Robert E. Howard made such a splash with his sword-and-sorcery writing. As his Conan stories began to appear in the Weird Tales pulp magazine, so many writers felt compelled to either write homages to the stories or write something in contrast to them. One of them was C.L. Moore, who as one of the few female authors of fantasy fiction at the time, felt compelled as the Conan stories came out to write a female version. Add to that some of the cosmic horror that H.P. Lovecraft was writing, and we get the stories of Jirel of Joiry. Jirel is a queen in a medieval version of France, whose adventures frequently take her to dimensions of Hell.
The Jirel of Joiry collection was put together and published in 1969 but the stories inside them all stem from the 1930s when they appeared in the Weird Tales pulp magazine, alongside those of Howard and only a few years after his first Conan stories. In the span of years between 1934 and 1939, C.L. Moore wrote six short stories starring her sword-and-sorcery queen warrior, one of which she wrote together with her husband Henry Kuttner, who was a successful science fiction writer in his own right at the time. Here’s the list:
- “Black God’s Kiss” (1934)
- “Black God’s Shadow” (1934)
- “Jirel Meets Magic” (1935)
- “The Dark Land” (1936)
- “Quest of the Starstone” (1937), with Henry Kuttner
- “Hellsgarde” (1939)
The fifth story, “Quest of the Starstone”, isn’t present in every edition of this collection, but it is an interesting one because it pairs Jirel with another Moore hero from another series: a Han-Solo-like roguish space smuggler with the impossibly awesome name of Northwest Smith.
Jirel embodies all the recognisable elements of a warrior queen stereotype. Fierce, strong, proud and in line with the idealisation of figures like Boudica and Joan of Arc. And she has red hair. She’s got to have red hair! How else are we to know that she is a fierce warrior? But Moore does not follow every convention. In fact, by writing about a female warrior who makes deliberate choices and takes violent action to determine her fate, she shows that there is space for that in the subgenre. Jirel is introduced as a nameless commander, and only when other knights remove her helmet is everyone surprised to find out that she is a woman. She is stepping into that usually male place. The reader is in theory part of that audience.
There is no superficial sexuality in the Jirel stories; Jirel doesn’t sport a chain-mail bikini (except in some cover art of course). Nor does Moore present her as particularly beautiful. Her face “might not have been fair in a woman’s head-dress” and she’s given some traditionally masculine traits (she’s tall, strong and her hair is cut short. Also not well presented in cover art). I think this is all for the best. It allows Moore to present Jirel as a proper action hero and not succumb to the tendencies to have female characters play second fiddle to the male heroes or to occupy purely romantic roles. But when Marvel wanted a warrior princess character in 1973, they chose not to base her on Jirel but on Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya, a much more sexualised character and also red-haired to boot, and Jirel fell into obscurity.
Instead of superficial romance, something more layered and interesting is happening. Take the first story, “Black God’s Kiss“. We are dropped in medias res, with Jirel captured by a barbaric conqueror, Guillaume. Jirel escapes without male help, and descends to Hell (never a good idea) in search of a magical weapon to vanquish her enemy. Hell isn’t what she expected it to be; more of a nightmarish Wonderland and she the Alice. She feels magically compelled to kiss the black statue of a sexless god, then flees Hell back to reality, transfers the black god’s kiss to Guillaume who immediately dies horribly, and so she made her sexuality a weapon. But the story ends with an ambiguity in that after Jirel triumphed, she feels dismay over how she fooled the man and remembers the unexpected intimacy of their kiss. One could read this as part of the curse that she got from her journey to Hell, but in a second read, there were already hints in the text of Jirel not wanting to acknowledge a certain attraction she felt from the start. It’s a complex story and rewards rereading.
The stories continue in a deeper exploration of trauma, acceptance, atonement and of the dark sides of the soul. All with fantastical journeys to creepy dimensions. The psychological depth and thematic layers surprised me. This is good stuff for 1930s pulp. However, the first story is also the best of the lot. They get repetitive: each story is in a hurry to send Jirel to some fairyland where she then spends a lot of time running around in circles before everything is quickly resolved at the end of the story. It is, however, in those resolutions where we learn more about Jirel’s deeper feelings and the stories get their meaning. The stories have a Jungian quality to them, in which she wields her anger as a superpower against magical apparitions of submission and death.
Despite Moore’s writing being a bit repetitive both on the story level and on the sentence level, these stories are not as superficial as sword and sorcery is accused of being and lend themselves to deeper analysis. See for example this lengthy exploration and this essay. I liked Jirel and her adventures a lot.