Thursday, June 27, 2013


I mentioned in my first 1934 post that Robert E. Howard had authored at least three significant femmes formidables in the same year, but one of them, "Red Sonya of Rogatino," gained more fame in a derived form, that of Marvel Comics' "Red Sonja."  Since Red Sonja only borrowed a few motifs from Howard's character, as well as appearing in a thoroughly different milieu, it seems sensible to give the earlier Sonya separate consideration.  The French reprint book above, which retitles the Howard story "Shadow of the Vulture" into "Sonya la Rouge," looks as if it's illustrating the Marvel version more than Howard's.

One surprising facet of "Shadow" is that Red Sonya is at best a secondary element of the tale.  The bulk of the story is Howard's rewriting of the history of the 1529 Siege of Vienna, the last attempt made by the Ottoman Empire-- then under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent-- to extend its power into Europe.  Robert E. Howard, being an ardent Celticist, had his own fictional version of "how the Irish saved Europe," often sending Celtic, English, or roughly related racial types into the mysterious East.  This time Howard sends a German hero, Gottfried von Kalmbach, to personally twist the tail of the ruler Suleiman.  Suleiman responds by sending a hitman, the "Vulture" of the title, to bring him Gottfried's head.

Sonya becomes embroiled in this conflict only because she comes to have some regard for Gottfried as a fellow warrior, and possibly (though it is not stressed) as a man.  Sonya saves Gottfried twice from his enemies, and displays fearless prowess on the battlefield, but her own character-arc is dubious.  She claims to be the sister of Roxelana, a historical Russian woman who became the real Suleiman's primary wife.  Howard devotes nearly no space to describing how this state of affairs came to be, though there's a brief suggestion that Roxelana may have been abducted in a Muslim slave-raid-- which, to modern ears, sounds pretty exculpatory for any imagined sins.  Yet Sonya refers to her sister as a "slut," apparently for not having chosen death over bedding a Muslim potentate.  It's possible Howard had some notion of pursuing this plot-thread in a separate story, but "Shadow of the Vulture" remains the only story about the woman from Rogatino.

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