I would like to say that Jirel would never wear a battle-bikini. She wears a full set of armour, enough that it’s not clear if she is a man or a woman.
Two thousand years before Northwest Smith wandered between the planets, Jirel used her impressive capacity for violence to rule and protect the fiefdom of Joiry, somewhere in France. Proud, easy to offend, and very, very stabby, Jirel is not stupid but she never over-thinks situations, preferring direct solutions.
“Where No Man Had Gone Before,” essay by Suzy McKee Charnas
This is much longer than the Cherryh introduction to the Northwest Smith collection and to my eye superior. Jirel stands out as one of the very few female protagonists in pulp-era fantasy and in stark contrast to Northwest, she does not ask for or depend on the assistance of persons of the other sex.
Black God’s Kiss (1934), novelette by C. L. Moore
After the small kingdom of Joiry falls to Guillaume and his band of soldiers, Guillaume is astounded to discover the keep’s most ardent defender is the fierce warrior-woman Jirel. Guillaume makes the mistake of forcing a kiss from Jirel before making it clear he plans to force other things from her later on. Jirel is not just a woman who can cut a man’s heart out; when her sword fails her she can and will deal with the darkest forces of hell itself to prevail over an opponent.
Given the connection to Northwest Smith, demons, devils, and other apparently supernatural beings are probably just more extra-dimensionals in possession of super-science beyond human comprehension. From Jirel’s point of view, it is not a significant difference and her methods of dealing with them work about as well as Northwest’s. Actually, better, because she avoids Northwest’s collateral damage.
Although I think she gets referred to as “maid” from time to time, Jirel makes it clear that she’s no virgin. She also makes it very clear that no means no.
Moore and Guillaume draw on a tradition, now out of fashion, that a suitably forceful courtship could honestly win a woman’s heart. Guillaume’s mistake here is that he thinks that just because he captured Jirel he is in any way in control of the situation; he also grossly underestimates to what degree outrage outweighs attraction in Jirel’s mind.
Black God’s Shadow (1934), novelette by C. L. Moore
Having all too belatedly realized that she did love Guillaume, Jirel tries to undo at least part of what she did to him in the previous story.
You’d never see Northwest trying to make amends. If only Guillaume had thought to try flowers instead of attempted sexual assault.…
Jirel Meets Magic . (1935) . novelette by C. L. Moore
Fearing Jirel’s wrath, the magician Giraud flees through a magic portal to a realm ruled by the cruel sorceress Jarisme. Jarisme is willing to accept Giraud as a fawning minion. When Jirel appears in pursuit of the magician, Jarisme senses with her eldritch powers that the warrior-maid may be the embodiment of Jerisme’s Doom. The sorceress, who is as proud as Jirel herself, could simply hand Giraud over. What she chooses to do instead is to use all her magic to deal more directly with the threat Jirel presents.
It’s weird how people in worlds like this one appear so unfamiliar with the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies.
The Dark Land (1936), novelette by C. L. Moore
Jirel is a remarkable woman but all too mortal. As the story opens we find her dying of a pike wound suffered in battle. Unbeknownst to her, the love-smitten god Gav has been watching over her from afar and rather than let the object of his infatuation die, Gav carries Jirel off to his dream realm to first save her life and then propose marriage. While she is happy not to die, she has no intention of submitting to what amounts to romantic blackmail. Like Guillaume, Gav gets a pointed lesson in just how far Jirel will go to get her way.
It turns out there is a lot that Jirel didn’t understand about her situation and she’s very lucky this didn’t turn out like Zeus and Semele.
Hellsgarde (1939), novelette by C. L. Moore
Guy of Garlot convinces himself it would be a good idea to capture some of Jirel’s men so he can blackmail Jirel. He wants her to venture into cursed Hellsgarde to recover Andred’s treasure. The exact nature of the treasure is unclear but Guy has convinced himself that he must possess it. Loyal to her men, Jirel complies, only to find herself being used as monster bait by Alaric and his men, who are exploring Hellsgarde for entirely different reasons. Although their cooperation was unintended, both Jirel and Alaric’s group get what they want from the encounter. Guy’s fate is less clear.
(By “less clear” I mean I am not sure if Guy will just be carried off to Hell straight off or if he will first be transformed into a thin layer of gore on the ceiling, walls, and floor of the room where he first opens the treasure.)
Alaric and his pals are proof that France’s love of fine food goes way back. Also that monsters should fear humans a lot more than they do.
Quest of the Starstone (1937), novelette by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner
Outraged at Jirel’s theft of his starstone, the sorcerer Franga reaches through time for a champion who can recover the stone for him. Rather hilariously, of all the people Franga could have selected, the two people Franga chooses are Yarol and Northwest Smith.
We pause so the readers can get the uncontrollable laughter out of their system.
Northwest’s well-honed ability to notice beautiful women allows him to work out that Jirel is a lot prettier than Franga and, in stark contrast to every previous Northwest Smith story, Northwest also realizes that Franga’s script as written will end badly for Jirel.
Unfortunately for Jirel, she is no more immune than any previous victim to Northwest’s toxic capacity to compel even the most self-contained warrior-maid to sacrifice herself on Northwest’s behalf. Jirel, Yarol and Northwest’s fates — and perhaps the fate of the entire world — comes down to whether or not, just this one time, Northwest can find a solution that does not require the death of a beautiful woman.
I remembered Jirel being a lot more openly derisive towards Northwest than she was on this reading. That said, she does a lot better than most women do when they encounter Smith.
Jirel’s stories are as frequently driven by her personal flaws — pride, impatience, misguided determination — as are Northwest’s. I find her more likeable if only because, unlike Smith, she does not off-load the cost of her solutions onto unfortunate allies. Northwest can be momentarily convinced to help by the sight of a well-turned ankle; he is essentially corrupt and self-serving. Jirel, in contrast, tries to be a responsible ruler of a whole fiefdom. Smith will die a petty criminal who once dabbled unsuccessfully in human trafficking; Jirel is the woman who willingly rode towards a cursed castle to ransom her soldiers.