They say we need to turn our negative experiences into opportunities for good – and I have found that it’s an excellent advice.
So, having just wasted eight minutes of my short life watching one of the most asinine “video essays” I ever saw, what can I take away from it and turn into an opportunity?
Well, the tragically inadequate “nerd expert” that wasted eight minutes of my life explaining to me what sword & sorcery is, said
sword & sorcery deals with rough, uncouth, muscular barbarian heroes wielding big swords
And I thought of Jirel of Joiry.
And thinking of Jirel and C.L. Moore is always a good thing.
I think Jirel was the second sword & sorcery character I met, after Bob Howard’s Conan. The series had been translated in Italian and printed in a nice hardback by the Fantacollana Nord (probably the publishing imprint that most influenced my tastes in fantasy fiction when I was a teenager) and it had a beautiful cover by Boris Vallejo. I had heard about C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, also the subject of a nice hardback in the same line, and so I spent my lunch money and bought both volumes.
I skipped a lot of lunches when I was in high school.
Jirel appeared in six stories, between 1934 and 1939 – all of them published in Weird Tales. It was one of the first – if not the first – sword & sorcery character to show stylistical influences from Howard, but Moore’s writing is subtler than Howard, and her character is not just “Conan with boobs”.
There is more than a hint of C.A. Smith’s imagination in the description of the dark nether-realms in which the determined redhead gets entangled in the course of her adventures.
Oh, and just in case – despite Boris and Caza’s covers, she was not notorious for going topless. And yes, that Boris cover caused some problems when I used to read the book during recess in school.
While Jirel certainly shows the mix of pride and arrogance that characterized a lot of Howard women, her stories are more nuanced, and are indeed closer to the original Kull stories than to Conan, in terms of imagery and mood. Jirel is more thoughtful and smart than Conan (that generally reacts with cunning rather than plan with intelligence), and she is no musclebound barbarian.
Her ferocity is tempered by finesse, and she’s an aristocrat, and the ruler of her land (somewhere in France, probably a few leagues north of Poictesme).
And I find it particularly interesting that the first s&s character to appear after Conan shows us so clearly how wide and varied the palette of sword & sorcery can be.
And yes, of course Howard’s own Solomon Kane is another good example that breaks the “muscular barbarian blunderer” that some seem to sum up the essence of sword & sorcery, and that has more to do with comic books, probably, than with literature.
The stories of Jirel have been widely reprinted – and are required reading as they contributed to set the pace for the genre in the decades to come. Jirel of Joiry, the first of the feisty redheads of sword & sorcery (now that’s a cliche!), was indeed as influential on the genre as were, say, The Gray Mouser or Elric… two other heroes somewhat distant from the “muscular barbarian” cliche.
C.L. Moore was an incredibly sophisticated writer (strike out another cliche – the one about sword & sorcery being written by rough-hewed hacks) and one of the women that were at the very core of the genre from the beginning (another cliche – that sword & sorcery was a man’s business).
So yes, I wasted eight minutes nobody will give me back listening to the ramblings of an illiterate goon, but now I’ll have the opportunity to re-read Jirel’s stories. It’s a good day.