Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday Review: Jirel of Joiry

 This book interested me because it's classic pulp from the 30s and features an early version of a sword-wielding heroine. It's a collection of half a dozen short stories set in a (very) pseudo-historical France sometime after the fall of Rome. One story seems to identify the time as 1500AD but while that fits with some references (arbalests), it makes no sense with others. That hardly matters of course but it irked me a bit as the setting could have easily been non-specific as to time and place. I am curmudgeonly about such things.

The first story was fascinating because almost from the start there seemed really no reason for Joiry (as I shall call her) to be a warrior at all. It would have worked as well, indeed probably better, had she been utterly lacking skill at arms. Throughout we're reminded that Joiry is a fearsome warrior but she does nothing that's at all plot-relevant that exhibits her skill at arms. The plot  can be summarised thus: Joiry's castle is captured by the (rather ruggedly handsome) villain. The imprisoned Joiry escapes and with the aid of a priest descends to what she imagines is hell in search of a weapon to use against the dastard who has captured her. Up to this point the story's rather trite and sometimes very unconvincing (even the most dim-witted Bond villain would not imprison someone still wearing armour). But what may be hell is suitably otherwordly and the nature of the weapon she uncovers is quite inspired. What's even better is that there's a bit of a twist at the end (which I suspect may enrage some readers but I found rather amusing and rather added to the strength of the story). Despite Joiry's unnecessary and probably counterproductive 'warrior-woman' status and a dodgy start, this ends up being really good. It should be noted though that action takes a distant second place to description, albeit some of the description is great.

 However the second story, a direct sequel to the first, reuses a good deal of the ideas of the first (and actually whole chunks of text too). It was a lot harder to get into for this reason. It turns out okay although the mental/spiritual nature of much of the conflict rather underlines the fact it's not really necessary for Joiry to have been a warrior.

 Jirel Meets Magic, the third story, does have Joiry in some (rather well done) combat at the start. Again though, the main thrust of the story doesn't actually demand a warrior woman. It's probably the best story in the book though and has lots of great scenes. I liked it a lot.

The fourth story underline the spiritual nature of the real conflicts and although one of the weaker tales is miles better than the fifth story which brings in an overtly science-fiction slant, and is much the weaker for it. Hellsgarde though is a return to form and a fitting finale

All the stories have this in common: the battles are more those of the will than of the flesh. For me Jirel as a mail-clad, sword-wielding warrior actually detracts from the real strengths of both the book and the character. Without the sword she could be a true heroine. With it she is diminished, though the book's well worth a read anyway as it has moments of pure class and is generally satisfying.


batgirl said...

It's been decades since I read these, but something about Jirel that may be worth noting is that she (in the first story) is a ruler and a war-leader, not so much a warrior. That may be as unusual for the pulps (where the standard was wandering rogues like early Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) as her being a female warrior was.

Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, cool. Unschooled as I am in most literature before my time, I've never heard of these stories. So many, many stories.


David Hunter said...

She'd have been much better as just a leader and not a warrior I think (hence i prefer to call her Joiry). I suspect she's portrayed as a warrior because Conan was (though Howard's stories required that Conan be a very capable fighter or the plots break. Joiry's fighting capabilities aren't really necessary to the stories and I think if she weren't skilled at arms most of the stories would actually be more exciting.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Very interesting review, Dave! Thanks so much for bringing Jirel to our attention.

batgirl said...

Now I'm trying to think of other pulp heroes who had title and position instead of being wandering rogues? Conan is eventually a ruler, though I don't know how many of Howard's original stories covered that era. Howard wrote a few King Kull stories, but I'm not coming up with anything else off the top of my head.

Terri-Lynne, here's a filk about Jirel of Joiry, by Mercedes Lackey:

Terri-Lynne said...

:) Thank you, B!

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Only two of Howard's stories have him as king (though one of those is an early-ish one as I recall). It's fair to say though that in both he isn't much in the role of ruler, avoiding assassination in one and being deposed and wandering in t'other.

Offhand I can't think of any others so it's possible that Joiry is fairly rare in that respect.