Why is Jirel of Joiry, one of few bona fide woman pulp Sword & Sorcery heroes, so comparatively obscure? Is it because Jirel is a female protagonist? Or is it because C.L. Moore is a woman author?
To those last two questions, the answer is “Of course not”; C.L. Moore is beloved and influential, and with so many people supposedly out there looking for women heroes in SFF to hold up, Jirel’s sex is certainly not the reason.
I think Jirel’s relative obscurity has to do with the intensity and complexity of the source material. When Weird Tales billed Black God’s Kiss as “The Weirdest Story Ever Told”, they were perhaps only being slightly hyperbolic. Barbarians with swords killing shapeshifting reptile cultists? Kinda weird, I suppose. Tentacle monsters from beyond the stars driving a New England poof crazy? That’s pretty weird, I guess. Jirel of Joiry? It is weird in ways that cannot really be described; loud tastes, flavorful sounds, deafening sights – Edvard Munch’s the Scream, but in blacks and purples and greens and with words.
If Jirel were just some woman who fought monsters with swords and had adventures and quipped “I pity you, traitorous wizard!” as she vanquished some foe, she might very well be much more widely beloved and remembered today* and placed alongside John Carter, Conan and Stark on the pantheon of pulp action heroes, but she would also lose so much, if not all, of what makes her a fascinating character.
First off, you really have to accept the premise that you can’t staple the male hero’s journey to a female hero to understand why Jirel is so different. Yet in her life prior to where Moore’s stories pick up, Jirel may have been attempting to undertake the male hero’s journey, which is why things have immediately gone to hell (quite literally) in her debut adventure.
The male’s journey is to achieve stature, dominance, then legacy; the female’s journey is to achieve stature, security, then legacy; of course that is a gross simplification because how they go about these things are entirely different. The woman does not have to seek virile stature among men to achieve her second or third goal, merely appeal to those who can help her achieve them. The legacy may be achieved by works** or parenthood, leaving a mark upon the world, but the woman can best achieve legacy through motherhood and upbringing of children with (in conjunction with the goal of security) a man or without him. In her pursuit of the male’s journey, Jirel has forfeited, to her regret, her feminine security and legacy by destroying someone who may have been able to provide them to her. This forfeiture, and how she feels it has ruined and cursed her, is central to Jirel’s character. And it is a VERY uncomfortable thing.
In a way, Jirel is a character in another’s story, Guillame’s; in Guillame’s story, he bravely fights against one of the strongest kingdoms, led by one of the strongest leaders, a brash and haughty woman waiting to be tamed…only she kills him. Rather than be tamed by the strong heroic swordsman, Jirel sells her soul and literally goes into hell to retrieve a “weapon” to kill him. But it is not a warrior’s weapon; it is a woman’s weapon—a kiss. A kiss that will kill and damn to hell. Too late does Jirel realize that Guillame was someone who could have given her security and legacy. He was stronger than her and could have protected her. She realizes that perhaps she wanted to be tamed by this rogue. And it devastates her to the core of her being. She is Belit killing Conan. Leia shooting Han.
While Jirel is, by outward appearances and actions, the dashing and brash heroic swordsman, that is a mask (one which her supernatural foe uses to mock her). She’s not a ‘man with boobs’ (though she at times tries to be one), but a feminine woman with feminine needs, emotions and desires. The Black God sequence is a terrifying look at the emotional turmoil and consequence of a woman who has tried to live the trope of Strong Female Protagonist and been utterly crushed and broken by it.
*: Copious amounts of erotic art aside
**: Oftentimes works are not enough, particularly in the heroic mold and tradition. It is not enough to create or maintain, one needs to pass on. For instance, part of what makes Kull a tragic figure is that for all of his efforts to sustain his empire, he left no line—doubly tragic for the importance he placed on love and marriage’s role in society while he himself never found a mate.