Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Original She-Devil

Okay, pop-quiz. She has hair of flaming red, is clad in mail, and few men can equal her in swordplay. She appeared in the 1930s Pulp magazines right alongside Conan the Cimmerian. Who is she?

If you said Red Sonja, turn in your fanboy (or fangirl) badge. Red Sonja didn't show up until the 1970s and she never appeared in any pulps. There was another character named Red Sonya (with a Y) who did appear in one pulp, but it wasn't Weird Tales and that's another story which I've already covered. No, we're talking about C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, the original red haired she-devil with a sword who first appeared in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales in the story 'Black God's Kiss.' That same issue contained part of the serialized Conan tale, People of the Black Circle. It's a landmark issue for fans of sword & sorcery.
Jirel is pretty much the mother of all female sword & sorcery heroes. After REH got things rolling, other authors, such as Clifford Ball tried mining the same heroic fantasy territory with varying degrees of success. Moore was different, in more ways than one. Not only was the protagonist of the Jirel stories a female but so was the author. The C in C.L. Moore stands for Catherine.
Moore had already made a splash in the world of weird fiction with her dark 1933 SF/Fantasy story 'Shambleau'. This story, the first in her other series, the adventures of spaceman soldier of fortune Northwest Smith, contains some creepy sexual undertones that were very daring for the day.
Jirel came along soon after, earning the cover slot in Weird Tales with Black God's Kiss. Moore's sword & sorcery is a little hard to explain and unlike that of anyone else. It has violence and swordplay and sorcery, but it's written in a lush. moody, prose that reminds me more of Clark Ashton Smith than Robert E. Howard. The Jirel stories have a dreamlike quality and are filled with strange, almost hallucinatory images. Several of them, (And this is true of the Northwest Smith stories too) take place in other dimensions or weird pocket worlds that operate by their own rules and often contain their own small gods. My favorite of the six Jirel stories is probably Jirel Meets Magic. There's a lot of sorcerous goings on in that one that aren't like anything I've ever read elsewhere.
Unlike Conan, who adventures in a time before recorded history, Jirel's adventures take place in a sort of mythical Medieval France. In fact I often think of Jirel as Joan of Arc with a really really bad temper. Jirel is not to be messed with, as many of the male antagonists learn, much to their sorrow. Her blade is as quick as her temper and her wits. Moore, herself a redhead, had grown up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and other such authors and she crashed the boys club of rockem sockem pulp tales and took no prisoners. And yet, Jirel is never portrayed as a Conan in a skirt. She remains a believable female character throughout her sanguinary exploits. Moore's stories carry considerably more characterization and emotional depth than the average pulp tale.
There are five "classic" Jirel stories and one rather odd one that teams Jirel with Northwest Smith. You'll have to read Quest of the Star Stone (written by Moore in collaboration with her husband, SF writer Henry Kuttner) to find out how a medieval warrior-woman met up with a futuristic space cowboy. All six of these tales were recently reprinted by Paizo Publishing in their trade paperback collection, Black God's Kiss. Well worth seeking out.

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