Mining the Genre Asteroid: Jirel of Joiry

3 Oct
Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry

Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.

France during the dark ages. The ruler of a feudal holding stands to protect the people and realm against usurpers and rivals, wizards and witches, dark crossovers from eldritch dimensions and haunted castles. Possessed of indomitable will, a strong emotional core that erupts in violent love and hatred, and not inconsiderable skill with sword and the leading of men into battle,  this feudal lord is the central character of six early sword and sorcery stories.

Meet the lady Jirel of Joiry.

Jirel of Joiry is one of the signature characters created by Catherine Lucille Moore, or C.L. Moore as she was known to readers of Weird Tales, and generally known today.  Moore was, in solo and in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner, one of the leading lights of the 1930’s, 40’s and early 50’s  early science fiction and fantasy, writing for magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding. Much of her work, after marrying Henry Kuttner in 1940, were collaborations, secretly or otherwise. Before marrying him, however, Moore created a number of universes and characters of her own, including Jirel.

The five Jirel of Joiry stories are:

  • “Black God’s Kiss” (October 1934)

  • “Black God’s Shadow” (December 1934)

  • “Jirel Meets Magic” (July 1935)

  • “The Dark Land” (January 1936)

  • “Hellsgarde” (April 1939)

A sixth story, “Quest of the Starstone” was written in 1937 in collaboration with her future husband Henry Kuttner. it is not typically collected with the other five stories, as it is extremely different in its crossing over with her future hero Northwest Smith.

The Jirel of Joiry stories are thematically similar and unified. Jirel, as the feudal overlord of her realm, deals with a problem: an enemy wizard, a fellow nobleman seeking power over her land, a haunted castle in her domain. Almost invariably, this causes her to cross over to an underworld or otherworld where she must escape. Sometimes this is a desperate gambit on her part, and sometimes she does so by accident or chance or enemy action.   In this way the stories remind me of the Welsh Mabinogion cycle, and I wonder if Moore was familiar with Welsh mythology. The major difference is that the hells and otherworlds of the stories are interpreted by her as being that of the devil, and the major thematic focus is her dealing with the emotional impact and surrealism of these worlds. I remember a sequence, for example, where Jirel’s tears falling on the ground caused the earth beneath her feet  to convulse and spasm in pain and agony mirroring the plight of the heroine. Jirel defeats her enemies more often  by her will and emotional strength than her not inconsiderable skills with a sword.

Like fellow female writer Leigh Brackett (whom I will talk about in a future column), Moore’s influence on the sword and sorcery genre cannot be overstated. Sword and Sorcery writers in her time period, running through today, owe a debt of gratitude to Moore for trailblazing not only sword and sorcery with women protagonists, but along with writers like Robert E Howard, establishing the subgenre itself. In fact, Moore and Howard were not only contemporaries but correspondents, having a good deal of professional respect for each other. Howard’s character Dark Agnes may well be a tribute to Moore’s Joiry.

The stories are and were written in the pulp era, and so suffer from no deficit of adverbs, and an abundance of unusual descriptors and often lengthy descriptions. Would-be readers of the tales should be aware of the style conventions of the time. The stories focus less on actual combat and battle and more on Jirel itself. Her passions, her emotions, her desires, and the testing of those, and her will, against her opponents.

It is sad, however, the Jirel of Joiry stories, collected in several volumes over the years, are out of print as a collection. However, these are easily found in used bookstores, libraries and the like. Anyone reading James Enge, Saladin Ahmed, Chris Willrich or Paul S Kemp might very well enjoy going back to the beginning of sword and sorcery. Lists of “tough” or “best” female fantasy characters always seem to include Jirel. Haven’t you ever wondered why? Here is your invitation to go and find out.

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