Jirel of Joiry, an honorable, red-haired, female clone of Conan the Barbarian, could be considered the foundation for all ‘strong female characters’ in genre fiction today, but only in the most shallow sense of the term.
I appreciate that C.L. Moore broke ground in 1930s sword and sorcery, a hyper-masculine genre full of hyper-masculine (read: shitty) men, but any attempt to combat the intense sexism of the genre only goes as far: C.L. Moore was objectively a woman, and Jirel objectively a female character who sometimes swung a sword and killed things.
That Jirel was ‘strong’ is negated by her characterization and the obnoxiously-purple writing style. She was still written to excite pubescent boys, after all: with piercing eyes and flame-red hair — two descriptions that seem to crop up on every page at least once, sometimes together (“Yellow fury blazed in her eyes”) — and not much else. She also falls in love with whatever crosses her path for no reason at all.
I don’t care if Jirel paved the way for more female sci-fi and fantasy writers in the ’50s and beyond: These stories are terrible. The plots are terrible; the writing is terrible; the characters are empty and lifeless and, of course, terrible. Each succeeding story is simply a repeat of the first terrible story with little-to-no variation. This book was fucking excruciating.
“Yes,” he said at last, “you have traveled too often in forbidden lands, Jirel of Joiry, to be ignored by us who live in them. And there is in you a hot and savage strength which no other woman in any land I know possesses. A force to match my own, Lady Jirel. None but you is fit to be my queen. So I have taken you for my own.”
Congratulations, you’ve just read every paragraph of every page of every story featuring Jirel of Joiry,
3 thoughts on “Jirel of Joiry and the uncomfortable roots of feminist fantasy”
Check out Moore’s Doomsday Morning (1957) — a far more mature work in many ways than her early fantasy…
Unfortunately, after she published the novel her second husband prevented her from writing.
Thx for the suggestion. I’ve added it *back* to my wishlist. My disappointment with these Jirel stories had me on the quitting fence with her work as just too dated.
Also, that’s completely fucking disgusting about her second husband. I had no inkling of that background story. Your Doomsday post really makes me think my issues with Jirel were probably issues with the author, as well, but the only way to work in the field as it was c. 1930.
I’m not keen on biographies (though I doubt there is one for her?), but is there a definitive book covering the history of the field (incl. Moore) viewed from feminist lens?
I do not know of a book…. I’ll look around. Her first husband was actually a fan of her work who did NOT know her gender but (I think) corresponded with her by letter — Henry Kuttner. And then they wrote a lot of SF together (it’s hard to untangle what he wrote, what they wrote together, and what she published under his name) — and then he died…. It’s incredibly sad.