Dark Agnes de Chastillon (Howard, R., E.)

Here's a bit of an oddity among the works of Robert E, Howard: a female main character, who is not only good with a sword and a pistol but who can also put any man to his place. And the stories are even narrated from the first person perspective of Agnes herself.  Despite Agnes being a very promising character, Howard completed only two of her stories and made one incomplete draft for the third one, later completed by another writer. All of the Dark Agnes stories were published after Howard's death.

The most interesting aspect of the two full stories is the personality of Agnes as well as her background, which is fully told on the story Sword Woman. Agnes was a simple country girl, whose father was an abusive drunkard, beating his daughter if he so saw fit. He decided to arrange a marriage for the girl, being certain that a marriage would tame the spirited Agnes. He was wrong. So very wrong.

On the day of her marriage, in the front of the priest and the wedding guests Agnes stabbed the spouse to be, a man she severely disliked, to death. Not willing to stay and face the music, she ran away only to meet a rogue name Etienne Villiers, who helped her to get away, but whom later on tried to sell her to a brothel, which caused Agnes to kill another man in his company and beat Etienne half dead. For Etienne's favour, it has to be noted that he immediately sees the folly of his ways after being thus disciplined by the fierce Agnes.

After being thus scorned by men, Agnes finally meets a sellsword Clisson, who after being impressed by the natural sword talent of Agnes, agrees to train her and take her as a comrade in arms, as she wows to disown her womanhood and live her days as a man among men.

Agnes is, as stated, a natural born fighter, who doesn't take crap from anyone. She's also quick-tempered and does not easily attach to people. Like it is said of her, by men on her side, she roves the lands like Fates, unnerving and unmoved by the death she leaves behind her, not shedding tears even on her companions as her early years have turned her cold and distant.  There where other people, men or women, would have succumbed to despair, Agnes thrives.

It is really a shame, that Howard did not create more Dark Agnes stories. While her personality was sort of a retreat to someone like Solomon Kane, it also was made somewhat refreshing by the gender swap. In the two and a half stories she's in are glimpses of a character that might have rivalled even Howard's own Conan, had he just lived long enough to flesh her out more.

While the stories set in the 16th-century France are not particularly novel as far content goes, they still are very well written. I even suspect Howard saw them as an interesting challenge after writing so many male characters. Jumping in the boots of a fierce sword and pistol fielding red-haired she-devil must have felt like a splash of fresh water.

It is suspected that the character of Agnes is at least partially based on Novalyne Price, who was Howard's friend as well as a subject of his romantic interests. Price herself wrote later on in her life a memoir of her relationship with the troubled author of savage tales. Another source of inspiration is very likely C.L. Moore's character Jirel of Joiry, another fierce female fighter in medieval France.

The stories Dark Agnes is in are called Sword Woman, which is a full account of her origins, Blades for France, in which Agnes stumbles upon an international plot to shake up France and the unfinished tale called Mistress of Death, which goes towards more supernatural elements. If it had really been a supernatural tale is an entirely different question.

But, like I said, the two complete Agnes stories are good in their own right. Sure enough, they share a DNA with Howard's other work, but despite that sense of familiarity, they're well written and stories. It really is a shame he didn't have time to do more.



Comments

  1. Could you say something about differeances between Dark Agnes and Red Sonja? At least both were ginger and had a fine sword hand.

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  2. At least as far Sonja's comic incarnation goes, she is more like a female Conan whereas Agnes comes out more like a female version of Solomon Kane. Though, that's only a slight resemblance, as Agnes is not devout Christian nor is she afraid to act in a bit more questionable manner at times. I do think Howard did flesh the character of Agnes further than he did flesh out the Red Sonya (the character the comic version stole the name from in the story Shadow of the Vulture).

    Howard's Sonya is a rowdier character whereas Agnes is more sombre, even a bit calculative at times. It does seem to me, that he actually liked writing both of them, as that let him step out from his more common type of male heroes.

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