JIREL OF JOIRY – From 1934 to 1939, the female author C.L. Moore wrote six stories featuring Jirel of Joiry, a sword-wielding woman warrior from late Medieval France. Moore’s thirteen tales of Northwest Smith, the 1930s version of Han Solo, were reviewed in 2014 here at Balladeer’s Blog, including the 1937 crossover story with Jirel in which they faced a time-traveling sorceror from her era.
With this blog post I’m at last beginning my promised examination of the Jirel of Joiry pulp stories from the iconic publication Weird Tales. She was the forerunner of so many recent heroines from Xena to Cara Dune.
BLACK GOD’S KISS (1934) – This debut story opens with Castle Joiry having for once suffered the fate that Jirel had forced upon so many other strongholds: its armies defeated and their commander, Jirel herself, taken prisoner.
Still fully armored, she has been brought before Guillaume the Conqueror, the first man to have ever beaten Jirel militarily. The cocky Guillaume, having taken the castle, is seated upon Jirel’s throne as he inspects the freshly seized enemy commander being held by two of his men who can scarcely keep the warrior restrained.
Soon he has another of his soldiers remove the helmet from the commander and is shocked to see that inside the armor it is a beautiful woman who nearly defeated him that day.
NOTE: Since so many people are still so into the Game of Thrones universe picture a fully armored Jason Momoa as Guillaume and for Jirel picture a fiery combination of Arya, Daenerys and Brienne with Sansa’s long red hair.
Back to the story, Guillaume infuriates Jirel by talking to her as the prisoner she is and she breaks free of the two men holding her and nearly escapes before Guillaume himself catches up with her and recaptures her. He forces a kiss upon Jirel, who, the minute their mouths are disengaged, bites into his exposed neck, just missing his jugular vein.
Things escalate and Guillaume smacks our heroine unconscious. She awakens that night in the dungeons far below Castle Joiry. She easily escapes from her cell and overcomes the guard Guillaume assigned to keep watch over her.
Armed with the guard’s sword Jirel stealthily makes her way around part of her castle, in which many of Guillaume’s men are lying passed out drunk after an evening of drinking gallons of her fine French wine while celebrating their conquest.
She wants Guillaume dead most of all and shrewdly refrains from lashing out at the easy victims before her. She knows that nearby will surely be sober and alert men guarding the sleeping Guillaume, wherever he is right now.
Jirel longs to kill Guillaume more than anything else and calculates that she will need a supernatural weapon of some sort to do the deed now that her army has been defeated. Slipping away to the castle’s chapel she finds old Father Gervase, whom she has known since her youth.
She demands that the Father bless her plan to obtain a supernatural weapon from a mysterious place which lies far below Castle Joiry, a place she and the much younger Father Gervase explored years earlier. The priest is reluctant and warns Jirel that her soul may be forfeit if she trucks with the hellish realm in question.
The strong-willed heroine, as usual over the years, persuades him to go against his better judgment and offer a blessing on her less than holy quest. Jirel then proceeds to the lowest dungeons beneath Castle Joiry and uses secret trap doors to go even lower into the earth below.
As Jirel descends along slippery and winding passages not made for human forms we readers learn that the castle was built over the mouth of a vile domain which the few who know of it believe to be Hell itself. The ancient nobility of the castle erected the place as a stronghold against the nameless entities below, blocking off the entrance via multiple levels.
When the younger Father Gervase was struggling to manage the spiritual welfare of the volatile teen Jirel she had coaxed him along in a joint exploration of the forbidden sub-levels of Castle Joiry. She was curious to see if the dreaded nether-realm was real or just the stuff of legends.
What little she and Father Gervase had explored of the realm had driven them fearfully back to the surface and neither of them ever breathed a word to anyone about their adventure. But that was long ago. She was now a veteran of countless battles and the strategist of many campaigns and felt up to the task of searching the vile domain for a weapon to kill Guillaume and drive off his conquering army.
C.L. Moore’s writing here is as brilliant as in her Northwest Smith stories. The influence of Robert E Howard and H.P. Lovecraft is reflected in her work but she channels it through her unique and oddly sensual wordplay.
SPOILERS AHEAD –
The downward tunnel is laid out with impossible geometry of the kind Lovecraft thrived on describing. When Jirel at last reaches bottom she finds herself unable to perceive anything of the hellish place until she removes the crucifix from around her neck.
Moore’s description of the unholy sights that the crucifix was protecting Jirel’s eyes from is excellent. As the sword-wielding heroine proceeds through the nether-realm she encounters plenty of unwholesome creatures and entities that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for first-time readers. The ones that can’t be slain must be fled from.
At long last Jirel reaches the quasi-“cathedral” at the center of the unearthly geography around her. It is enormous and is made entirely of solid light. Inside, the warrior woman strikes an unholy bargain with an intelligent entity she encounters there and is directed to a temple on a black lake where she will find the weapon to use against the man she hates so passionately.
In a Robert W Chambers tableau of a sky and a lake each speckled with weird stars Jirel finds the temple in question. Daring the danger-laden bridge across the black waters, she enters the temple and sees what may be a statue of a coal-black god who is part human and part inhuman with its lone eye closed and its lips pursed for a kiss.
Unsure if this is a statue or the god itself, Jirel kisses the lips of the thing before her and is filled with a dark force which she can unleash upon Guillaume by kissing him in turn. Our determined heroine’s return across the unholy landscape populated with roaming horrors is kept fresh by her need to reach the tunnel back to the surface world before what passes as the sun in this infernal place rises.
Feet racing and sword swinging, Jirel makes it back to the slimy tunnel just in time, as the rising object which “lights” the dark domain was already emerging, making her own body cast hauntingly inhuman shadows.
Once back in the lowest dungeon level of Castle Joiry, Jirel finds herself facing a small crowd consisting of Guillaume and some of his men, who are holding Father Gervase captive. They obviously forced out of him the location of the missing Jirel’s starting point.
Sensing that the burden she carries within her may soon kill her if she does not pass it on as soon as possible, Jirel drops her sword and approaches Guillaume in a sultry, unmistakable way. In typical fashion for such a figure, the Conqueror laughs in a “women just can’t resist me” manner and lets the woman warrior throw her arms around him and kiss him.
The lengthy kiss inflicts a horrific death upon Guillaume, and C.L. Moore graphically describes his suffering as well as the subhuman scream which escapes his dying lips.
As for Jirel, she understands the living hell which lies ahead of her for her folly of accepting a gift from unholy forces. She realizes too late that her passionate feelings for Guillaume were not truly hatred, but intense love, and with him dead this world will never hold light for her again. Shrugging off Father Gervase’s attempts to comfort her she kneels beside Guillaume’s corpse and lets her tears flow.
I’LL BE COVERING THE NEXT JIREL OF JOIRY STORY SOON.
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