In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In the early pulp magazine days, there were relatively few women writing science fiction and fantasy, and there were even fewer female leads appearing in the stories that made it to print. Thus the Jirel of Joiry stories of C. L. Moore, first published in Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s, stand out from the crowd. Written in the days before the sword and sorcery sub-genre had fully coalesced, they feature a female warrior from the Middle Ages, penned by a woman who was one of the best authors of her era. I recently found a collection containing Jirel’s adventures, and having not read the stories for decades, decided to revisit them.
When I finished the collection and put it down, my first reaction was a sense of disappointment. Not disappointment with what I read, which was very compelling and well written, but with what wasn’t there. I was fascinated by the idea of a noblewoman leading her people, something I knew had historical precedent, but we get no information on how Jirel came to rule her people or how she earned the respect they show her. And while the author tells us that Jirel is a mighty warrior, she gets little opportunity to show off those skills. These are not truly sword and sorcery tales (again, that genre was still developing when these stories were written). Instead, Jirel’s adventures are more akin to tales of Lovecraftian horror. In these tales, the human viewpoint characters are largely passive observers, often overshadowed by the immensity of the evil they encounter. The viewpoint character in this volume is a medieval warrior woman—but that identity is not as central to the tales as I would have liked.
My copy features a dust jacket painting by the incomparable Stephen Hickman (seen above). One thing I noticed, however, is that the stylized armor he painted falls into the category of what is called “boob plate” armor, a common artistic convention used in portraying female warriors which is not only of questionable value in combat, but triggered one of the longest discussions in the history of Tor.com.
The copy I reviewed was a book club hardcover version of a paperback edition, and the copyright page even contained the standard paperback warning that discourages resale of copies after the covers have been stripped and returned to the publisher for credit: “If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property.” The book is not a novel; instead, it collects the stories from Weird Tales in which Jirel appeared. The book contains all the published Jirel of Joiry stories except one, a Northwest Smith story “Quest of the Starstone” where Jirel also appeared (a story which also marked Moore’s first collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner).
Recently, Tor.com featured an article on the “Five Forgotten Swordsmen and Swordswomen of Fantasy,” and Jirel of Joiry was chosen as one of the five.
About the Author
Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987), like many women of her era, wrote under a gender-neutral pen name: C. L. Moore. She wrote fiction in several genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her husband throughout most of her career was fellow author Henry Kuttner, who she met after he wrote her a fan letter, and with whom she collaborated on a number of works. Both separately and together, and often under a variety of pseudonyms (including Lewis Padgett), the couple were frequent contributors to John Campbell’s Astounding magazine, and were considered to be among the first rank of Golden Age science fiction writers. Moore’s two greatest characters, who both appeared in Weird Tales, were Northwest Smith, the interplanetary adventurer, and Jirel of Joiry, the medieval warrior ruler.
I have reviewed C. L. Moore’s work before, specifically the adventures of Northwest Smith; that review also gives a short recap of the history of Weird Tales magazine.
Moore was voted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1998. The Science Fiction Writers of America wanted to designate her as a SFWA Grand Master, but her husband at the time, because she had Alzheimer’s disease and he was worried she could not handle the ceremony, declined the honor on her behalf.
As with many authors who were active in the early 20th Century, a few works by Moore can be found on Project Gutenberg.
While women warriors were far outnumbered by their male counterparts in the early days of sword and sorcery, Jirel, while one of the first, was not alone. Even in my own (admittedly male-oriented) early reading, a few memorable female characters stood out. Robert E. Howard’s Conan partnered at times with Belit the pirate queen and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood (I reviewed a tale featuring Valeria here), and those female warriors nearly made Conan a supporting character in the tales where they appeared. Amongst the overwhelmingly male protagonists of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the shield maiden Eowyn of Rohan plays a key role in a pivotal battle. Dejah Thoris, the Martian princess who captured the heart of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, was certainly no shrinking violet. Andre Norton’s Witch World books were full of female characters who were active, equal participants in the stories. Themyscira and the Amazon nation that produced Wonder Woman was impossible to miss in DC Comics when the character debuted in the early 1940s. And in one of Leigh Brackett’s most compelling tales of Eric John Stark (which I reviewed here), the stage is stolen by the character known as the “Black Amazon of Mars.” The always useful online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (SFE) notes that other women writers who have penned sword and sorcery tales include C. J. Cherryh, Jane Gaskell, Barbara Hambly, Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee, R. A. MacAvoy, Sheri S. Tepper, Joan Vinge and Patricia Wrede and that women play a large role in many of their stories.
I wish I could offer more examples of women warriors in sword and sorcery or fantasy tales, but unfortunately, I didn’t read much in the genre after the 1970s, which is when women characters began to appear more frequently in active roles, depicted as equals to their male counterparts. So when the discussion begins, I would greatly appreciate everyone sharing recommendations and information on their favorite women warriors.
Jirel of Joiry
In the first story of the collection, “The Black God’s Kiss,” Joiry has just been conquered by the forces of the boorish Guillaume, and the bodies of its defenders are still strewn about the castle. Guillaume has their captured commander dragged before him, only to have her revealed as the Lady Jirel, a tall and powerful woman with short red hair. His first reaction is to force an embrace and kiss on her, which due to the censorship of the era, is as brutal a sexual assault as could be portrayed. Jirel is locked in the dungeon, but soon makes short work of a sentry, dons chain mail and greaves, puts a dagger in her belt and picks up her two-handed sword (this is a good illustration of her physical strength, as not all men can fight effectively with a sword of that size).
She heads to the chapel, and finds her priest Father Gervase there. She asks him to bless her, as she intends to go down a secret staircase the two of them had previously discovered. He warns against going, because the stairs lead to a hellish alternate world which will put her very soul in peril. But driven by hatred and anger, and desperate for a weapon she can use for revenge, Jirel forges ahead. She travels through curving passageways that warp both time and space, and finds herself unable to go further until she takes off the crucifix she wears. She sees that she is no longer underground, but in a different and nightmarish world. She travels through a landscape that reveals one horror after another until she meets an avatar that looks like her; this avatar promises her a gift if she will go to the temple in the heart of this strange land. Despite knowing that a gift from a demon is no gift, Jirel continues on, and when she finds the black statue of an ugly god in the temple, she knows she must kiss it. When she does, she immediately realizes that she now holds a curse that will destroy her if she does not pass it on.
[Spoiler alert: I am about to discuss some aspects of the end of this story, which also relate to the next story, so if you want to avoid these spoilers entirely, please skip forward to the discussion of “Jirel Meets Magic” below.] Jirel rushes through the long journey that will bring her to Joiry, finds Guillaume, and kisses him. As he dies a brutal death, she is filled with love for him, and realizes that this is the price of her weapon; she will know forever that she killed the man she loved. As a curse, this is demonically clever, but it is also deeply unsettling. I have sometimes encountered stories that depict women falling in love with men who abuse them, and I always find that trope distasteful. Moreover, a character betraying someone with a kiss reminds me too much of the Biblical figure of Judas, a connection that doesn’t square well with Jirel’s largely heroic nature.
The second story, “Black God’s Shadow,” is a direct sequel to the first, and not a complete story on its own. Jirel continues to be troubled by her (creepy) love for Guillaume, and haunted by his restless spirit. She cannot bring him back, but she does want to bring him peace—to give him a clean death. So, she again uses the passageway beneath her deepest dungeons to travel to the land of the black god and once there, she battles him to gain the release of Guillaume’s soul. To my disappointment, this struggle takes place in her mind, and the conflict is centered on emotions and determination. Not being a Lovecraft fan, I would have preferred adventure to horror, and wanted Jirel to be given a quest that tested her sword arm and warrior skills. But that was not meant to be, and this tale is even more dependent than the first on the distasteful premise of a woman loving and defending her abuser, so this was my least favorite of those contained in the volume.
The next story is “Jirel Meets Magic”: Jirel and her forces have defeated the evil wizard Giraud of Guischard (at this point, I am wondering if every man Jirel meets has a name that starts with a G). Giraud himself is nowhere to be found. Finally, in a high tower, they discover a mysterious shuttered window, and when the window is opened, Jirel finds that it leads to another magical world. She encounters a sorceress, Jarisme, who is torturing a dying dryad. The sorceress disappears, and the dryad gives Jirel a charm that will help her locate Jarisme, and ultimately defeat her. Jirel travels through the magical land, and finds Jarisme with Giraud by her side. There are some references to Jarisme trying to avoid a dark destiny, and she teleports Jirel away, telling her to go home. But Jirel is determined, and sets out on a long and arduous journey through the magical forest. There are no swordfights or battles along the way, but at least our heroine is doing something physical instead of metaphysical. Jirel finds and explores Jarisme’s magical hall, which is full of doorways to other worlds. Jarisme arrives with Giraud, and Jirel must face both in order to win the day. This was my favorite of the stories, as Jirel gets to display more agency in the course of the narrative.
In “The Dark Land,” Jirel is dying of wounds suffered in an unshown battle (we are again robbed of swordplay). Just as Father Gervase arrives to administer last rites, her body disappears. She awakens in a mysterious land beside a huge and evil-looking statue of a man on a throne with flames flickering high over her head. Then she meets the man the statue is modeled on: Pav, king of this mysterious land (finally, a man whose name doesn’t start with G…). He has been watching Jirel from his mysterious world, and wants to take her as his bride. But Jirel’s spirit is strong, and he realizes that the only way he can possess her is by destroying the spirit that he admires. Jirel wanders away and finds herself in the presence of a white witch who is Pav’s rival. She offers Jirel a clue to how Pav can be destroyed. What follows is another of those metaphysical struggles that I tend to find tedious, a struggle that will test the limits of Jirel’s strength.
The final tale, “Hellsgarde,” brings Jirel to the titular castle in the company of the unpleasant Guy of Garlot (back to the G’s again). He has captured some of her troops, and will ransom them if she recovers a treasure box that is hidden in the ominous edifice. She finds the castle inhabited by a nightmarish family that wants to use her to summon an evil spirit. Of all the creatures and evil wizards she has encountered, this family is the creepiest. We get another fierce but largely metaphysical struggle in which Jirel encounters an evil spirit that forces kisses on her (as in the first tale, an image of sexual assault), but she is able to overcome it. The ending is not what I would have expected, but wraps everything up with some clever twists.
The adventures of Jirel of Joiry were groundbreaking, introducing readers to a woman who is strong, brave, and perfectly capable of rescuing herself from even the direst of threats. Both Moore and Jirel were far ahead of their time—it would be decades before protagonists like Jirel became more commonplace. The stories are engaging and well written, and the central character, who is headstrong and passionate, is more than compelling.
Jirel is often mentioned as the first woman hero of sword and sorcery, but unfortunately for readers like me who prefer combat and battle scenes, the swords are largely in the background, and it is sorcery that is at the heart of the tales. Fans of eldritch horror and sinister gods, however, will find much to enjoy here.
And now I turn the floor over to you: For those of you who have read Jirel’s adventures, what are your thoughts and reactions? Also, what other notable female warriors have you encountered in your fantasy reading, and what aspects of their adventures did you enjoy?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.