The Last Goddess
Story Number: 31
Writer: Peter O’Donnell
Artist: Steve Dowling/ John Allard
Published: 2nd January 1957 – 26th June 1957 (Q2 – Q151)
Number of Episodes: 150
The Last Goddess begins as an apparent supernatural thriller, with devil worshippers and pentacles, opening out into more scientific fantasy, Lumiere commenting that black magic rituals can be a means of focusing the immense powers of the human mind, for good or ill. “There are entities of evil… beings on a different plane to man… who can give supernatural powers to those who serve them.”
After Garth encounters the mysterious ‘Doctor Baal’, a sinister black magic practitioner, he is plunged into a coma. On a higher mental plane, he fights against a ‘host of terrible creature…fiends, elementals… and the shapeless things who are trying to possess his soul.’ He is saved by the intervention of Astra, ‘the perfection of woman’.
Garth is summoned in a dream to travel to Fedorra, a small central European state, and he travels there with Lumiere, who has helped him identify its location. When they meet ‘the lady Astra’ they learn that Baal plans to enact the Great Ritual, a dread conjuration which will bring panic upon the world, and destroy all that man has made of himself’.
To avert the chaos and reversion to barbarism, Astra recruits Garth’s strength. They go to a remote valley in Chaldea, legendary home of the ancient Magi, where Baal plans to enact the ritual in an ancient temple. Astra explains that whilst her powers can only balance and hold Baal’s in check: Garth’s strength is needed to combat a fearsome monster. She reveals to Garth and Lumiere the secret of how she has lived, unchanging, for 5,000 years, and the story blurs into science fiction.
Astra – along with Baal – is the last survivor of the ancient Magi of Chaldea, who had mastered the secrets of the mind. ‘My mind is master of my body, and is in continuous control of every body-cell, renewing them to maintain perpetual health and youth’.
Astra is not permanently immortal, however: she can be destroyed by Baal’s power if she dropped her guard, or by a sword thrust, or natural hazard, but she has lived so long by staying the hand of any enemy, or ‘by foreknowledge I can avoid natural hazards’. These limitations were carefully built in by O’Donnell so that Astra was rendered more believable, and more importantly so that Garth’s role, fighting alongside her, was in no way demeaned (a maxim to be frequently discarded by other writers later on, to the detriment of the strip). She was also forbidden to directly take life herself.
In a tremendous climax, Baal begins the ritual, the first stage of which involves bringing ‘through the gates of hell’ (materialising from another dimension) the beast of Belial, a hideous monster. Then, and only then, in the presence of the beast, Baal can evoke the beast’s master, ‘foul Belial himself’. Whilst Astra wages her mental battle with Baal, Garth’s task is to destroy the beast, armed with a mystical axe fashioned by the ancient God Vulcan (another of the vanished Magi).
During the struggle Baal learns that Astra has fallen in love with Garth, and is afraid for him – a fatal weakness in her mental armour. As Baal is about to ‘wring the flame of life from her body’ Garth throws the axe at Baal, who diverts it with ‘the black lightning of his mind’. But the diversion gives Astra time to recover and she learns from Baal’s mind that the armoured beast is vulnerable at the base of the skull. Garth feints to run from the beast and then turns and jumps astride its back, bringing down the axe in a tremendous killing blow to the head. With the beast slain, the vengeful Belial reclaims Baal’s soul and reduces him to a handful of dust, blowing about the temple.
Astra then takes Garth to an idyllic valley, rendered invisible to the outside world. Here, Garth learns that Astra must release her hold on life because she has fallen in love with him. This is why, one by one, her fellow Magi had given up their own lives. The Great Ones cannot give their power to defeat age to others. Their loved ones will grow old and die before their eyes, and they therefore run the risk of becoming bitter and twisted. This is what had happened to Baal and when he lost his loved one ‘all that was fine and good in him turned to evil. He hated all mortal life’.
Sadly, Garth agrees that he does not want to run this dreadful risk, so after several days of blissful lovemaking Astra destroys herself whilst Garth sleeps. Garth returns to Lumiere, who is waiting in the village at the edge of the desert. Garth is a broken man at first, but back in England he recovers, taking comfort from the wonderful memories of the brief time he had with Astra.
Synopsis by Philip Harbottle
In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success
Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle
Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror