Jirel of Joiry, First Heroine of Sword-and-Sorcery

The sword-swinging, laser gun-blasting, wooden-stake carrying women who are an enormous part of today’s popular entertainment owe their existence to a medieval lady who first appeared more than eighty years ago in the pulp pages: Jirel of Joiry. Flame-haired, tenacious as a she-lion, “a shouting battle-machine,” sojourner in forbidden magical lands—Jirel was the first woman of the sword to battle sorcery.

Jirel did not come on to the fantasy scene quietly. She slashed out of the table-of-contents of Weird Tales with a formidable willpower that still places her in the top ranks of fantasy heroines. She only appeared in six novelettes between 1934 and 1939, but she and her creator C. L. Moore became permanent stars of speculative fiction—the two women who ripped down the “Men Only” sign from the fantasy door.

The Lady of Joiry would never have had such a lasting impact if it weren’t for Catherine Lucille Moore’s immense writing talent, which was evident from her first published story. “I was reared on a diet of Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so you can see I never had a chance,” she remembered of her childhood. At age twenty-two, while working at a bank in Indianapolis, she made her first writing sale with the oddly titled dark science-fiction piece “Shambleau.” Editor Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales recognized a brilliant new author and published the story in the November 1933 issue. “Shambleau” introduced Northwest Smith, Moore’s influential galaxy-wandering rogue. The evocative atmosphere, emotional power, and gripping prose stood out among planetary SF of the time; it was a breathtaking performance that launched Moore to the front of Weird Tales bullpen.

Jirel arrived less than a year later in “Black God’s Kiss,” still one of the best stories to appear in Weird Tales. Five more adventures followed: “Black God’s Shadow,” “Jirel Meets Magic,” “The Dark Land,” “Hellsgarde,” and “Quest of the Starstone.” The last she co-wrote with her future husband, Henry Kuttner, and it brought together Jirel and Northwest Smith in their only meeting.

Although a sword-and-sorcery heroine, Jirel isn’t merely a gender-swapped Conan or Amazonian cliché. She’s a woman of complex contradictions: iron heroism combined with emotional receptivity. Unrelenting in battle and filled with rage that often sparks in her yellow eyes (“the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire”), Jirel is also driven by dark passions and pathos. She’s modern in her defiance of masculine conventions of the Middle Ages—a woman landowner and respected war leader—but is also brazenly medieval, possessed of aristocratic haughtiness and an admirer of the art of torture. She allows no man to force himself on her (this is the engine behind the first story, “Black God’s Kiss”), but admits an enjoyment of casual romance and sex—as much as could be admitted in the ‘30s pulps: “She remembered laughter and singing and gayety … she remembered kisses in the dark, and the hard grip of men’s arms about her body.”

“Black God’s Kiss,” the most anthologized of the Jirel stories, still evokes complex reactions from readers. It set the template for most of the stories: Jirel, seeking a tool against a foe, enters into a eldritch realm. Lands of the weird were Moore’s specialty, and this was where Jirel often found herself. Although armed with her favorite two-handed sword and dagger, the Lady of Joiry rarely uses them against the creatures of these otherworlds. Her willpower, her mental resources of pain and tempestuous love are her principal weapons against opponents such as the inhuman sorceress Jarisme (“Jirel Meets Magic”) and the inhabitants of the dark land of the warlock Pav of Romne (“The Dark Land”).

In “Black God’s Kiss,” Jirel searches a surreal realm to find magic to avenge herself against the man who has conquered Joiry and humiliated her by forcing a kiss on her. After passing through many dark marvels, and even once shedding tears for the denizens in tormed, Jirel makes a pact with the Black God for revenge—only to discover a hidden and painful truth about her desires.

The best story after “Black God’s Kiss” is “Jirel Meets Magic,” which pits the heroine against a fay sorceress. Jarisme is an ideal opposite to Jirel: cold and icy, as inhuman as Jirel is full of humanity. Jarisme puts the heroine through ingenious magical challenges and tortures, but Jirel’s arsenal of hatred for the supernatural and the pains of her past loves allow her to overcome her enemy: “… boiling into one great unbearable explosion of violence in which rage took precedence over all. Rage at life for permitting such pain to be. Rage at Jarisme for forcing her into memory. Such rage that everything shook before it, and melted and ran together in a heat of rebellion …”

The last Jirel story Moore wrote solo, “Hellsgarde,” is the only one where Jirel remains in her own world the entire time. But the cursed castle of the title is still a superb setting for Moore’s peculiar word-craft. It’s the most action-oriented story, although Jirel feels a bit more outside events with less chance to move the narrative.

After C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner married, they primarily wrote science-fiction in collaboration (often under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). Moore never returned to Jirel. After Kuttner’s death in 1958, she did little writing aside from some television work and teaching courses at USC. She retired from writing entirely after her second marriage in 1963. She died from Alzheimer’s in 1987 after a long period in coma. Jirel of Joiry, however, stalks the lands of the weird with sword and dagger still, leading the army of fantasy heroines who have followed her.

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  1. Good article, Ryan. As you know, I love C. L. Moore, and even though my Rogues of Merth stories are sometimes compared to Leiber or Howard, in some ways, my approach to metaphysical mystery, atmosphere, and creating dilemmas that are not solved my violence are much more akin to Moore’s work. You even had that opinion after reading my story The Blue Lamp. I re-read her Jirel and Northwest Smith stories over again about every three years. The only story I was ever disappointed with was Black God’s Shadow, the sequel to Black God’s Kiss, but I shouldn’t even mention that because I have loved all of the rest. Black God’s Kiss is for me one of the greatest fantasy adventure stories ever written. What stuck me the most during my last re-reading was the incredible ability she had to describe complex and troubling emotions. The terror Jirel feels during Jirel Meets Magic is actually disturbing to anyone that has experienced real fear or anxiety. I have never read any other writer who could evoke such feels by her empathy and writing ability. She was also able to summon a sense of the truly strange that in my opinion is more authentic and convincing than even Lovecraft. And one must not forget when she wrote those stories. When I first read Jirel Meets Magic, I did not know anything about C. L. Moore or when she lived and wrote. As I read the story, I was thinking that she was heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock. Then I checked the date on the story and realized it was published in 1935! This is still almost unbelievable to me. C.L. Moore’s and Leiber’s fantasy adventure stories retain a timeless undated feel and most could easily have been written in our modern age. Catherine Moore is an author that has not received the credit she is due for her incredible contribution to the Fantasy and Science Fantasy genres, which she helped to create.

  2. For good reason, neither Fritz Leiber’s nor C.L. Moore’s fantasy adventure stories have been made into movies or television shows. The visual media of TV and film tell stories mainly by visual interpretations of ideas primarily through action. The power of Leiber’s and Moore’s work lies in the beauty of language to create poetic ideas in the mind. The stories present subtle facets of mind and emotion by the description of objects and situations that are symbols for psychological and metaphysical mystery and mythic ideas.

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