Many fantasy authors have created their own expies of Conan the Cimmerian, especially before The Lord of the Rings created the new template for fantasy. Then there are those who, while clearly wearing their inspiration from Conan, nevertheless feel like separate characters. Jirel of Joiry is one, for two reasons. Firstly, her gender.
The story opens with Jirel at the fall of Joiry castle. Although captured, she has slain so many of the invaders that their leader, Guillaume, demands she be brought before him. When he removes her helm and discovers who she is, he takes a kiss and imprisons her in her own dungeons.
Now, to escape from her own dungeon is not a problem, but Jirel knows she cannot win back her castle by herself. What she needs is power. And it happens that beneath the deepest dungeons, sealed off by stones, there is a shaft: It had not been built for human feet to travel. It had not been built for feet at all. It was a narrow, polished shaft that corkscrewed round and round. A snake might have slipped in it and gone shooting down, round and round in dizzy circles – but no snake on earth was big enough to fill that shaft. Yet there are notches carved, presumably by human hand from an unknown time, that Jirel is able to use to climb down.
This is the second feature that I feel makes a Jirel of Joiry story separate from Conan: the environment. While Conan’s stories can take place in ancient ruins and vast subterranean warrens, he is always (as far as I can recall) somewhere on Earth. But when Jirel reaches the end of the shaft, she finds herself unmistakably in an alien land. The sunlight is so powerful she cannot walk in it. At night, strange constellations are traced across the sky, their stars ringed with exotic colors. (Interestingly, the only way Jirel is able to see the entrance to this land is to remove a crucifix from her neck.)
At this point the story becomes more of a travelogue, Jirel forcing her way through the landscape while she searches for a weapon to wreak a suitably horrific revenge upon Guillaume and his men. There is always a strong tactile element in her wanderings, from treading through clammy marshes, to being dazzled by fierce white beam of light that contains her malevolent double, to vertigo-inducing dizziness while crossing a narrow bridge: And as she stumbled on, the bridge seemed to be wavering with her, swinging in gigantic arcs across the starry void below.
That said, I do have a certain frustration with the Jirel stories: we almost never see her demonstrate her sword prowess. This story starts with her capture; she dispatches a sentry (with her hands) and a few biting creatures when she first enters the alien realm. The entire plot of this, and of many of the Jirel stories, involves someone giving her the magical means to destroy her enemy. There is almost no foe she can defeat by herself. I was initially tempted to contrast this to Conan and make assertions about gender roles in the ‘30s, but then I read Moore’s other series about Northwest Smith and found he similarly stumbles through his adventures, so I now suspect it’s more to do with Moore’s style of storytelling. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Jirel story where we see her fight and win thanks to her own skills. (Yes, we technically see this when Jirel’s willpower is shown to be strong enough to defeat her enemy, but ‘strength of will’ is a vague, oft-abused idea that I rarely feel satisfied by.)
Black God’s Kiss by C.L. Moore
Word count: 10,500
First published: Weird Tales, Oct 1934
Where to find it: Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, collection, 2002, Gollancz / Orion
Great Fantasy, edited by Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, 2004, W.H. Smith
The Sword and Sorcery Anthology, edited by Jacob Weisman & David G. Hartwell, 2012, Tachyon Publications