Chainmail Bikinis (and the lack therof): C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry.
If you’ve read (or watched, or played) enough fantasy, you’ve already got a set of character archetypes (stereotypes, if you’re feeling mean) in your head.
Think of who you’d see on the cover of a cheesy fantasy novel. I know you can- if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably way ahead of me already. Go on, right now. What characters do you see?
The beardy wizard you’re thinking of? Tolkien’s Gandalf, of course. The barbarian? Howard’s Conan. The dude in the cloak is Lieber’s Grey Mouser (even if he’s not as famous as the other guys), and the girl in the chainmail bikini (sounds like a bad Swedish fantasy-noir mashup and now I have to write this) owes a lot to C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry.
That’s who we’re going to talk about today.
The modern fantasy genre owes a lot to the pulps- Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and many other writers cut their teeth in cranking out stories for Weird Tales and other cheap magazines. These in turn went on to influence Dungeons and Dragons, which in turn has influenced the modern fantasy genre as we know it. I’ve explored this a little in the past, going back to Terry Brooks’ Shanara series- and it’s this sort of armchair academia that’s brought me to C.L. Moore.
Moore was another of the early pulp writers- however, Moore is notable for being one of the first women to write Science Fiction, well, ever. Unfortunately, the edition of Jirel of Joiry doesn’t have a little forward giving you much information about her, or her place in science fiction. As you might guess from the initials, Moore wrote under a pseudonym, because back in the 30’s people were sexist and wouldn’t want to read anything written by a woman. This gets particularly funny considering Moore actually met her husband when he wrote her fan mail, thinking she was actually a man. (There’s the makings of a screwball comedy in there, and now I have to write that too).
Anyway, Jirel of Joiry! Jirel is a red-haired warrior woman, lording over the land of Joiry. This book collects five of the six Jirel stories that Moore wrote. They’re loosely connected together, but each one was originally meant to stand on its own. Though with the anthology format, it soon becomes apparent that C.L. Moore pretty much uses the same plot over and over again.
The typical Jirel story is pretty straightforward; she’s presented with a problem in the real world, which in turn forces her to descend into a literal underworld where she meets strange and insane demons which batter her about, drive her a little bit insane, but then at the last moment Jirel escapes. It’s not a bad format, by any means, and Moore provides a unique set of encounters in each story. On the other hand, many of her contemporaries wrote following their own formulas as well. I mean, the typical Conan story can be pretty predictable, if you know what to look out for.
The thing about Moore’s formula is that it tends to diminish Jirel’s martial prowess, which I found just a bit disappointing- mostly because I was kind of going in hoping for a bunch of swashbuckling adventure stories, with lots of dudes getting stabbed. Which is a shame, as Moore going hell-for-leather would no doubt be a delight to read. For example, here’s a passage from early in the third story, “Jirel Meets Magic.”
“Jirel of Joiry was a shouting battle-machine from which Guischard’s men reeled in bloody confusion as she whirled and slashed and slew in the narrow confines of the gateway, her great stallion’s iron hoofs weapons as potent as her own whistling blade.”
See, that is the character I want to read about. There were a few times here and there that I couldn’t help but think to myself “why can’t Jirel start stabbing dudes?” She’s not a shrinking damsel, but the stories weren’t quite as action packed as I’d hoped.
Jirel is fierce and dangerous, but she’s beautiful, as well (redheads, man), and as such she’s an object of desire by the bad guys in most of the stories. Thankfully, this doesn’t devolve into crazy S&M fantasy (I’m looking at you, John Norman), but at the same time, it adds an extra element of danger to the stories. Dudes (and demons, and ghosts) try to kiss Jirel a lot- and I wonder if it was just the social mores at the time that kept Moore from getting any more explicit. Then again, Jirel keeps her clothes on in all her stories, so that’s more than can be said about a lot of modern Strong Female Characters.
The first story, “The Black God’s Kiss,” has a particularly problematic twist at the end. It opens with Jirel captured and held prisoner by a dude named Guillame (Jirel and men with names that begin with ‘G’ don’t get along well). As per the formula, Jirel breaks out, and crawls down a secret tunnel into the weird underworld in order to get a weapon with which to kill Guillame. Said weapon is the titular Black God’s Kiss- Jirel kisses a cursed statue, which essentially fills her with despair and dark magic. Jirel manages to climb back to the surface, where she kisses Guillame, passing the curse along to him, which kills him in a terrible manner. The twist is, Jirel was in love with Guillame all along! Or…she was in hate-love with him, or something. (The Tvtropes term would be ‘tsundere,’) Because, y’know, nothing says romance like a dude kicking down the door to your castle and killing a bunch of your people.
It’s not exactly clear if she always felt this way, or if it was the Black God’s meddling that twisted her emotions all up. Either way, while it’s a good twist, it’s still a bit odd. Even more so when the next story centers around Jirel descending into the underworld again in order to save Guillame’s soul.
My favorite story of the anthology was the last, “Hellsgarde,” as it strays farther from the formula established in the earlier stories. In particular, “Hellsgarde” doesn’t involve Jirel going to a different plane of existence (at least not for long, anyway), but rather, she’s just mucking around a haunted castle in search of a cursed treasure. So, y’know, typical adventuring stuff. This last one had more horror elements to it. There’s some great gruesome imagery of a courtyard full of corpses propped up to look like men-at-arms, and Jirel runs into a clan of bug-eyed degenerates within the haunted castle. Again, Jirel escapes more through force of will than force of arms (even if she does shank a dude in the back), but the story ends with a hint at further weirdness in Moore’s very loose setting.
Really, I’m just a little disappointed that Moore didn’t write, well, more (har har) about Jirel. I can totally get behind the idea of a kickass lady in sensible plate armor riding around and fighting monsters. Thankfully, a lot of other people over the years also like the idea, and so that’s where we get the likes of Red Sonja, Xena, and even some interpretations of Wonder Woman.
All and all, Jirel of Joiry is a fairly quick read, so I’d suggest it to anyone with a passing interest in the roots of the fantasy genre. While the stories aren’t as violent as I’d expected, Moore’s is a wonderful writer with a talent for lush description. If nothing else, see if you can find “Hellsgarde” in a collection or something, as it’s the best of the lot, and well worth reading for any fantasy fan.