Jirel of Joiry Mass Market Paperback – Unabridged, January 1, 1969 by C. L. Moore (Author)Housekeeping:  Next week, July 12, 2023, there will be no column because I will be flying to Quincey, Massachusetts for ReaderCon.

One commenter chosen at random will get a copy of E. Catherine Tobler‘s The Necessity of Stars.

This week’s column is about a single topic: Jirel of Joiry.

Jirel of Joiry is arguably the first pulp-fiction sword-and-sorcery female protagonist. The creation of C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, Jirel first appeared in Weird Tales in 1934. Did she pre-date Red Sonya? Well, yes and no. Also in 1934, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) wrote a historical fantasy “The Shadow of the Vulture” featuring a woman called Red Sonja of Rogatino, of Ukranian-Polish ancestry, who wielded pistols, not swords. In the 1960s, the chainmail-bikini- clad woman-warrior named Red Sonja emerged, but it’s hard to look at her and not see Moore’s tempestuous, red-tressed warrior—actually, probably staring in smirking disbelief at Sonja’s bikini.

Jirel existed in a fantastical world grounded in ours. She is the commander of the Joiry fortress in a nation in the historical world, possibly France from the names. The society is advanced enough to have steel swords and armor, and Jirel is Catholic when it’s convenient. In her mundane world, Jirel is always at war; when she enters into fantastical realms, she’s still at war, but with the supernatural. Moore takes a sentence or two in each story to explain that Jirel belongs to a “simpler, more superstitious” time, when people accept wizards, ghosts and monsters without question. Wizards function in Jirel’s mundane world; her approach to magic is pragmatic—she needs to know how to defeat someone wielding it. Generally, it isn’t steel or skill Jirel uses to defeat her foes in these stories—the strength of her will allows her to prevail.

weird Tales Cover, 1934: A redhaired woman in a skimpy onesie kisses a big bronze statue. Jirel appeared in six stories, one of which was a collaboration with Moore’s husband Henry Kuttner. Weird Tales published “The Black God’s Kiss” in October, 1934, and “The Black God’s Shadow” (the sequel) in December of that year. Weird Tales gave the first story the cover—check it out—and trumpeted that the story was “the weirdest story ever told.” Clearly Moore nailed the “weird.”

(That cover also tells me that Weird Tales knew right where they were pitching their story.)

I read five of the six Jirel stories in the 1969 Paperback Library collection Jirel of Joiry , which I bought used. The pages are golden-brown with age and are starting to tear away from the binding. It has a classic 1960s cover, as you can see above.

“The Black God’s Kiss” impressed me with Moore’s prose and pacing. Moore is a more lyrical stylist than Howard. While Lovecraft often hid behind “horror” words like “ichor,” or said things like, “never will I be able to articulate the indescribable monstrosity my eyes beheld in that moment!” Moore actually, well, articulates it. The description of the tempestuous commander herself (which is of course repeated at least once in each story) is vivid and aimed completely at a male audience; her helm removed, her tousled red tresses flow; her yellow eyes snap; greaves grip her smooth, graceful calves, and a “soft doeskin tunic” covers her torso underneath her link-mail shirt. Oh, and she carries a big old two-edged sword. She is passionate, proud, quick to anger; stubborn, loyal to her men. You get the drift.

I was caught up in “The Black God’s Kiss” even though, as a 21st century reader, I started rolling my eyes from the first two paragraphs. The proud, passionate, beautiful commander is captured by a male adversary named Guillaume. He is a tall, strong, proud conqueror, with black eyes and a cruel mocking grin. Far from treating Jirel like a vanquished foe, he grabs her and smooches her after making some taunting remark. She hates the iron grip of his arms and the feel of his lips on hers. Hates, hates, hates it. It makes her burn with hate even though she can’t stop thinking about it. You see where this is going.

Since Guillaume has taken the fortress of Joiry, he conveniently locks up Jirel, not in a dungeon but in her tower room, from which she easily escapes. She seeks out her priest, Gervase, and tells him her intention to take the secret passage in the basement, which leads to hell (because why not?) to bring back a weapon that will kill Guillaume. This she does, entering a realm that is hallucinatory, strange and terrifying. Jirel is risking her own soul. She thinks she is doing this to save Joiry, but really a desire for revenge drives her. She meets a figure wreathed in hellish light, who takes her own form to mock her. The woman in the light tells her to take that which she finds in the temple in the middle of the black lake, and it will serve her purpose. Oh, and by the way, she can’t stop thinking about those iron arms and that kiss which she hates with a white-hot heat.

Most of the story is Jirel’s increasingly strange quest to the dark lake and the temple, where she finds the hulking statue of the Black God. She receives a soul-chilling weapon which she must carry back to the living world before it destroys her.  She achieves her goal; when Guillaume kisses her again, he is killed by the deadly otherworldly force she holds within her. Only then does Jirel realize that the “heat” she felt was not hatred at all, and that  only a soul as proud and savage and blah-blah-blah as Guillaume’s can be a match for hers. She kneels weeping at her dead enemy’s side. Yes, they were doing enemies-to-lovers in 1934, only it was enemies-to-could-have-been-lovers. I hated this aspect of the tale, but I loved the hellscape and the imagery.

In “The Black God’s Shadow,” which takes place shortly after the previous story, Jirel is haunted by the pathetic voice of Guillaume. She realizes he is calling for her to release his soul from torment. For reasons I didn’t understand (she loves him, I guess), she descends once again to the hellscape. This time the terrain she faces is different, and the dangers stranger but no less deadly.

In “Jirel Meets Magic” our heroine faces a woman adversary, a powerful sorceress in a lush, strange and beautiful fantasy realm. This was the first story in the Paperback Library edition, and it provided a better introduction to our protagonist, along with a touch of realism; when Jirel rides into the courtyard of the captured castle, she is in plate armor and needs help to dismount.

“The Dark Land” takes place in another nightmarish realm, although it doesn’t seem to be literally hell. It is a land of the dead, though, and its king has taken a liking to Jirel and plans to make her his bride. Jirel has other ideas. Even though Pav, the king, has technically saved her from actual death, she teams up with a corpse-witch to defeat him, only to learn very late that no one in this realm can actually be trusted. Moore’s sensual details deepen this tale.

“Hellsguard” is a conventional haunted-fortress-in-the-swamp story, with a sinister host, a haunting, and two-hundred-year-old mysteries. A bit more of Jirel’s character is revealed in this story; Jirel has come to this place for the lost treasure of Andred, not for her own enrichment, but to ransom some of her men. It appears descendants of Andred have moved into the fortress, which can only be entered at sunset. Alaric, an heir, invites her to stay. His family, even to the greyhounds, are creepy and sinister; ultimately they imprison her, planning to use her to lure out the spirit of Andred. I loved the way Jirel escaped from the room, and I loved her vanquishing of the spirit. The “heirs” to the family are revealed to be powerful, terrifying and deeply creepy entities in their own right. I loved the mood in this story. The 21st century reader in me still had a problem though. Several negative mentions of “hunchbacks” and “cripples” are made, and physical disability is used as a mirror for evil character traits. It does show me how far we’ve come in 90 years, true, but still… And “They weren’t cripples but they looked like cripples?” What? What does that even mean?

Jirel of Joiry is a work of its time, and not an unalloyed pleasure. Still, the prose is rich, seductive, layered and lovely—and when Moore shows something dripping from the branch/tentacle of a demonic tree, she doesn’t reach for the thesaurus, she just calls it “sap.” I had to love that. For 1934, Jirel is surprisingly autonomous and strong except for a few obvious lapses. It was fun to read something that didn’t just break a mold, it created a new one. While aimed at male fantasies, and very much within the strictures of rigid gender roles, Jirel is still a better and more realistic woman warrior than some later models.

Sandy and Rob have reviewed Jirel of Joiry here.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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