In Defense of Red Sonja: Not the Female Conan
Red Sonja is nearing forty and, even if you don’t recognize the name, you know her. She’s the original girl in the chain mail bikini. There have been warrior women before (Jirel of Joiry) and since (Xena). But when you imagine sexist cheesecake portrayals of women in fantasy, the sort of thing modern creators try to avoid at all costs, you imagine Red Sonja, She-Devil with a Sword. And, frankly, she’s gotten a bad rap.
She’s a bit of an accidental icon, the sort of strong female character that could only be imagined by men in the midst of the Sexual Revolution.
The Shadow of the Vulture
Red Sonja was originally created by Roy Thomas (though based heavily on Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya from “Shadow of the Vulture”) as a supporting character in the Conan the Barbarian series. The idea was to present a recurring female character who wasn’t just rescue bait for the Cimmerian, someone who could handle herself in a fight and win his respect as well as an appreciative leer. The iconic red hair was chosen simply because the only two prominent female adventurers in Howard’s original Conan stories were Belit (black hair) and Valeria (blond hair) and Thomas wanted an easy way to differentiate her from them.
Red Sonja first appeared in Conan the Barbarian 23 (February 1973) in a story also titled, “Shadow of the Vulture” (a loose adaptation transposing the setting from the 16th century Ottoman Empire to the Hyborian Age). Conan first encounters her as he races to the gates of Makkalet, a hundred raiders following behind him. As the gates open and Conan is running in, we see Red Sonja running out to meet the raiders, with sword drawn and her own mercenary army at her back. Within five panels of her first appearance, we get the classic description of Red Sonja as “a she-devil more beautiful than the flames of Hell.”
Conan’s first description of her? “A wench who should be tending a hearth somewhere!” Ahem. Of course, it only takes two panels of fighting beside her before his opinion starts to change. Unlike damn near every other woman he’s encountered, however, Sonja honestly couldn’t care one way or another for him.
Still, four pages later, she saves Conan’s ass again. This time, as they’re fighting a gang of spies, Conan pushes Sonja aside not to protect her, but to spare the life of a spy, whom they use to bait a trap for a hired killer. As with many Conan stories, this one ends with someone getting his head cut off.
In the beginning, we have a Red Sonja who looks a bit different than what we’ve come to know. No chain mail bikini. She wears a full chain mail shirt that goes all the way to her wrists. Sure she’s wearing red booty shorts, but that’s positively prudish compared to her later fashion choices.
But from the start, we see her supreme self-confidence, ruthlessness, and crude demeanor. We learn that Red Sonja “drinks the strongest man under the table and outswears a Zingaran” and that she is “all men’s delight and no man’s love.” It would be easy to see her as a female version of Conan, who was described in “The Phoenix on the Sword” as having “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.”
Of course, this first appearance could easily be written off as a Mary Sue story. Here’s a character we’ve never seen before who rescues Conan the Barbarian not once, but twice, in one story. Everyone loves her and she seems to have no discernible flaws or shortcomings. Beyond bad-mouthing our hero, we get no memorable dialogue between the two of them. A fun story, but nothing so remarkable that anyone would be talking about the character forty years later. So why does anyone care?
The Song of Red Sonja
Red Sonja’s second appearance was in issue 24’s “The Song of Red Sonja,” considered one of the high points of the entire Conan series. It opens with a beautiful full-page spread of Conan and the other mercenaries celebrating their victory from last issue. And in the center of all the drinking and laughter is Red Sonja, dancing barefoot on a table. Everyone around her is chanting her name, but like any modern-day strip club, they know the rule is “look, but don’t touch.” Of course, on page two, someone touches.
The ensuing brawl completely destroys the tavern, with Conan and Sonja again fighting side by side. As they make their escape, Conan suggests (quite innocently?) that they cool off with a quick dip in a lake. Red Sonja agrees, but worries that her chain mail shirt is far too heavy for swimming. Honestly, what else can she do but go for a topless swim?
After a page of “gosh, what are you staring at?” dialogue, Sonja suddenly recalls that she has some work to do. Conan’s reaction to being flashed, then told to back off? “Crom, woman, a wench like you could drive the Devil himself to drink.”
After getting their clothes back on and stealing a horse (from the guard investigating the bar brawl, no less), they make their way to the royal palace to steal a magic doodad and fight a demon snake. We learn that Red Sonja’s mercenary activity last issue was just a cover for her real mission to rob the king. Conan isn’t half as concerned with acquiring treasure as with Sonja’s promise of a more intimate “payment” for helping her. And at the story’s conclusion …
She burns the rope Conan is climbing as she makes for the stolen horse and rides away, doodad safely in her possession.
This issue saw the culmination of two years’ worth of artistic growth by Barry Windsor-Smith. Every page is beautiful and it’s the perfect capstone to his time on the series (where he would be succeeded by the equally-celebrated John Buscema). Whether he’s drawing a bar fight, a giant snake in a room full of treasure, or simply a frightened king and queen quietly holding eachother for comfort, the artwork is gorgeous in every detail.
As for the story itself, we get a few more hints of Red Sonja’s character being more than just a female Conan. She is not as honorable as Conan, shown in her willingness to abandon him in the royal tower once she obtains the treasure. She’s not as strong or vicious a fighter, needing him to strike the killing blow against the demon serpent. She’s also not above using her physical charms to manipulate him into helping her.
However, we also see Red Sonja’s compassion when she keeps Jax in her mercenary group, despite the head injury that makes him as much a threat to her as to her enemies. She is someone more civilized than Conan, which works to her advantage when she has to maneuver through the cities (whose customs sometimes baffle the Cimmerian). She’s also not above enlisting help when she is clearly out of her depth.
Most of all, the final pages of her second appearance offer the first reference to her vow never to love a man who has not defeated her in combat. With that line, Red Sonja is well and truly set apart from all other women in the Conan series. Despite his brutish nature, we know that Conan would never take a woman by force. This vow sets up a sort of unstoppable force/immovable object relationship between the two of them.
With these two stories, the character of Red Sonja was set and it didn’t take long for reader demand to bring her back, again and again.
The top image is taken from the cover of Red Sonja #0 (Dynamite Entertainment, artist Greg Land). The other two images are taken from Conan the Barbarian #24 (Marvel Comics, artist Barry Windsor-Smith).
Next Week: The Chain Mail Bikini
Interesting article. Red Sonja definitely has a following all her own. The character Robert E. Howard created in The “Shadow of the Vulture” is Red Sonya and is spelled differently. “Shadow” appeared in THE MAGIC CARPET MAGAZINE in January 1934. My favorite description of her:
“She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger; and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was carelessly thrown a scarlet cloak…Gottfried approached, eying in open admiration the splendid swell of her bosom beneath the pliant mail, the curves of her ample hips and rounded limbs. She stood as a man might stand, booted legs braced wide apart, thumbs hooked into her girdle, but she was all woman. She was laughing as she faced him, and he noted with fascination the dancing sparkling lights and changing colors of her eyes…”
Red Sonya saves Gottfried’s life several times in the story.
Red Sonja also has some elements of Howard’s Dark Agnes de Chastillon who was no woman to be tending the hearth either. She only appeared in two stories and a fragment. In “Sword Woman” REH gives us her response to such a suggestion:
“Ever the man in men!” I said between my teeth.“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…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.”
Both Agnes and Red Sonja proved they are formidable fighters.
Looking forward to reading your next article…
Personally, I always saw Red Sonja as part of the mainstream forcing “Political Correctness” into the still very un-pc “sword and sorcery” genre. Like all the modern push, it’s a magical outside force. In her case, she was magically given super-woman strength by some goddess suddenly intervening in the world despite it being otherwise quite a “low fantasy” backdrop where even the mightiest of wizards feared “Several Sword thrusts” or just one, counting Conan. Just as modern “PC” carries an underurant
Ugg tablet hit the wrong button..
-just as modern PC carries an undercurent of counter prejudice, especially hatred against the white male, so this PC forced Red Sonia to be a “foil” to Conan. She started from a place of hating men,being raped repeatedly by raiders who killed her family, then the vow the goddess forced on her alienating her from all men, for if she bedded any man who didn’t defeat her in combat, she’d become “just another weak woman”. Like PC the situation made her a rival, foil, antagonist of “the white male” whom she slaughtered right and left, or in the case of Conan at odds with perhaps the ONE man in that world who didn’t rape women.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like Red Sonja, but I consider her part of the “Thus and Blunder” end of that spectrum.
Barbara – I forgot to mention Dark Agnes, but I can absolutely envision someone taking that quote and slipping it into a Red Sonja story.
GreenGestalt – There absolutely was a push in comics, especially Marvel Comics, to introduce more female protagonists in the 1970s. For Sonja’s first few appearances, we know nothing about her background and can only assume that her skills were earned through practice and experience. I’ll be going into the origin story in a couple weeks and it’s interesting to note, even in its first telling, Sonja doesn’t seem entirely certain how much of it was real. The novels eventually suggest that the “vision” was just the hallucination of a dying woman that instilled in her the confidence she needed to become a great fighter. I rather like that interpretation because it means she owes her skill to no one but herself and, more importantly, that her oath was also to no one but herself.
I have rather strong ambivalence towards Red Sonja: on the one hand, I appreciate her being a strong and proactive female presence in a normally male-dominated form (it’s just nice to have variety, you get bored after too many Conan/Brak clones). On the other, I really dislike her origin story: I found it exploitative and unnecessary, since there are plenty of women warriors of history and mythology who became great leaders and fighters without the good grace of a goddess. The association with Red Sonya and Howard also means people tend to think Howard created the chainmail bikini-wearing Sonja, and so are likely to lay the problems of Sonja at Howard’s feet.
Even so, I’m probably not the best guy to talk to about Big Red…
“Conan’s first description of her? “A wench who should be tending a hearth somewhere!””
Surely that can’t have been from the same Conan who fully expected Yasmela to don armour and lead her army into battle in “Black Colossus”? Surely that can’t be from the same Conan who comes from a country of proud, strong women who fight like tigresses when brought to bay? (Argh, sorry, it really bugs me, is all)