Monday, August 20, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Quest of the Starstone

While C.L. Moore created numerous characters over the course of her decades-long writing career, her two most popular creations are the medieval French warrior Jirel of Joiry and the futuristic ne'er-do-well Northwest Smith. I've written about both of them before in this space and with good reason. I consider both Jirel and N.W. to be among the most memorable characters of pulp fantasy, right up there with John Carter and Conan. These characters are not only interesting in their own rights, but very influential to boot, becoming prototypes for later fantasy and science fiction characters (It's pretty clear, for example, that Northwest Smith served as a significant inspiration for George Lucas's Han Solo).

Given their popularity with Weird Tales readers, where both Jirel and Smith first appeared, it's little surprise that the two characters would eventually appear side by side in a single story. "Quest of the Starstone" was that story, published in the November 1937 issue of The Unique Magazine. This story was not written solely by Moore, but was a collaboration with Henry Kuttner, whom Moore would marry in 1940. Consequently, the story isn't, in my opinion, as good as the others about these characters, nor as good as later collaborations between Moore and Kuttner. That might be because the pair hadn't quite worked out the best way to combine their distinct talents, which gives "Quest for the Starstone" a "choppy," uneven feel. Moore's stories are usually brooding and introspective and, "Quest for the Starstone" is more of a straightforward romp and evinces a lot more humor than is typical in Moore's singular works.

What makes the story interesting, though, is its story, which I think nicely demonstrates how much our conceptions of "fantasy" and "science fiction" have changed over the last three-quarters of a century. As the story begins, Jirel is pursuing the warlock Franga in medieval France. Among his many magical artifacts is reputed to be the Starstone, which grants its possessor uncanny luck. Jirel succeeds in wresting it from Franga in a memorable exchange:
"Ha, behold it!" she screamed to the unanswering stone. "Son of a fiend, behold it! The luck of the Starstone is mine, now a better man has wrested it from you! Confess Joiry your master, you devil-deluder! Dare you show your face? Dare you?"
Over that empty corner the shadow swept again, awesomely from nowhere. Out of the sudden darkness creaked a door's hinges, and the wizard's voice called in a choke of fury,
"Bel's curse on you, Joiry! Never think you've triumphed over me! I'll have it back if I—if I—"
"If you—what? D'ye think I fear you, you hell-spawned warlock? If you—what?"
"Me you may not fear, Joiry," the wizard's voice quavered with fury, "but by Set and Bubastis, I'll find one who'll tame you if I must go to the ends of space to find him—to the ends of time itself! And then—beware!"
Since I've already revealed that this short story details the meeting of Jirel and Northwest Smith, one need not guess whom Franga will choose as his champion. Using his sorcery, the warlock travels to the future and finds Smith and his Venusian sidekick Yarol in a seedy tavern on Mars. It's in this section that Moore's melancholy writing comes to the fore, as she describes Smith's dissatisfaction with his life as an interplanetary smuggler. She also has him sing a few stanzas of the song "The Green Hills of Earth," a song whose title Robert Heinlein would borrow a decade later. Just then, Franga appears and makes Smith an intriguing offer:
"Are your services for hire, stranger?" quavered a cracked voice speaking in a tongue that despite himself sent Smith's pulses quickening in recognition. French, Earth's French, archaic and scarcely intelligible, but unquestionably a voice from home.
"For a price," he admitted, his fingers closing definitely on his gun. "Who are you and why do you ask? And how in the name of—"
"It will reward you to ask no questions," said the cracked quaver. "I seek a fighting-man of a temper strong enough for my purpose, and I think you are he. Look, does this tempt you?"
A claw-like hand extended itself out of the shadow, dangling a double rope of such blue-white pearls as Smith had never dreamed of. "Worth a king's ransom," croaked the voice. "And all for the taking. Will you come with me?"
"Come where?"
"To the planet Earth—to the land of France—to the year of 1500."
 So far as I know, this is the only time that the date of Jirel's time is ever explicitly mentioned in any of Moore's writings, which seem to make it canonical, but I must admit that the date doesn't sit well with me, mostly because Jirel's adventures seem to occur in earlier time. Regardless, Smith agrees to Franga's offer, mostly out of boredom, and he's instructed by the magician to steal the Starstone back from Jirel if he wants his reward and his way back to the future. The remainder of the story deals with what happens once Smith meets Jirel of Joiry and discovers that the situation into which he's been thrust is not quite as simple as he'd been led to believe.

As I said above, "Quest of the Starstone" isn't a great work, even by the standards of pulp fantasy. I like it nonetheless, since it reveals the much higher degree of permeability between literary genres in the past. Perhaps more precisely it reveals that, once upon a time, "fantasy" was a very broad genre, one that encompassed much more than wizards and dragons and included Martians and spaceships, too. Out of that broader conception of fantasy did games like Dungeons & Dragons grow, with its many references to Barsoom and robots alongside its reference to Conan and Balrogs. I won't say that I think nothing has been gained by stricter conceptions of genre, but I will say that I think some things have been lost.


  1. Must say it's nice to see another fan of her work and do so agree with your assessment!

  2. I have to say about that "Living Buddhess" cover that I'm happy someone else plunges hands to shit to find the hidden gems.

  3. "but I must admit that the date doesn't sit well with me, mostly because Jirel's adventures seem to occur in earlier time"

    1,500 strikes me as odd, too. Did Moore ever mention firearms in her stories? By then they had arquebuses. I always thought of Jirel as living roughly around 1,200 AD.

    Love the cover, btw.

  4. Hubba hubba on the '30s cover chick. >:)
    Re Jirel's time period - it seems all mail armour and broadswords; around 1250 would seem about right. 1500 seems much too late. She is pretty a-chronistic, though. :)

  5. BTW Ron Unz has Weird Tales 1942-54 free online: