Many tales have been told with the character of Red Sonja since Dynamite Entertainment began publishing her adventures in 2005. However, one controversial element of her history, her oath of chastity, has been restored in her latest adventure.
The first issue of Savage Red Sonja by Dan Panosian and Alessio Petillo presents a standard sword-and-sorcery setup. The opening scene establishes that Sonja is searching for a lost castle and the priceless ruby it contains. The narration also notes that Sonja is used to solitude due to her oath to take no lover who cannot best her in combat. This reestablishes Sonja’s classic backstory from her origins at Marvel Comics.
Red Sonja’s oath, explained
Red Sonja was adapted from Robert E. Howard‘s historical heroine Red Sonya of Rogatino in order to give the young Conan the Barbarian a worthy female counterpart. When Sonja proved popular, she was given a formal backstory where she was sexually assaulted by bandits as her family was killed. Sonja believes she has been blessed by a war goddess in exchange for an oath to “never allow yourself to be loved by another man unless he has defeated you in fair battle.”
This oath has been the source of much controversy and creative disagreement among Red Sonja’s writers. Howard purists object to a goddess handing out blessings, as Howard portrayed the gods of Hyboria as largely indifferent. Feminist writers object to Sonja’s goddess seemingly setting her up as a trophy for whoever beat her into submission. There was also the problematic and exploitive element of linking a heroine’s powers to sexual assault.
It was for these reasons that most modern Red Sonja stories abandoned her oath. Her origins were also revamped by Gail Simone in 2014 to remove the sexual assault from her backstory. While some writers have made reference to Sonja being a champion of the war goddess, Scáthach, she was not said to have an oath of chastity.
How Savage Red Sonja changes Sonja’s oath
Dan Panosian splits the difference in Savage Red Sonja #1, restoring Sonja’s oath while changing its nature. The narration shows that Sonja views her oath as a test of her own desire rather than a challenge to would-be suitors. This is made clear by the introduction of a young prince and his bride seeking the same treasure as Sonja.
The bride, a young redhead, reminds Sonja of herself. Seeing the gentle love she shares with the prince makes Sonja wonder what she’s given up because of the warrior’s path she walks. This makes it clear that Sonja’s vow, in this story at least, is a challenge to Sonja herself.