Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore

Catherine Lucille Moore wrote six tales featuring her sorcery-fighting swordsmistress Jirel of Joiry, published in Weird Tales between October 1934 (“Black God’s Kiss”) and April 1939 (“Hellsgarde”). The second, “Black God’s Shadow”, appeared in the December 1934 issue alongside Robert E Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the story in which a crucified Conan bites back at a vulture.

Weird Tales, October 1934

Margaret Brundage cover to Weird Tales, showing Jirel of Joiry and the Black God

Impetuous, fearless and undaunted by danger, Jirel shares many characteristics with her sword and sorcery stablemate, but her stories are nothing like Conan’s. In each adventure, having been set up as a dynamic “female warrior queen and spitfire of the fifteenth century” (as Sam Moskowitz puts it), Jirel is usually plunged straight into the sort of situation where her physical prowess and combat skills count for nothing. The classic Jirel of Joiry tale, after a brief and deftly sketched actionful introduction, has her being transported to another realm, usually a highly surreal one, where magic and dream-logic replace the straightforward adventure-style jinx you expect from sword & sorcery. This makes Jirel something of a puzzle. Whereas Conan cuts through the pretensions (and the major arteries) of sorcerers, priests and eldritch things with brute force and barbaric common sense, the situations Jirel finds herself in can usually only be solved by fighting fire with fire — by finding some ally, or some weapon, as magically powerful and dangerous as the opponent she’s facing. This means her adventures can feel somewhat arbitrary, bookended as they are by magics that both get her into a fix and out of it. But it’s between these points Jirel’s real heroism comes to the fore, and it’s heroism of a strange sort, though one she shares with most 20th century pulp-style heroes from Conan to James Bond. Although, when you think of, say, Conan or Bond as heroes, you think of their way with a sword, a gun, or a fist, or their general ability at taking down a villain, the point at which these pulpsters really prove their heroism is usually a moment in which they’re being helplessly tortured or tormented — think of Conan nailed to that cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, or Bond making his way through Dr No’s torturous and tortuous obstacle course on his way to a date with a giant squid (or the line everyone remembers from Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”). Moore seems to have refined this moment to make it the centrepiece — almost the entire tale, in fact — of her Jirel stories. As Moorcock & Cawthorn put it in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books:

“C. L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil. This is achieved to a great degree by her descriptions of the distress and degradation evinced by its victims…”

Jirel of Joiry“Black God’s Kiss” starts breathlessly, with Jirel of Joiry already captured and being brought before her gloating conqueror Guillaume, who has just seized control of Castle Joiry. Delighted to find Joiry’s commander is a woman, he forces a kiss, then has her sent to a dungeon. Jirel, fired up with the need for revenge, travels to another dimension to find a means of getting her own back. Fortunately, Castle Joiry has a House on the Borderland-style trapdoor in its lowest cellar, a strange corkscrew helter-skelter passage to a black-lit world of nightmare visions. The bulk of the story is Jirel’s combined horror and awe as she crosses this land in search of a weapon to revenge herself on Guillaume. She witnesses a stream of weird and frightening sights, but at no point is she required to do anything but witness them:

“Half-way across, she saw one of the white blotches approaching her with slow, erratic movements. It bumped along unevenly, and at first she thought it might be inanimate, its approach was so indirect and purposeless. Then it blundered nearer, with that queer bumpy gait, making sucking noises in the ooze and splashing as it came. In the starlight she saw suddenly what it was, and for an instant her heart paused and sickness rose overwhelmingly in her throat. It was a woman — a beautiful woman whose white bare body had the curves and loveliness of some marble statue. She was crouching like a frog, and as Jirel watched in stupefaction she straightened her legs abruptly and leaped as a frog leaps, only more clumsily, falling forward into the ooze a little distance beyond the watching woman. She did not seem to see Jirel. The mud-spattered face was blank. She blundered on through the mud in awkward leaps…”

This realm Jirel has slipped into seems rather Freudian — that degraded woman hopping frog-like through a swamp could be an image of Jirel’s shame at Guillaume’s treatment, but also a sort of reversed fairy tale transformation, with the dark anti-prince kissing our human heroine and turning her into a frog.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel travels to the centre of this weird realm, and finds a one-eyed statue of the Black God. Kissing it (as she feels compelled to do), she feels “something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words” enter her. Returning to her own world, she repays her degradation by passing Guillaume the “dreadful, cold bleakness” of the Black God’s kiss — and then, in a very un-Conan-like twist, realises too late that beneath the humiliation and anger she felt attracted to this powerful man. The second tale, “Black God’s Shadow”, sees her trying to right this wrong, and returning to that weirdly black-lit world to free the dead Guillaume.

My main reaction to the Jirel stories is to find them, on the one hand, genuinely weird and wildly imaginative, and on the other, turgid with so many internalised battles with fiercely-felt but abstract emotional tussles, that they were a combination of fantastic thrills and solid drudgery to read. It’s perhaps unfair to quote a sample passage out of context, but this is the sort of thing I mean, when Jirel finds the statue of the Black God:

“Gradually the universal focusing of lines began to exert its influence upon her. She took a hesitant step forward without realising the motion. But that step was all the dormant urge within her needed. With her one motion forward the compulsion closed down upon her with whirlwind impetuosity. Helplessly she felt herself advancing, helplessly with one small, sane portion of her mind she realised the madness that was gripping her, the blind, irresistible urge to do what every visible line in the temple’s construction was made to compel…”

The passion behind even these abstract passages is undoubtable, but it can also feel so much like wading through mud, at times, having to read through so much deeply felt but abstract prose. Sam Moskowitz puts it best, I think, in his chapter on Moore in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“The climax of each story found Northwest Smith [Moore’s other series hero] or Jirel of Joiry in the formless haze of spiritual battle with the unknown. The plot situations were rarely solved by a logical sequence of events, but instead by a burst of rhetorical hypnotism.”

A young C L Moore, from the Teller of Weird Tales blog

A young C L Moore, from the Tellers of Weird Tales blog

Jirel’s adventures feel shamanic. She passes from this world to another, to face some magical evil in a world where none of the logic of this one applies — and so none of the usual action-story resolutions can be applied, either. Perhaps it’s wrong-footing to think of them as sword & sorcery because, although the Jirel of Joiry tales do include swords and sorcery, the swords and the sorcery almost never meet. In fact, the thing the Jirel stories remind me of most are fever dreams — something I thought of only when I read that, when she was young, Moore suffered from ill-health and had to spend a lot of time bed-bound, which is where she developed her love of imaginative stories.

It’s the flashes of (often horrific) imagination for which I’ll remember these tales — as at the beginning of perhaps the best of them, “Hellsgarde”, where Jirel approaches a mist-shrouded castle, expecting it to be abandoned, and finds herself confronted with a small troop of motionless soldiers. Then she realises: the guards are dead, propped into a standing position by having their own spears driven through their throats. She rides gently between them, then:

“Was that motion among the ghastly guard? Her heart leaped to her throat and she gripped the saddle between nervous knees with a sudden reflex action that made the horse shudder. For one of the men in the row before her was slipping silently toward the flagstones. Had the spear-butt slid on the bloody tiles? Had a breeze dislodged his precarious balance? There was no breeze. But with a curious little sigh from collapsing lungs he folded gently downward to his knees, to his side, to a flattened proneness on the stones. And a dark stream of blood trickled from his mouth to snake across the pavement as he lay there… Only in a nightmare could such things happen.”

Only in a nightmare, or in the stories of C L Moore.


The Earliest English Poems, translated & edited by Michael Alexander

The Earliest English Poems, Michael AlexanderThere’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile, when spear-wielding enemies arrived by the seasonal boat-load demanding ransom or death, when every venture forth from home was to risk not coming back, and when every day was rounded by off by darkness laying siege to the little island of light and warmth that was the mead-hall, in which people gathered together to eat, drink, give gifts (gold rings and swords with heroic pedigrees), and listen to stories chanted in a primitive but vital meter. The values of these thousand-year-old societies were simple but profound: loyalty to one’s lord (and, crucially, his to you), kinship, companionship, bravery in battle, and reverence for “Wierd” (as Michael Alexander chooses to spell it, to separate the word from its current usage): that essence of Dark Ages fatalism, a pagan dourness lingering amidst the new hope of Christianity, encompassing both the way things work in the world, and the doom all men inevitably move towards:

“either illness or age or the edge of vengeance
shall draw out the breath from the doom-shadowed.”

These Beowulf-era poems are perhaps most well-known for their use of kennings, poetic prevarications like “welkin-wanderer” for “moon” and “whale’s riding” for “sea” — standard devices used by oral poets to fill out the meter as they think up the next line. But there’s a vitality in their use of language — even in translation — that brings out the sheer facts of living and dying in that era: “grave’s grasp” is death, an old man is “winter-wearied” and “heavy with friend-loss”, battle is “hard wood-talk” and “shield’s answer to shaft”.

Indeed, this thumping, thudding, drum-beat alliteration is particularly good for describing battles. For instance this, from “The Battle of Maldon”, the longest poem in the book, which Michael Alexander calls “without doubt the finest battle-poem in English” (inevitably, it’s one of defeat):

“Then was a splintering of shields, the sea-wolves coming on
in war-whetted anger. Again the spears
burst breast-lock, breached life-wall
of Wierd-singled men.”

The battle-poems are tales of men together. The poems of men and women as individuals are inevitably ones of exile and separation. Of all the poems in this book, it’s “The Wanderer” I re-read the most. It begins:

“Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart
—trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile — Wierd is set fast.”

Another such exile appears in “The Seafarer”:

“No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters…”

The kennings I mentioned above are usually seen as circumlocutions for things like the sea (“swan’s riding”), or a ship (“sea-steed”), but the Seafarer talks of “breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too” — and that “breast-drought” is a kenning, but one that can’t be replaced by any single modern English word, yet still manages to go straight to a still-living meaning, and make it vividly alive.

Although there is Christian belief in these poems (one of the longer ones is “The Dream of the Rood”, a monologue spoken by the cross on which Christ was crucified), the main mood is a dark one of the inevitability of death, separation, and ruin:

“A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
when all this world’s wealth standeth waste,
even as now, in many places, over the earth
walls stand, wind-beaten,
hung with hoar-frost: ruined habitations.”

But in the face of this there’s a defiance, a decision to hold fast to the code by which the people of that time lived, and to burn all the brighter for the briefness of their flame:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
mood the more, as our might lessens.”

(Which Michael Alexander calls “the classic declaration of the heroic faith”.) This is the essence of what I like in the best sword & sorcery fiction, and here it is, straight from the source.

Fittingly, most of the poems translated here are fragments, ruins, victims of the ravening “Wierd” of history itself. But still the heroic voices come through — the old wanderer bereft of lord and hearth, the woman separated from her lover because of a feud (“If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure”), the exiled poet eking out comfort from a sad refrain (“That went by; this may too”), the brave few battling to the end through loyalty to their dead lord.

What it says in “The Wanderer” could apply to them all:

“Their Wierd is glorious.”


DC Comics’ Sword of Sorcery

coverI’ve read somewhere that DC’s Sword of Sorcery was conceived as an answer to Marvel’s runaway success in bringing Robert E Howard’s most famous creation to the world of comics, with Conan the Barbarian issue 1 appearing in August 1970. DC dipped its toe by having Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser guest in Wonder Woman #202, in Oct 1972. I haven’t read this, so I don’t know how the two (to my mind, wholly separate) universes would have been brought together. I’d like to imagine a story featuring Fafhrd & the Mouser’s rivalrous attempts to woo the Amazonian Princess, while perhaps simultaneously trying to relieve her of her lovely gold wristbands and glowing lasso (which I can see the Mouser finding irresistible), probably only to be soundly and solidly put in their place — but I think, to judge from the cover, they just get into a fight.

Sword of Sorcery, a standalone title featuring Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser in their proper environment, the fantasy world of Nehwon, debuted in March 1973. In the first editorial, writer/adapter Denny O’Neil issues a pledge: “We’ll change Fritz’s work as little as possible, because we love it, because it would be silly to imagine we can improve on greatness, and because, for the first time in our comics careers, we’re approaching a project with genuine reverence.” But by the third issue (which mentions, in its editorial, that both Leiber and Harlan Ellison have complimented them on their adaptation) they’re presenting an original, non-Leiber story. I do have to say it sticks quite well to the feel of the F&GM stories, including in its cast a bird-woman (which fits in with the pair’s many dalliances with exotic, semi-human females), but this same bird-woman brings out an uncharacteristic note of sexism from Fafhrd (usually the more chivalrous of the two). Thinking themselves abandoned by the half-woman half-bird Lissa, Fafhrd says: “She could be of no help… and besides, what do you expect of a woman… even a woman half a nobler creature?”

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 1, Ningauble and Sheelba

The wizards Sheelba and Ningauble, minus the clash of terse/loquacious personalities Leiber gave them

In general, though, seen as a comics-of-the-time take on Leiber’s tales, Sword of Sorcery manages an okay series of adaptations. The stories have mostly been boiled down to centre on one big fight, but do include a smattering of the sort of wordplay & archaicism so characteristic of Leiber’s writing. One thing I forgot about this sort of comic (not having read any in ages) is just how much the characters love to talk during fights, and mostly about themselves. As soon as they whip out their swords, Fafhrd & the Mouser turn into a pair of gangsta rappers — “Hey, I’m great at this, I’m great at that, look at me, how good I am in a fight.” Fafhrd calls himself a barbarian rather a lot (and is “Fafhrd the Barbarian” in the titles); Leiber’s character wouldn’t do that — not as a boast, anyway, as he was more interesting in being civilised. It’s basically a shorthand way of getting readers to grasp his status as a Conan analogue. And I have to mention one truly awful thought bubble from a non-Leiber back-up strip in issue 4, about Fafhrd in his youth. Seeing his girlfriend snatched by a snow-dragon, the young Fafhrd thinks: “So… my blooming manhood is put to the test!” A letter from issue 4 says it all: “A splendid adaptation of ‘Thieves House’ this month. I wonder, though, why you retitled it ‘Revenge of the Skull of Jewels’. That’s laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it?” Laying it on a bit thick is what this sort of comic does.

from Sword of Sorcery issue 3, a fight scene

Another thing I forgot from US comics of this era is just how crude the colouring technology was. In most cases, the splotchy, all-too-basic colouring detracts from the artwork far more than it adds. I would have preferred to have seen it in black & white just to get a better look at the linework. And I wasn’t 100% taken by the depictions of Fafhrd & the Mouser — mostly the Mouser, who, though properly short, still had the usual superhero proportions, making him seem like a 7 foot tall man shrunk in size, rather than a short man with a short man’s proper proportions. But, again, I suspect this is just one of the conventions of the time. One thing I would like to say about the art, though — and this isn’t at all intended as faint praise — is I liked the backgrounds. They really brought out the feel of Leiber’s Nehwon, particularly the city of Lankhmar, a lush mix of opulent Orientalism and Renaissance Europe:

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 2

And this panel is simply beautiful:

panel from Sword of Sorcery, ship at sea

Sword of Sorcery died without an announcement after five bimonthly issues. It was an interesting run, but more for how Leiber’s work could be fitted into a medium or market that couldn’t properly deal with his attempts to rethink & out-think the clichés of a genre he’d helped define (even, to name).

Fafhrd & the Mouser would appear in comics again in 1990, this time from the Marvel-owned Epic Comics, where they distinctly benefit from being directed at a more adult market, and in a generally more mature (post-Watchmen) comics milieu. In a neat link, although it was drawn by Mike Mignola, this later series was written by Howard Chaykin, penciller for Sword of Sorcery. I’ll maybe cover it in a future Mewsings.