Black God’s Kiss
C. L. Moore
trade paperback $12.99
Shortly after she began chronicling the adventures of Northwest Smith, C. L. Moore created a second series character, one that would have an even greater impact on the genre. I’m talking, of course, about Jirel of Joiry.
Instead of setting these stories in space like she did with Northwest Smith, or in some age before the dawn of recorded history, like Howard did with Conan, Moore chose to place Jirel in the fictional French kingdom of Joiry, square in the Middle Ages.
There were only five Jirel stories, plus the Jirel and Northwest Smith team-up “Quest of the Starstone” that she wrote with her husband Henry Kuttner. But for the first time in the history of the field, here was a female character who was worthy of her own series. Note: the rest of this post will contain spoilers.
The first story is probably one of her best known. “The Black God’s Kiss” opens with a conqueror, named only Guillaume, who is standing in the throne room of Joiry as two of his men bring Joiry’s commander in. He’s shocked when the remove the commander’s helmet to discover she’s a woman. He’s also impressed. In addition to putting up a good fight, Jirel is a gorgeous redhead. Guillaume removes the rest of her armor with his eyes, as the saying goes. Jirel is not unaware of the intent of his gaze.
When he forces a kiss on her, she nearly rips his throat out with her teeth in spite of being tied. Guillaume knocks her out with a single punch in retaliation.
Jirel awakens in a cell and soon manages to escape. She puts on some light armor and seeks out the castle priest. Years ago he and she found a tunnel under the dungeon and explored part of it. The priest had gone further than Jirel. He would only say that something worse than hell was at its end.
Now Jirel seeks his help in returning to the cavern. This time she intends to go all the way to the end and come back with something to use for revenge against Guillaume. He reluctantly agrees.
Jirel goes down the tunnel, passes through a region in which she gets dizzy and finds herself on the edge of a vast open space. She has no torch, but when she removes the crucifix about her neck, she is able to see.
Before her lies a vast, dark landscape, the sky above full of odd colored stars in unfamiliar constellations. Across the plain is an immense tower made of solid light. When she reaches the tower, she encounters a demon who takes her form. The demon tries to trick Jirel and is unsuccessful. So when Jirel asks for a means of revenge, the demon tells her she will find it in the temple on an island in the middle of a lake. Jirel is free to take it as a gift. The demon then laughs mockingly.
A series of shooting stars guide Jirel to the island. Throughout all her travels in this land, Jirel encounters a number of weird and creepy things. Small packs of animals attack her legs. All flowing bodies of water sound as if they are speaking a language not formed by human tongues. There are areas of total darkness.
On her way to the temple a stampede of white horses passes her by. They’re blind and clearly fleeing in panic from something. As the last horse goes by, it calls out a woman’s name.
Once on the island, Jirel enters the temple where a great, dark statue squats, the black god of the story’s title. She kisses the idol, and a severe sense of desolation overcomes her. As Jirel returns to the hillside cave by which she entered the land, she notices the sun is starting to rise. She also knows that if she is still there when it crests the horizon, she will never make it back. Only by grabbing the crucifix she abandoned is she able to avoid seeing the landscape by the light of this strange world’s sun.
Guillaume and his guards are waiting for her when she emerges from the tunnel. Without saying a word, Jirel goes to him and kisses him. At first he responds in kind, but he quickly realizes something is wrong. Jirel can see a great fear in his eyes. His body begins to shudder, and then he falls to the ground dead. When he does, Jirel suddenly realizes that the hate she felt for Guillaume was actually desire. It was only because of his assault on Joiry that she failed to recognize it.
Jirel isn’t a superwoman. She’s not a female Conan. She is unable to best Guillaume in combat, and he is physically more powerful than she is. It’s her relentless desire for revenge that enables her to win in the end, although her victory is a hollow one. We know Robert E. Howard read and enjoyed the Jirel stories, and we know he showed a draft of “Swordwoman” to Moore not too long before he died. She loved the story and wanted to see more of them. Whether Jirel inspired Howard is an open question, one Leigh Brackett discusses in her introduction to the 1977 collection, Sword Woman. Brackett points out the differences in the characters.
Unlike many sword swinging women in fantasy these days, Jirel isn’t simply a man with breasts. She is a woman, with all the complexity that involves. Yesterday Al Harron addressed this point more eloquently than I can. Check out what he’s got to say.
I’ve seen commentators say that the kisses in this story are really code for sex. The reasoning goes that Moore couldn’t get away with actual sex in the pulps, no matter how lurid and suggestive the covers might have been. So when Jirel and Guillaume are kissing, what they’re really doing is having sex.
Maybe, maybe not. In the context of what’s happening and the presence of the other characters, I’m not sure I buy that reasoning. The kiss between Jirel and the Black God is another matter. Here’s Moore’s description:
In a dream she took that kiss. In a dream of dizziness and confusion she seemed to feel the iron-cold lips stirring under hers. And through the union of that kiss–warm-blooded woman with image of nameless stone–through the meeting of their mouths something entered into her very soul; something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words. It lay upon her shuddering soul like some frigid weight from the void, a bubble holding something unthinkably alien and dreadful. She could feel the heaviness of it upon some intangible part of her that shrank from the touch. It was like the weight of remorse or despair, only far colder and stranger and –somehow–more ominous, as if this weight were but the egg from which things might hatch too dreadful to put even into thoughts.
There’s some strong sexual imagery there. Either that or I’ve got a dirty mind. I’ve discussed the sexual imagery in Moore’s Northwest Smith stories. If you’ve read some of those stories, particularly “Scarlet Dream“, then you know this is tame compared to what’s in some of her other work. In fact, the Internet Speculative Fiction Database shows that “The Black God’s Kiss” was the second story she wrote after writing “Scarlet Dream”, with “Dust of Gods” being written (or at least published) between them.
Regardless of how much sexual symbolism Moore intended, “Black God’s Kiss” is a powerful and ultimately tragic story, one that broke new ground for the sword and sorcery field. It holds up well today, with its weird imagery and creepy descriptions of another world. It deserves a wider audience.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, the only way to get electronic copies of the Jirel stories is through anthologies. “Black God’s Kiss” is available in audio download format though.