh Brackett suggests as much in the introduction to the Zebra Books collection.
Etienne is no where to be found in this story. Agnes and Stuart are accosted by the local police and fight them off. Agnes threatens to whip her betrayer, a woman. They go to investigate the crime of which they are accused and see the murdered sorcerer is back to life. They eventually have to fight the sorcerer to gather proof to clear their names. Agnes is almost back to her old self, “the edge of my blade cut deep into the flesh of Costranno’s mangled neck, severing through bone and gristle as well as flesh, and then pulling free as the severed head flopped from the shoulder […].”
But Agnes is attacked near the end of the story and is once again rescued by Stuart. Stuart says, “And if, in the end, it comes to this, there is no shame for you to act as a woman, Dark Agnes, for you are quite a woman, indeed.”
Salmonson writes: “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. […] But when Agnes thinks the worst […] and frightens her considerably, there is yet a rough concern in Agnes’s attitude for the street-damaged [woman].”
Whether one agrees with Brackett and Salmonson in their praise of Dark Agnes really doesn’t matter. Dark Agnes simply deserves the discussion. It’s unlikely she will ever be as popular as Conan or Red Sonja. Her historical setting doesn’t provide for adventure after adventure as easily as the Hyborian Age with it’s dark magic and varied backgrounds. But the Sword Woman remains Howard's most fully realized female character and deserves all the attention she receives.