Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Unless you are a pulp fiction expert or a comic book guy you may not know that there is a difference between Red Sonya and Red Sonja. Maybe you have never even heard of either of these characters, or only know of her from the 1985 Brigette Nielson movie, or maybe you just know her from her unpractical chainmail bikini. Today we are going to delve into the origins of the two women and how they are different.
The first of the two characters created was Red Sonya of Rogatino, she originally appeared appeared in the 1934 story Shadow of the Vulture, by pulp master Robert E. Howard, best known for his Conan stories. These sword and sorcery tales were set in the Hyborian age, this is a fantastic civilization that is unknown by modern archeologist, that predates such empires as the Sumerians. TSotV is set in set in the 16th century during Suliman the Great’s siege of Viena Unlike Sonja with a J, she is not only a master of swords but also of flintlock pistols and artillery.
She only appeared in one story, The Shadow of the Vulture and then is only a supporting character to the protagonist an Austrian Knight Gottfried von Kalmbach (Supporting but more interesting). It has been suggested if he had not committed suicide two years later, there would have been more Red Sonya stories. Despite the “of” in her name it is never completely clear where she is supposed to be from, Rogatino is in what is now known as Russia, but her sister is a real historical character, referred to as Roxelana but also known historically as Hurrem Saltan, Suliman’s the Magnificat’s favorite harem girl, and later wife, who was born in what is now known as Poland. As much as I love Howard’s writing he wasn’t overly concerned with making sure his stories’ history matched real life.
Sonya is especially upset with her sister who she feels is a traitor. When she shoots cannonballs at the enemy’s line she hopes that the canon ball hits her sibling. She can out drink, out fight and out curse any male solider. Twice during the 45-page story, she saved the protagonists life. Even though she has many masculine traits, she is not just a male character given a female body. She is independent, holds grudges and is mysterious. We would undoubtedly would have more details about her personality if REH wrote more than one story with her in it.
One of the most interesting aspects of Red Sonja (With a J) is her vow of chastity. She can only be with a man if he first defeats her in combat. She made a promise to the Goddess Scathach to keep her virginity if she would give her strength and prowess in combat. Sonya (with a Y) is Christian as default by being a European and the facts that she is fighting Muslims, though she doesn’t seem particularly devout. There are no sex scenes in The Shadow of the Vulture, but there is nothing to indicate that she is chaste.
It has been long theorized that the name Red Sonya comes form H.P. Lovecraft’s wife Sonya Green. The only know dating relation that Howard had was with Novalyn Price. If we are to believe writers infuse their characters with the traits of the people around them, even if only subconsciously then I think that Sonya’s outspokenness may have been inherited from Price.
If one were to compare the writings of Howard with Lovecraft, we must first remember that though Lovecraft dipped into the field of fantasy with his Dreamland series he was mainly a cosmic horror writer. Despite being known mainly for his fantasy and secondly for his horror stories, REH wrote in many different genres, noir, pulp adventure, historical, boxing and westerns. The Shadow of the Vulture is set in our Earth in the past and has no magic, so is much more a historical romance than a fantasy story.
Another striking difference between HPL and REH’s writing is characterization, with the exception of Randolph Carter Lovecraft’s author avatar, and the ghoul Richard Upton Pickman, none of his characters appeared more than once (Some of their names pop up in a second story but they don’t make an actual appearance) Lovecraft was all about the story and word choice, building a character was only done to move the story and characters were in most cases the weakest parts of his tales. Howard however was a master of creating characters and in addition to Red Sonya, and Conan, he had a full repertoire of protagonists including Solomon Kane, King Kull of Atlantis, El Borak, Bran Mak Morn, and Sailor Steve Costivgan.
Red Sonja (With a J) was not one his creations however. She was created by Marvel comic book writer Roy Thomas with the help of artist Barry Winsdor-Smith, and she first appeared in Conan Issue 23 in 1973. Sonja is based on Sonya but is not the same character.
Sonja first appears in the Hyborian age and is a contemporary to Conan the Barbarian. In their version she was a peasant girl (not a noble like Sonya) who family was killed, and she was raped and left for dead as a young girl. She swore an oath to the goddess Scathach that she would never be with a man until he could beat her in a battle. Since she is his equal this makes her the only woman Conan can’t have.
Scathach is also not a Howard creation, she is taken from Scottish mythology and is a redheaded warrior (in some versions she is a goddess) who trained the hero Cu Chulainn. In this version she is not a heroine but a goddess and Sonja takes on many of the attributes of the deity when she becomes her champion.
In 1979 red Sonja creator Roy Thomas wrote a song about her after what I can only guess was consuming a whole lot of grog and mead preformed it at a bar. Somehow this survived on a 45 RP.
But wait there is more, there is also a B side.
The thing that Sonja has become most associated with besides her fiery red-hair is her chainmail bikini. Let’s face it there is no way in the world that is going to offer someone any kind of protection is combat. However, this is surely one of the reasons compared to other comic book characters at the time water down by CCA rules that RS W/j has continued to become such a comic book icon.
Sonya and Sonja have some similarities, both are kick butt warriors, they are both just as good as the men who surround them and run their prospective worlds. They both have flowing red hair, both are called she-devil by the men who want to keep them down, and neither of them are going to play by men’s rules.
In 1979 comic book led ends Chris Clairmont and David Byrne did a Red Sonja Spiderman cross over. When Peter parker’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson touches Sonja’s sword she is transformed in to the legendary heroine. This was remade and expanded into a 5-issue story arc in 2007.
In 2005 Dynamite Comic Books began to publish Red Sonja stories. She was killed in issue #35 and reincarnated. This is in harmony with the Robert E Howard’s mythos. Howard himself was a staunch believer of reincarnation. The first Conan story I ever read was called The People of the Dark and takes place in the 1930’s. when the man who is the incarnation of Conan, follows his faithless girlfriend and his friend her new lover into the Dragon caves to kill them. (This may have been inspired when Howard found Price was also dating one of his best friends) They are attacked by degenerate decedents of the serpent men Conan had fought in the pass. This restores his Conan persona and he decides to kill the serpent men rather than the lovers.
In 2013 Gail Simone took over the Red Sonja title and she retconned the redhead’s backstory, taking away the oath of chastity. In fact, this version of Sonja once comes across a male warrior with a simular oath and she mocked him for it. On at least one occasion a possible male partner turned her down. She is also made her bisexual, apparently the previous version of RS didn’t think of the possibility of a female lover or was not interested in them.
In 2017 Dynamite zapped Red from the past into the present and she now must deal with things in the modern world. This is an interesting twist, putting the heroine in contemporary times, where in the beginning at least she is a fish out of water.
Many people know Red from the 1985 red Somja movie. Sonja is played by Brigette Nielson, and is based on the Marvel comic book character Arnold Schwarzenegger played Lord Kalidpor, who was obviously a stand in for Conan the Barbarian, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to Conan. Until I finialy sat down and watched it I thought it was Conan III. The question is not whether the movie was any good? It is, is the movie so bad, that it is good? Why don’t you see what Seskel and Egbert thought when it came out.
I think it is important to know the difference between Y and J, because I think we should understand the literature origins of our pop icons. I have always loved Robert E Howards writing and Sonya his feisty she-devil, with a grudge is an amazing character, but the more I studied Sonja I discovered she is more than just the chain metal bikini and an over sized sward. I truly like both characters, but feel they are separate, maybe connected by reincarnation but not the same.
You know here at DCoTU we name a goat after things we love. Here is Red Sonya of Rogatino
And here is Rjed Sonja with a J.