One of the oft quoted criticisms of Conan the Barbarian is the less than politically correct way women are presented in his novels, movies, video games, and comic books. Conan is, after all, portrayed as the ultimate alpha male. His slick, long black hair. His ripped, veiny muscles. His brawny awesomeness. There’s nothing Conan can’t do with a sword and a loud enough guttural roar. But his domination of others isn’t isolated to the battlefield. His prowess for female conquests is legendary too.
Women in Conan stories are portrayed more often than not as the lusty sexpot who is a damsel in distress. Whether being kidnapped by snake-people, domineered by some king or sultan, or on the wrong side of an invading army, Conan stories frequently feature the Cimmerian leaping into action to save a female character from danger. It’s an active ingredient in 99.9% of all Conan stories. That might not be scientifically tested statement or proven fact, but it is surely accurate.
While this portrayal may be the case for a majority of Conan stories, not all women in the Conan universe are constantly damsels in distress. Yes, they are almost always drop dead gorgeous and “supple” (a favorite female descriptor used by Conan creator Robert E. Howard), but some of the women the future King of Aquilonia encounters in his many adventures are decidedly not helpless. Several of Conan’s female companions have stood out over time in the Conan universe as strong women capable of handling their own when the situation demands more than fainting and/or screaming. Here’s a list of seven women from Conan stories who held their own with the brawny Barbarian.
Starting off our list is the most famous female from the Conan canon, Red Sonja. The Red Sonja most fans are familiar with is actually a hero created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith that was only based on Robert E. Howard’s original character, Red Sonya. Notice the spelling difference? The original Red Sonya was not a character from the Conan mythos, but rather she was a 16th Century swashbuckler, Red Sonya of Rogatino. Needing a female warrior for the comics, Thomas and Smith simply lifted the character out of the 16th Century and placed her in the Hyborian Age as an equal to Conan, with a name change to Sonja. The legend was born!
First appearing in Conan the Barbarian #23, the chainmail bikini clad She-Devil with a sword is transformed from simply being an antagonist to Conan to having her own solo adventures by 1975. Red Sonja has slashed her way to her own stardom, even being featured in her own movie in 1985. Red Sonja’s adventures have been published by Dynamite Entertainment since 2005, with critically successful runs from Gail Simone in 2013 and most recently by Amy Chu in 2017 that have worked to revamp the character into a stronger character that can live outside the bulky shadow of Conan.
Valeria of the Red Brotherhood made her first appearance in Robert E. Howard’s novella Red Nails, originally published in Weird Tales in 1936. However, most fans will probably remember her as the female protagonist from the original Conan the Barbarian film, portrayed by Sandahl Bergman.
In Red Nails, we meet the pirate Valeria who, on the run after murdering a Stygian officer, has made her way to a mysterious island. Spying a walled city, Valeria is taken by surprise by Conan, who has followed her to this location. The two decide to venture into the ancient city only to be trapped there by the ancient warring factions. The movie changes a few things about Valeria and Conan’s adventures, as they both seek to kill the evil sorcerer/warrior Thulsa Doom. Valeria walks away from death in Red Nails, but isn’t so lucky in the film. Valeria is killed by Thulsa Doom, who shoots a snake arrow at her. That has to be the most frightening way for anyone to die. Period. No discussion. Though dead, her spirit returns later to save Conan from Thulsa Doom’s men. It’s hard to keep a warrior woman down!
One of the first issues of Conan the Barbarian I ever read was Conan #100, the tragic death of Bẻlit. Little did I know at the time, having little to no context for why I should care that she was killed, but Bẻlit would become one of my favorite Conan characters of all time. The Queen of the Black Coast is one of Conan’s many lovers, and depending on the source, perhaps his greatest. Bẻlit’s only appearance in the original Robert E. Howard stories is in “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Described as a goddess by her crewmembers, the pirate queen is fierce and loyal; traits that attract Conan to her almost immediately. Along with the crew of Tigress, Bẻlit and Conan raid the Black Coast for several years. Though many adventures are implied, Howard’s story begins their affair and also abruptly ends it with her death. Bẻlit’s staying power has been kept up in the comic books and the pastiche novels published over the years, giving her an ever expanding and important role in the development of Conan as a character. The work of the post-Howard creators have thrust her into being one of the most beloved characters of the Conan mythos outside of the main man himself.
Moving on from Conan’s one true love to the woman he actually had to settle for in the end. Zenobia’s only Robert E. Howard appearance is in the novel The Hour of the Dragon, sometimes republished as Conan the Conqueror. When we first meet her in the story, Zenobia is a concubine to the Nemedian king. In a reversal of fortunes, it is Zenobia who rescues the exiled King Conan. At great personal risk, Zenobia leads Conan through the labyrinthian palace and eventually to safety. Conan is greatly impressed by the skills and knowledge this lowly concubine has of fighting. Of course, Conan returns to the throne of Aquilonia, then leads his army to a rousing victory over the Nemedians. As the story closes, Conan vows to make the former concubine Zenobia his wife. And they lived happily ever after.
Or did they? Zenobia, along with Conan, returned in the pastiche novel Conan Returns by famed Howard fanboys Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp. Originally published in 1957, the adventure takes place a year after Hour of the Dragon and finds Zenobia settling into her new role as the Queen of Aquilonia, and having born Conan a son, the aptly named Conan II. Alas, Zenobia is turned into a damsel in distress by being kidnapped by a demon. These things do tend to happen from time to time. Don’t fear, Conan returns the rescuing favor, and Zenobia returns to her matronly palace duties. Happily ever after? Not really, Conan gets bored with being King, and eventually takes off on an adventure in Wolves Beyond the Border, leaving Zenobia to stay home with kid. Bummer.
The Darfarian Zula was first introduced in the Marvel Comic Conan the Barbarian #84… as a man, man! That’s hardly a damsel not in distress! Well, that’s because when Conan the Destroyer, the less than memorable 1984 sequel to the original Conan film was released, Zula was made into a female warrior, played by singer and actress Grace Jones. Both male and female incarnations are depicted as strong warriors, capable of handling themselves in any fight that Conan, let’s be honest here, mostly creates for himself.
In the film, Zula is portrayed as being more of a warrior-thief than the shaman-warrior her male counterpart is portrayed as. Conan rescues Zulu and she joins the quest to fight Thoth-Amon. Zula comports herself admirably as Conan’s companion, at least until the final battle. She is easily tossed aside by the shambling final boss, who is, of course, quickly dismantled by the heroic Conan. But that doesn’t mean she gets nothing out of her valor in battle! Zula becomes the captain of Queen Jehnna’s guard. A big promotion for a former raider!
Ah, Yasmela. Supple, supple Yasmela. Such an adept, supple woman. Such a supple woman of suppleness. Supple. Supple, supple, supple. Oh, sorry. I got lost in Robert E. Howard’s description of Yasmela, our next damsel mostly not in distress. His description of her is… supple. It’s a word he uses many times to describe the fair acting ruler of Khoraja. Yasmela was first introduced in the 1933 Robert E. Howard story “The Black Colossus.” In the story, the “supple” Khorajan Princess solicits the help of Conan in finding her lost brother, the king, who has been viciously kidnapped by Ophir. That’s right! A damoiseau/bachelor in distress!
Yasmela is presented throughout “Black Colossus” as a strong, capable leader while her brother is off being kidnapped. In council as acting leader, she argues her point of view in a forceful manner, making decisions judiciously, having the final say in any manner. This was usual for the 1930s and the Hyborian Age. Women in the 1930s were doomed to the cult of domesticity and lacked a strong political voice, having only earned the right to vote during the decade previous. Howard was also never terribly favorable to the vast majority of women (or other minorities) featured in his stories, with women being saddled with the aforementioned role of being the sexpot damsel in distress. The Princess Yasmela stands out as a skillful leader by comparison to much of Howard’s work. Yasmela does eventually manage to get kidnapped herself in the final act, but that can easily be overlooked given how strong of a character she was portrayed.
What? Princess Diana of Themyscira? A Damsel not in distress in the Conan mythos? Let’s face it, Wonder Woman is seldom a damsel in distress. She brings distress upon others, okay. However, in the last Dark Horse Conan story, Conan finds himself teaming up with Wonder Woman in a most unusual and unexpected way. Wonder Woman/Conan is a team-up that, on paper, shouldn’t really work, but thankfully it does in spectacular fashion.
For much of the first half of the story, Conan and Diana are chained together. The interactions from that scenario alone are well worth the price of admission. Conan meets Diana in the slave fighting pits, and is quick to confuse her with a young girl he fell in love with many years earlier in Cimmeria. Diana doesn’t remember who she is or why she is in the slave pits, but it doesn’t take long for her and Conan to get down to the business of finding out. I don’t want to spoil this story since it, unlike the other stories referenced here, it’s less than a year old instead of being eighty years old. The story is a treat, featuring the best, action packed, and whimsical sides of both Conan and Wonder Woman. It unfortunately looks like there won’t be a sequel, which is so shameful that Crom himself would surely bemoan its absence.