Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore
Just recently, I had some words to say regarding the stories that Golden Age sci-fi/fantasy author C.L. Moore placed in Weird Tales magazine, during the 1930s, that dealt with the futuristic smuggler/spaceman Northwest Smith. But as most fans of Catherine Lucille Moore will readily tell you, Smith was not the only character from this beloved writer who made semiregular appearances in the legendary pulp that decade. From October ’34 until April ’39, Moore also regaled readers with a wholly different character: Jirel of Joiry. Whereas the Smith series runs to a total of 11 stories, starting in November ’33 and winding up with a belated coda in June ’57, the Jirel series consists of a mere half dozen tales. The Smith series is an amalgam of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, set in a futuristic, space-age setting, whereas the Jirel stories must be deemed hard-core fantasy, with a generous dollop of Lovecraftian terror thrown in, and set in what seems to be medieval France … or earlier (in one of the tales, the author tells us that the Roman empire had recently fallen, putting things at around A. D. 476, although that strikes the reader as being a good 800 years too early). And most significantly, whereas Smith is something of a man’s man, Jirel is all woman; a redheaded, yellow-eyed hellcat, quick to anger but ever loyal to the men she leads in battle. It is inferred in the stories that Jirel is something of a master swordswoman, too, although the menaces that she confronts in her adventures here are ones that a mere blade would have very little effectiveness against.
Gathering all but one of the Jirel stories in a single volume is Ace Books’ Jirel of Joiry (1982), a collection so very fine that it was chosen for inclusion in James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books (as Ace’s Northwest Smith collection was, too, by the way). In that excellent overview volume, the authors tell us that “C.L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil,” and the menaces that poor Jirel faces here are a stunning bunch of fantasy creations, indeed. In all five stories, the sovereign lady of Castle Joiry somehow finds herself in otherworldly or otherdimensional settings where she must fight for not only her life, but her eternal soul as well. A superstitious woman, and yet one who clings to her crucifix as to a life preserver, Jirel is yet remarkably cool and, if not fearless, then still willing to (literally) go through hell for those she loves and leads. A refreshingly distaff complement to the Conan tales that Robert E. Howard was then placing in Weird Tales, the Jirel stories are mysterious, atmospheric, beautifully written, emotionally complex and altogether winning. Whereas Howard’s barbarian was more apt to cut and hew his way to victory in his bloody and violent adventures, Jirel usually wins through by dint of sheer spunk and an indomitable drive to keep going and just stay alive. She is quite a gal, to put it mildly, and it is to be regretted that Moore didn’t write additional stories concerning the first lady of Joiry, after her marriage to Henry Kuttner in 1940. Still, the half dozen tales that she did give the world concerning her most famous female protagonist live on, almost 80 years now since their initial release.
As to the stories themselves, the first Jirel tale, “Black God’s Kiss,” from the October ’34 issue (for which it copped the front cover illustration, by the great Margaret Brundage, with the blurb “the weirdest story ever told”!), finds Jirel in desperate straits. Castle Joiry has fallen to the army of the handsome conqueror Guillaume, who takes a hot-blooded interest in its liege lady. Desperate for a weapon with which she might take a suitable vengeance on her conqueror, Jirel descends a corkscrew stairway beneath her castle’s lowest dungeon and enters an otherdimensional, nighttime realm that, it is very strongly suggested, just might be hell itself. Here, a blind woman leapfrogs through a marsh, a herd of blind, white horses gallop eternally (a most haunting image, let me tell you), and squishy, slavering things nip at Jirel’s feet as she glides, dreamlike, over the forbidding landscape. Ultimately, she does find the weapon she seeks, in the form of an osculation from the titular black god of this domain. But, as Jirel learns upon her return, revenge is sometimes not quite as satisfying a thing as one expects. A marvelously atmospheric and haunting tale, thus, to kick off this collection.
And next up we have the story’s direct sequel, “Black God’s Shadow,” from the December ’34 issue. Here, Jirel, grieving over the late Guillaume after belatedly realizing her love for her former foe, receives a dream message from him. His soul is in torment in that hellish domain of the Black God, and so down goes Jirel again, this time not on a mission of vengeance, but of mercy. Over the infernal, nighttime landscape, weirdly illuminated by strange constellations and the mottled light of a greenish moon (“…the moon-clouds parted again and the dead green face looked blankly down once more, the cloud-masses crawling across it like corruption across a corpse’s face…”), Jirel follows Guillaume’s tortured cries, as well as his flitting shadow. She does battle with a clutching tree (one of the few foes in this book susceptible to her sword’s edge) and, most fearfully, with the Black God itself. If anything, this sequel is even more steeped in uncanny atmosphere than the first story had been, and the reader will have no way to anticipate what can possibly happen next, in this truly fantastic wonderhell … or, as Moore refers to it, a setting “more baffling and unreal than a dream…”
And, if anything, the third Jirel outing, “Jirel Meets Magic” (July ’35), is even more of a fantasy kaleidoscope than the others! After she and her men capture the castle of Guischard, it is noticed that the pile’s evil wizard, Giraud, has somehow made his escape. But upon entering a mysterious, hidden window in an upper chamber, Jirel is somehow thrust into a fantastic landscape ruled over by the sorceress Jarisme, with Giraud a mere accomplice at Jarisme’s side. Here, female dryads expire upon the death of their tree, transparent snakes slide through oneiric floral arbors, and the high tower of the sorceress has an uncanny knack of jumping around the landscape! In the story’s most memorable scene, Jirel is locked in a chamber with many doors, each one of which, when opened, offering the dazed swordswoman a vista of a different alien landscape. And later on, the denizens of some of those planets – an outrageous-looking lot that Lovecraft himself might have smiled upon with approbation – are magically teleported to Jarisme’s tower in the quivering flesh, to witness the torture that the sorceress has devised for Jirel. Yes, between the two evil magicians and these otherworldly monstrosities, the first lady of Joiry surely does have her hands full in this truly mind-boggling adventure.
And matters only grow worse for Jirel in her next outing, “The Dark Land” (January ’36). While lying on her deathbed after suffering a pike wound in battle, Jirel is suddenly snatched away and miraculously healed by a being only known as Pav, ruler of the dark domain of the story’s title. It seems that Jirel’s exploits in those other fantastic realms have somehow come to Pav’s attention (“…You have traveled too often in forbidden lands,” he tells Jirel, “to be ignored by us who live in them…”). Pav, it appears, wants nothing less than to make Jirel his queen, in a land where spatial perspectives are not as on Earth, and where instantaneous travel is achieved merely by looking at one’s goal. Rebellious as always, even against the all-powerful being who has rescued her from her own deathbed, Jirel enters into an uneasy alliance with Pav’s rival, a skull-faced witch who seems to be the only other inhabitant in this Dark Land. And before Jirel is able to make her return to the land she knows, she comes to realize the secret motivations of the corpse-visaged witch, and ultimately discovers the exact nature of Pav himself … or should I say, “itself”?
Closing out this collection is Moore’s final tale of Jirel of Joiry, “Hellsgarde” (April ’39). In this one, a score of Jirel’s men have been captured by the weaselly Guy of Garlot, who will return them to Joiry only if Jirel successfully goes to the abandoned, quicksand-surrounded castle of Hellsgarde and finds the treasure that has reputedly been hidden there for over 200 years. Thus, Jirel makes the attempt, and upon entering the supposedly haunted pile, discovers that it is occupied by a very odd, borderline deformed group of people who eye her with a secret and amused knowledge. The reader automatically assumes this odd lot to be vampires of a sort, which is a surmise not too far off the mark, as it turns out, although it is hardly blood that these very strange folks feed upon. And besides these oddballs, Jirel must also here contend with that ravening castle ghost, who, in one memorable scene, vortexes the poor lass into still another otherdimensional realm. Dripping with atmosphere and weird menace, replete with mysteriously motivated characters and capped with one doozy of a closing sentence, “Hellsgarde” brings this classic fantasy collection to a close in a most effective manner, indeed.
But wait! As I mentioned earlier, there were six tales of Jirel of Joiry, and that missing tale was also conspicuously absent from the Northwest Smith collection, as well. For somehow, “Quest of the Starstone,” from the November ’37 Weird Tales, and which marked the first collaboration between Moore and her future husband, somehow conflates both the medieval swordswoman and the futuristic spaceman in one adventure! Up until recently, this tale had not exactly been easy to find, but I have finally done so, and greatly look forward now to finally perusing this lost story, featuring both of Moore’s most famous characters. Stay tuned…
“Guillaume’s white teeth clicked on a startled oath. He stared. Joiry’s lady glared back at him from between her captors, wild red hair tousled, wild lion-yellow eyes ablaze.
‘God curse you!” snarled the lady of Joiry between clenched teeth. ‘God blast your black heart!'”
In such fashion did Jirel of Joiry, the first female protagonist in the genre now defined as sword-and-sorcery, explode from the pulp pages of Weird Tales in October of 1934. The story, “Black God’s Kiss,” is the first and finest of the five collected in this book. (The five are essentially the sum of Jirel’s legend. A sixth, “Quest of the Starstone,” was written to combine Jirel with Ms. Moore’s other famous lead, space outlaw Northwest Smith, and is not included here.)
“Black God’s Kiss” establishes the tone and theme of Jirel’s legend, as well as the basic plot for each tale: she ventures to a strange and/or dark otherworld and, through her spiritual and emotional willpower, manages to survive, gaining not treasure but self-knowledge. A curious and noteworthy detail: though an expert swordsman, Jirel does not fight a single duel throughout the tales. Rather, she herself is the sword wielded against sorcery. (“The face above her mail might not have been fair in a woman’s head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades.”)
Ms. Moore’s writing is, on the whole, transparent and clean. It does suffer from some of the tendencies common among other writers of the time (longer descriptions than necessary; multiple adverbs; an unhealthy fondness for abstract words — gulfs, vastness, fathomless, etc.). More detail about Jirel as a character — precious little is mentioned of her parentage, childhood, and the nature of her fiefdom — would have been welcome, too. (Then again, the heroine can be said to spring newly forged into the stories’ setting — she simply is what she is.) Many of the otherwordly descriptions are vivid and haunting, even by modern fantasy standards. Her willingness not to spoon-feed the reader the precise nature of the powers Jirel encounters (e.g. the light-devil in “Kiss” and the witch in “The Dark Land”) is also appreciated.
Although “Kiss” is likely the only one of the five that would be published by a professional magazine today, this is an easily read and worthwhile collection for the serious fantasy fan — and “Kiss” is a must-read. Three fascinating stars.