Monday, June 7, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Jirel Meets Magic

While it's true that the pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth century often included women among the ranks of its writers, few were as successful as Catherine Lucille (C.L.) Moore. Moore got her start as a pulp writer in 1933 with the story "Shambleau," which is rightly regarded as an enduring classic. She continued to pen many memorable tales into the late 1950s, often collaborating with her first husband, Henry Kuttner, who died in 1958. Among Moore's greatest creations were roguish space pilot Northwest Smith and the warrior woman Jirel of Joiry, both of whom appeared in multiple stories over the course of Moore's career.

The third story featuring Jirel bore the somewhat odd title of "Jirel Meets Magic" and appeared in the July 1935 issue of Weird Tales. Like many a Robert E, Howard yarn, this one begins in medias res, as Jirel is leading a charge over the drawbridge of a castle that protected the sorcerer, Giraud.
In her full armor she was impregnable to the men on foot, and the horse's armor protected him from their vengeful blades, so that alone, almost, might have won the gateway. By sheer weight and impetuosity she carried the battle through the defenders under the arch. They gave away before the might warhorse and his screaming rider. Jirel's swinging sword and the stallion's trampling feet cleared a path for Joiry's men to follow, and at last into Guischard's court poured the steel-clad hordes of Guischard's conqueror.

Jirel's eyes were yellow with blood-lust behind the helmet bars, and her voice echoed savagely from that steel cage that confined it. "Giraud! Bring me Giraud! A gold piece to the main who brings me the wizard Giraud!"

Leaving aside the infelicity of the castle's belonging to a nobleman named Guischard inside of which hid a sorcerer named Giraud, it's an effective introduction for Jirel. As she and her men make their way into the castle, cutting down any who stand in their way, we learn what Giraud had done to earn her ire.

"I'll find that God-cursed wizard and split his head with this sword if it takes until the day I die. I swear it. I'll teach him what it costs to ambush Joiry men. By heaven, he'll pay with his life for my ten who fell at Massy Ford last week. The foul spell-brewer! He'll learn what it means to defy Joiry!"

Unfortunately, Giraud is nowhere to be found, not even among the many dead who had fallen beneath the swords of the assault. We soon learn that Guischard's "ominous" castle "had always borne a bad name" as "a place where queer things happened" and from which "no man entered uninvited and whence no prisoner had ever escaped."

Despite that, Giraud seems to have found a way out of the castle, much to Jirel's confusion. 

About an hour later, as they searched the last tower, she was still telling herself that the wizard could not have gone without her knowledge. There was a secret passage to the river, but she had had that watched. And an underwater door opened into the moat, but could not have gone that way without meeting her men. Secret paths lay open; she had found them all and posted a guard to each, and Giraud had not left the castle by any door that led out. She climbed the stairs of the last tower wearily, he confidence shaken.

Wizards, it seems, are tricky opponents and Giraud especially so. A little more searching reveals the body of a young page, lying in a pool of his own blood. Bloody footprints "led straight across the room toward the wall, and in that wall – a window." The window was shuttered and closed, leading Jirel to believe that a passage must lie beyond it. However, when she opens the ivory shutters, she finds "no dark stone hiding-place or secret tunnel." 

Instead she was looking out upon a green woodland over which brooded a violet day like no day she had ever seen before. In paralyzed amazement she looked down, seeing not the bloody flags of the courtyard far below, but a mossy carpet at a level with the floor. And on that moss she saw the mark of blood-stained feet. This window might be a magic one, opening into strange lands, but through it had gone the man she swore to kill, and where he fled she must follow.

The remainder of the short story concerns Jirel's venturing into the peculiar woodland beyond the magic window – and the equally peculiar people and things she finds there. It's an engaging story that's very different than Jirel's inaugural tale, "Black God's Kiss," but that's not a bad thing. Where "Black God's Kiss" is dark and psychological in tone, this one is almost whimsical, portraying as it does a strange "wood beyond the world" that's fairytale-like in its presentation. That really appealed to me, as did the story's ultimate resolution, which I deem equal to that of the best pulp fantasies of its day. "Jirel Meets Magic" is a terrific read and further evidence of C.L. Moore's place in the pantheon of early fantasy writers. 


  1. Just got my Jirel of Joiry compilation in the mail a couple days ago and am currently reading Black God's Kiss. Really good stuff.
    : )

  2. I have a few collections with CL Moore stories in them, but never knew she was a she. funny stuff. married to Kuttner too.

  3. Each of the five Jirel stories is fantastic, but I think that "Jirel Meets Magic" is the best of the bunch. Black pudding sorcerer!

  4. I think those stories include some of the best journeys into other planes ever done in fantasy fiction.

  5. Grossly underappreciated author these days. Her work holds up better than most pulp-era stuff does too, fewer problematic elements for uptight folks to object to than, say, poor Lovecraft.