Tuesday, July 5, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #18: RED SONJA #1
PLOT-SUMMARY for "The Blood of the Unicorn" (script Thomas & Noto; art Thorne): As a mounted Red Sonja approaches a forested area her horse stumbles in a hole and breaks its leg, so that she's forced to stab the animal to death with her sword. On foot, she comes across a band of men attempting to capture a wild unicorn. The unicorn tries to bolt but collides with a tree and breaks off its horn, which falls into the hands of the band's leader, a sorcerer named Andar. Sonja fights off the hunters and mounts the unicorn, which carries her away. Together the warrior-maid and the unicorn wander the forest, enjoying one another's company in a "nigh-mystic tie" while the unicorn's horn slowly grows back. Meanwhile Andar, who has returned to the village he rules with his men, uses the broken horn to compound an immortality serum, which he drinks (though it's not clear whether he thinks it makes him immune to being killed or simply able to live forever as long as he's not fatally attacked). Despite having accomplished his goal, Andar does not want anyone else to share his immortality, and is irate to hear that Sonja still travels in the company of the horned beast. He and his men attack Sonja and the beast, and Andar almost manages to kill Sonja, only to be killed instead when the unicorn impales the sorcerer on its horn. The other men scatter, but soon Sonja realizes that she cannot stay in the unicorn's forest forever and the two of them part, so that she can follow her "warrior's destiny" while the beast remains "riderless and free."
MYTH-ANALYSIS: One of the easiest type of stories to write-- and thus a type that rarely rises above the monosignative-- is one in which an obsessive personality pursues some idée fixe. Admittedly this may lead to something as plurisignative as MOBY DICK. However, in the sword-and-sorcery genre to which RED SONJA belongs, the story-type usually takes a simple form. Some tyrant wants the sexual favors of a maiden; the hero protects the maiden and kills the tyrant; the hero often if not always gets the sexual favors denied the tyrant.
"Blood" is interesting in that it seems more about an obsession over a rather abstract form of *libido.* The backstory for Andar specifies that as a boy he saw a "white colt" and that he became "enflamed" with the desire to touch it, but the creature frustrated his attempt by fleeing. The backstory does not precisely say that Andar saw a real unicorn, but he evidently thought that he did, for he later researched the creature's history and thus learned the story that its horn would grant one eternal life. However, even though Andar doesn't want to have sex with the unicorn, he's just as jealous as any rejected lover, becoming angry at "the mere thought of the warrior-woman and the unicorn together." Similarly, he wants the creature dead so that no one else can partake of its bounty of eternal life; he even kills one of his aides when the man tries unsuccessfully to take a sip of the immortality serum.
Sonja's role parallels that of the hero who does enjoy the freely-given favors of the "maiden," though here too, what passes between her and the unicorn is a communion that transcends and yet encompasses sexuality. Clearly her sojourn with the creature draws on medieval stories in which virgin maidens alone can draw unicorns out of hiding. Yet the medieval myth is somewhat overturned by the fact that Sonja is not a virgin, though "Blood" makes no reference to her standard backstory. Red Sonja's first appears as a Marvel character-- one very loosely patterned after a Robert E. Howard warrior-woman-- in CONAN THE BARBARIAN #23(1973). Here she suggests something of the "iron virgin" in that she swears no man will sleep with her unless he conquers her in battle. However, roughly two years later, a story in the KULL black-and-white magazine discloses that as a young woman Sonja suffered rape by a bandit-chieftain, and that she was empowered by a goddess who required Sonja never to sleep with anyone save a conqueror.
It's interesting, then, that the unicorn might also be viewed as something of a "rape survivor" in the most metaphorical sense, in that Andar wants to plunder the unicorn of its horn as a bandit took away Sonja's virginity. The unicorn is often referred to as an "it" but there are two or three telling moments when the script specifies that the beast is male, which is why the relationship between the girl and the stallion does seem quasi-sexual. In the first panel in which Sonja beholds the unicorn's horn, the Thomas-Noto caption reads that "His [the unicorn's] eyes move, as though aware of Sonja's presence." And in keeping with dozens of girl-and-horse stories from BLACK BEAUTY to Silver Age SUPERGIRL, Sonja is most impressed with the unicorn when she rides him. "Tarim's blood; what power!" she exclaims.
One could easily read Andar's fate as that of the biter bit, or, more specifically, the rapist raped-- and to be sure, just before the unicorn stabs Andar to death, Andar is about to plunge into "the supple flesh" of Red Sonja. But while the horn-as-penis motif is probably there in some sense-- Andar's name certainly references the Greek "andro-", meaning "man"-- both script and art place more emphasis on the irony of Andar's fate. Because Andar is killed by the very thing that was supposed to confer on him immortality, one cannot know whether he actually had immortality and lost it, or whether the legend of the serum was false from the start. But the script does confer on the fallen villain a dubious "immortality:"
"For we mortals will chase and dream of life eternal till both stars and unicorns are scattered dust...and Andar's ghostly voice will whisper for all time to bid others follow him down the doomed path where he led."
As for Sonja, the setup of her continuing adventures dictated that her idyll with her equine friend had to end. Nevertheless, the parting is given its own mythic resonance, suggesting that even mortals who respect magical critters can't remain long in their company, precisely because they are mortal. All of which would certainly put a different philosophical spin on the cover-copy of RED SONJA #1, where the heroine, flanked by various beasties as well as Andar and the unicorn, shouts at the reader:
"To the death!"