Saturday 24 January 2015

Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams

... Interesting choice of cover illustration.

Since it's C.L. Moore's birthday, I thought I'd talk a wee bit about Jirel.

I discovered C.L. Moore about the same time I rediscovered Robert E. Howard. I was 16 or thereabouts. I was going up to the College of Building & Printing studying illustration. Each day after class, I'd sometimes visit the Borders at Buchanan Street:

Yes, THIS was a bookshop.
And it was about the time Gollancz was doing their Fantasy Masterworks series. It was here I found Clark Ashton Smith, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock (and Gollancz's weird Moorcock fixation), Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and a great deal more. I remember C.L. Moore's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams (which is a pretty wonderful title, like most of the Fantasy Masterworks) was one of the first I tried out - especially since "Black God's Kiss" was mentioned in some of the other volumes. And... well, I quite liked them!

Jirel as a character was immensely appealing to me, particularly as a teenager coming to grips with the new dimension of femininity which adolescence brings. Not just hormonal, but the understanding that with physical change comes emotional and intellectual changes, in a manner which is, at that time, as dimorphic between male and female as appearance. All through "Black God's Kiss" is a curious exploration of what on earth it means to be man and woman, male and female, perhaps best encapsulated in this paragraph:

For a moment she was not Jirel of Joiry, vengeful fury on the trail of a devilish weapon, but a frightened woman alone in the unholy dark. That memory had been so vivid .... Then she saw Guillaume's scornful, laughing face again, the little beard dark along the line of his jaw, the strong teeth white with his laughter; and something hot and sustaining swept over her like a thin flame, and she was Joiry again, vengeful and resolute. She went on more slowly, her sword swinging in a semicircle before every third step, that she might not be surprised too suddenly by some nightmare monster clasping her in smothering arms. But the flesh crept upon her unprotected back.

Cynics might suppose that this might be Moore being too compromising, especially after Jirel's explosive introduction:

They brought in Joiry's tall commander, struggling between two men-at-arms who tightly gripped the ropes which bound their captive's mailed arms. They picked their way between mounds of dead as they crossed the great hall toward the dais where the conqueror sat, and twice they slipped a little in the blood that spattered the flags. When they came to a halt before the mailed figure on the dais, Joiry's commander was breathing hard, and the voice that echoed hollowly under the helmet's confines was hoarse with fury and despair.

Guillaume the conqueror leaned on his mighty sword, hands crossed on its hilt, grinning down from his height upon the furious captive before him. He was a big man, Guillaume, and he looked bigger still in his spattered armor. There was blood on his hard, scarred face, and he was grinning a white grin that split his short, curly beard glitteringly. Very splendid and very dangerous he looked, leaning on his great sword and smiling down upon fallen Joiry's lord, struggling between the stolid men-at-arms.

"Unshell me this lobster," said Guillaume in his deep, lazy voice. "We'll see what sort of face the fellow has who gave us such a battle. Off with his helmet, you."

But a third man had to come up and slash the straps which held the iron helmet on, for the struggles of Joiry's commander were too fierce, even with bound arms, for either of the guards to release their hold. There was a moment of sharp struggle; then the straps parted and the helmet rolled loudly across the flagstones.

Guillaume's white teeth clicked on a startled oath. He stared. Joiry's lady glared back at him from between her captors, wild red hair tousled, wild lion-yellow eyes ablaze.

It's as much a surprise to the reader as it is to the characters that this "tall commander," who requires two men-at-arms to drag her to Guillaume and a third to remove her helm, is in fact female. The idea of treating the gender of a fully-armoured figure of significant battle prowess as a surprise reveal is a persistent one in fantasy fiction, most famous in "Dernhelm" in The Lord of the Rings. After decades of the normalisation of female warriors, new understanding of women's roles in combat in history, and of course the women's rights movement, this concept has something of a controversial pallour now. Nonetheless, written as it was in the 1930s, having a female character not only as commander, but active battlefield combatant, is pretty remarkable.

It's also interesting to me because, on some level, I think Moore is parlaying with her audience throughout the narrative, daring them to see through Jirel's eyes:

"God curse you!" snarled the lady of Joiry between clenched teeth. "God blast your black heart!"

Guillaume scarcely heard her. He was still staring, as most men stared when they first set eyes upon Jirel of Joiry. She was tall as most men, and as savage as the wildest of them, and the fall of Joiry was bitter enough to break her heart as she stood snarling curses up at her tall conqueror. The face above her mail might not have been fair in a woman's head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades. The red hair was short upon her high, defiant head, and the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire.

Guillaume's stare melted into a slow smile. A little light kindled behind his eyes as he swept the long, strong lines of her with a practised gaze. The smile broadened, and suddenly he burst into full-throated laughter, a deep bull bellow of amusement and delight.

After Jirel's chromosomes have been revealed, Guillaume's entire approach changes: rather than a rival male, it is a woman he has conquered in battle. Gender politics of the 14th century being what they were, it's natural that this would be so - but the 1930s creeps in all the same. Immediately Guillaume's "practiced gaze" is employed as he deliberately assesses Jirel's physique, even clad in armour as it is - because he is not simply appreciating her appearance, he is making a show of it. He is treating Jirel as an object, a subordinate being, and he knows she can see that.

All throughout the story, the dichotomy of Jirel's feminine and masculine nature - or at least, what was traditionally considered feminine and masculine - is brought up. Jirel is at once challenging and embracing feminine and masculine roles, sometimes in the same paragraph:

... When that thought came to her she paused again, mid-step upon the stairs, and was conscious of a little coldness blowing over her. Then it was gone, and she shivered a little, shook her shoulders and grinned wolfishly, and went on...

... "It's that I would walk through hell to escape," she whispered back fiercely. "Can't you see? Oh, God knows I'm not innocent of the ways of light loving-but to be any man's fancy, for a night or two, before he snaps my neck or sells me into slavery-and above all, if that man were Guillaume! Can't you understand?"...

... She might have been a little afraid at other times, but that steady flame of hatred burning behind her eyes was a torch to light the way, and she could not wipe from her memory the feel of Guillaume's arms about her, the scornful press of his lips on her mouth. She whimpered a little, low in her throat, and a hot gust of hate went over her...

... She wiped the tears away with a shaking hand and set her teeth hard against the weakness of reaction that flooded her. Yet it was a good five minutes before she could force herself on. After a few steps her knees ceased to tremble...

... Jirel watched until the woman was no more than a white wandering blur in the dark, and above the shock of that sight pity was rising, and uncomprehending resentment against whatever had brought so lovely a creature into this-into blundering in frog leaps aimlessly through the mud, with empty mind and blind, staring eyes. For the second time that night she knew the sting of unaccustomed tears as she went on...

... She went on, blinking back the tears for that beautiful blind creature, staggering with exhaustion, calling a girl's name hopelessly from a beast's throat into the blank darkness wherein it was for ever lost...

It's intriguing: she's neither a Hippolyta (a warrior-woman who must be "tamed" by a Herakles), nor is she a Brienne (a warrior-woman who has either forsaken or otherwise lost her "femininity"). Jirel is a very contemplative and complex heroine who not only experiences conflict with gender identity - her traditionally masculine role and personality with the traditionally feminine response and instincts - but matters of faith, reality, responsibility, love and hate. Each of the Jirel stories has something to offer, particularly "Black God's Kiss" and "Hellsgarde," and they really aren't like what you might expect.

With all the Xenas and Samuses and Laras running around, sometimes it's difficult to appreciate just how trailblazing Jirel was - not just for daring to be a woman as a warrior-lady only a few decades after women won the right to vote in the country of publication, but for refusing to compromise on her gender, to be a "Conan in a skirt." All-man, all-woman, neither and both. She's quite a fascinating woman, this Lady of Joiry.


  1. Well said, Al. Moore is one of my favorites. In many ways she was decades ahead of her time. I've slowly been rereading the Northwest Smith stories for a while, and I'm surprised at the sexuality I didn't pick up on when I was 14 and reading them for the first time. Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams is a great introduction to Moore's early work, although it's missing the Jirel/Northwest Smith team up ("Quest of the Starstone"), one obscure Smith story ("Werewoman"), and the Northwest Smith story Moore wrote in collaboration with Forry Ackerman ("Nymph of Darkness").

  2. Glad you're posting more often, please keep it up.