“Jirel, Ma Joie!” (In Which I Encounter My First C.L. Moore)
Due to an unfortunate (or perhaps I should say, “fortuitous”) comment I let slip in an email, Howard Andrew Jones discovered I had no idea who C.L. Moore was.
My comment was something to the effect of, “C.L. Moore? What did he write?”
I met Howard in person once, about a billion years ago at World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs. I retain no clear picture of him in my head, except from images I’ve gleaned off of his Facebook profile page, but from his quick reply, I could so clearly see the bare patches on his skull where he had just torn out huge clumps of hair in rage and frustration.
But he was quite polite about it all.
In his email, he linked me right to Ryan Harvey’s thorough and passionate overview of Herself, Catherine Lucille Moore, Mighty Sorceress of the Pen, Queen Mother of the First Female Sword-Swinging Spit-Fire Protagonist in Fantasy and Science Fiction. This article I happily read, promising myself I would devour some C.L. Moore books the first chance I got!
And then I promptly forgot all about it.
But Howard Andrew Jones and John O’Neill, undaunted by my insouciance, both earnestly strove to further my education in this, our beloved genre. By hook, crook and conspiracy, they contrived to smuggle me a copy (through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered) of C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry for my birthday.
What a slender little volume. How fragile the glue that binds this old paperback.
There is a woman on the cover! In a horned helmet! With red hair and a red cloak and haughty cheekbones and a very big sword!
I eyed my new acquisition with suspicion. I put it on the chair next to my bed and stared at it every morning after I woke, every night before I slept. We were getting friendly, the book and I. You don’t just crack a book like that on first meeting, you know. You have to grow used to each other. Ease into it.
On Sunday, January 2nd, 2011, I read it. It was, I believe, the first book I read of the New Year. Begin as you mean to go on, eh?
Gracious, what a quest! I guess I didn’t realize that A.) It was a collection of short stories (I thought it was a novel), and B.) sometimes Moore’s much more Science Fiction than Fantasy — in that febrile, dreamscape, Lovecraftian way.
The first story, “Jirel Meets Magic” (originally published in Weird Tales, July 1935), is pretty fantastical; she climbs through a window to pursue her enemy, and finds herself in another world. There she mostly contends with the magic — not of her foe, oh no — but of her foe’s foe: this catty, smirking, dryad-murdering sorceress who owns a hopping tower and is, in my humble opinion, rather overly fond of purple.
The whole climbing-through-windows-and-out-of-worlds conceit totally reminded me of James Branch Cabell’s Figures of Earth (crap! I made a pact with James Enge to write more Cabell blogs. Remind me!), and I wonder if Mme. Moore was at all under a Cabellian influence during the writing of this story, or if windows (like wardrobes and mirrors) exist in Fantasy as the natural thresholds between dimensions? Mmn. Bears thinking on. MOVING ON!
In “Black God’s Kiss,” “The Dark Land,” and “Hellesgarde,” without giving away too much, our red-headed Commander of the Armies of Unconquerable Joiry seems to encounter the same problem in three different ways. Namely: big scary dudes who want to snog her. And she, Jirel, impetuous and impregnable, simply isn’t having any of it.
Now, in “Black God’s Kiss” (originally published in Weird Tales, October of 1934 — the first Jirel story ever), it’s Guillaume the Conqueror who’s doing the snogging. Thing is, he forgot to ask first.
Oh, and also he took over Unconquerable Joiry, so you can see how that might get Jirel’s back up. Enough so that she, that night, escapes her prison cell, gets her quaking priest to shrive her, and goes down to hell “to pray the devil for a weapon.” Only what she thinks of as hell may very well be a whole other planet/dimension/plane of existence.
There is this cool coiling tunnel thing she has to slide down (sort of like in The Goonies!), until she comes to a cavernous blackness. She has to remove her crucifix in order to see through the dark, find her way to the mouth of the cave, and emerge into the new world. She must also battle gibbering horrors under a strict time limit. (In this world, the dawn is far, far worse than the dark. Best not stick around when the sun — or whatever it is — starts rising.)
The weird landscape she enters is itself a character, a treacherous nightmare with black spots and soft spots and pitfalls. It seems sometimes to breathe. There, after some shenanigans, she finds the Black God, i.e. the Devil, i.e. something there really aren’t any words for, and she, uh, “prays” it for a weapon. In the, you know, “Romeo and Juliet” kind of “let lips do what hands do” praying.
Guillaume the Conqueror never stood a chance in, well… hell.
Ha! Eat it! That’s what you get for snogging Jirel of Joiry without permission, you bastard!
I liked everything about this story except the last two paragraphs. Several times in the course of the narrative I’d expected something like the last two paragraphs, and was grateful when they never appeared. But then they did. It took me all of the next story and some of the one after that to get over my disappointment at being right.
In our next tale is the sequel to “Kiss,” entitled “Black God’s Shadow” (Weird Tales, December 1934). It’s basically about Jirel’s return to that land and the laying of a ghost. Emotionally, the story seems to resonate with the idea that Jirel’s compassion can be just as stubborn as her passion, and that for her, hatred and love must sidestep each other on a very fine tightrope over a very large pit of fire.
If you want to read an in-depth review of “Black God’s Kiss,” our man Ryan Harvey has written one here just for you!
But let’s get back to snogging. Not only do black-bearded, white-toothed conquerors want to snog Jirel, but so does the Dark God of The Dark Land (Weird Tales, January 1936). A pattern emerges.
I admit I had rather a crush on Pav, King of Romne. He did treat Jirel better than Guillaume had, healing her of that mortal pike wound and all, but still he wanted to snog her without asking. And also to subsume her bright proud soul in the process (possibly a side effect he did not intend). So of course she has to fight him! He gives her permission to seek throughout Romne for a weapon to destroy him (pretty big of him, except I know his secret), and on the way, through another badass landscape, Jirel meets a scary skeleton-lady who “helps” her. I’m not telling you what happens.
I think that may have been my favorite, but I also had a lot of fun reading “Hellesgarde”(Weird Tales, April 1939). In this one, it’s the severed head of an angry ghost named Andred that keeps trying to snog Jirel, but don’t worry! That’s the least interesting bit of the story (still pretty interesting, as these things go). There’s also a castle that appears in the marshes (“a dismal place, full of mists and fevers”) only at sunset, a company of dead men standing guard, and castle denizens that have “CREEPY” written all over their foreheads in invisible ink. Many adventures ensue.
And you know what? “Hellesgarde” has one of my favorite last lines in a Fantasy story. Clear and malicious and beautiful, that one line is a story that never needs to be written because the shape is already there, defined in negative space. It could be a cliffhanger, or it could be a conclusion. It was very satisfying in either case. As was the whole Jirel of Joiry experience.
What fascinated me most was the sense of history in the pages. These stories came from a time before the Third – or even the Second – Wave of Feminism. Where was Moore writing from? What were her frustrations? Who were her influences? Did she feel alone and adrift in the male-dominated world of pulp fantasy and science fiction? Was she excited to be a part of it? Did she realize that Jirel was blazing trails, not only through swamp and pandimensional realms, but through history and literature?
I’m very keen to read her Northwest Smith stories now. I’m ready. Bring it on.
But you know what’s really wonderful about Moore’s Jirel?
From Black God’s Kiss.
Feel the fire…
Guillaume the conqueror leaned on his mighty sword, hands crossed on its hilt, grinning down from his height upon the furious captive before him. He was a big man, Guillaume, and he looked bigger still in his spattered armor. There was blood on his hard, scarred face, and he was grinning a white grin that split his short, curly beard glitteringly. Very splendid and very dangerous he looked, leaning on his great sword and smiling down upon fallen Joiry’s lord, struggling between the, stolid men-at-arms.
“Unshell me this lobster,” said Guillaume in his deep lazy voice. “We’ll see what sort of face the fellow has who gave us such a battle. Off with his helmet, you.”
But a third man had to come up and slash the straps which held the iron helmet on, for the struggles of Joiry’s commander were too fierce, even with bound arms, for either of the guards to release their hold. There was a moment of sharp struggle; then the straps parted and the helmet rolled loudly across the flagstones.
Guillaume’s white teeth clicked on a startled oath. He stared. Joiry’s lady glared back at him from between her captors, wild red hair tousled, wild lion-yellow eyes ablaze.
“God curse you!” snarled the lady of Joiry between teeth. “God blast your black heart!”
Whoa, can’t you just see REH pumping a fist in the air when he read that? That’s some blazing prose force brought to focus on a raging, defiant heroine.
Not much of its era could match it.
Not much can match it today, for that matter.
I, um, have yet to read my first rousing Robert E. Howard book. Although, I must say, since I began to blog for Black Gate, I look forward to the experience more than I ever thought I would. I hear rumors of a woman named “Dark Agnes,” and feel quite ready to make that lady’s acquaintance.
Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know who Jirel of Joiry, or CL Moore were until I bought the Planet Stories edition.
C.S.E. Cooney: You first though C.L. Moore was a man? So did her husband, Henry Kuttner! 🙂
I haven’t read anything by C.L. Moore herself, but I have read some Lewis Pagett, the shared pseudonym between she and Hemry Kuttner. Does anyone know if the Lewis Carrol refrences are from her, Henry or both?
CSE you amuse me greatly. Always a pleasure to read your words. And truth be told, it took me many months on this site before I realized YOU were a girl. I guess what goes around comes around 🙂
@TDoolan: Ooh! What in heck are Planet Stories? Any good?
@ Mister Alex: I read that on Wikipedia! It was so dear! I read that they were so involved in their collaborations that one would leave off in the middle of a paragraph, and the other would take up from there, and even THEY didn’t remember who’d written which part.
I was also excited to see that they wrote the story on which the movie The Last Mimzy was based. I’d love to read some of their collaborations.
@Scott: Sheesh! I live to amuse!
The first person I ever tricked with my professional initials was Rich Horton. I never meant to trick anybody; I just didn’t like my signature in high school, so I switched over to my initials and all of a sudden signing my name to homework was a lot more fun. I got flourish. And once you get flourish, there ain’t no turnin’ back. 😀
Planet Stories was originally a pulp magazine, but is now a label for reprints of classic science and fantasy fiction.
I don’t know too much about Kuttner and Moore, but ‘The Voice of the Lobster’ is a great story. ‘The Twonky’ is the only other Kuttner story to be turned into a movie. I missed most of it when it was on TMC, but it was pretty funny how the effects people got a TV to walk up and down the stairs.
I cannot tell a lie… although Howard and I got the credit, your birthday copy of Jirel of Joiry actually came from the library of Mr. Jason M. Waltz.
He sent me a package of books and cookies in November. I ate the cookies, but shared the books. 🙂
Yes, you can SO tell a lie (every five minutes even, great big huge ones with dragons and robots in them), but certain of your childhood indoctrinations make you feel guilty about it afterward.
In my defense (with swords if necessary), I did not know the gift was from Jason until after I wrote this and posted ALL OVER THE INTERNET.
I can’t believe you didn’t share the cookies too.
P.S. THANK YOU, JASON WALTZ!
I wondered at the timing if I were so lucky as to be involved in this wonderful epiphany our dear Claire has experienced!
Good thing you didn’t share the cookies and eat the books friend John!
You are so very welcome Claire ~ I am certainly thrilled the wonderful book has found a grand home.
I’ve known who C.L. Moore was since a young age (as I kid, I was the odd one who actually read about the books I was reading, not just the books themselves) but I haven’t actually read any of the Jirel stories. My first encounter with her was with a dark fantasy story called “Daemon,” a sad, disturbing and spooky piece.
[…] Over the years we’ve done our own tributes to C.L. Moore, including Ryan Harvey’s Jirel of Joiry: The Mother of Us All, Paul Di Filippo’s review of Judgment Night, and C.S.E. Cooney’s recent Jirel, Ma Joie! […]
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