Mention the words ‘Strong Female Character’ and immediately a visage of a tigress fills your head. She is powerful and fearless, unbeatable in combat, sexually alluring, takes no nonsense from anyone, and can best any man in any masculine pursuit. It’s a trope solidified over decades of repetition on the silver screen and the printed page.
And then there is Jirel of Joiry.
Created by pulp queen C. L. Moore, Jirel was among the first female protagonists in the sword and sorcery genre. Passionate and proud, beautiful and brash, she is the ruler of the realm of Joiry, implied to be somewhere in medieval France. Skilled at war and arms, she commands a loyal army of troops.
And there she parts company with modern Strong Female Characters.
Today’s stock Strong Female Character is a man with breasts. She talks as tough and as rough as a self-proclaimed alpha male with a chip on his shoulder would, even if she doesn’t have the muscles and scars to back up her words. Put her in a dangerous situation and she will fight her way out of it, even if she has to escalate it to the point where violence is necessary. She will punch and kick and slay like a man, somehow landing her blows with as much power and accuracy as an experienced male fighter with much more muscle mass to spare. She charges her foes head-on and seeks to establish dominance, like a man.
Jirel is, before anything else, a woman. And her experiences and perspectives as a woman colors her adventures with a distinctly feminine touch that is little-seen today.
Jirel is a fireball of passion. Passion for revenge drives her to seek out a weapon of magic even if it costs her soul in Black God’s Kiss. Overwhelming guilt compels her to make amends in the sequel Black God’s Shadow. In her adventures she encounters foes armed with cosmic powers, capable of reducing her to dust in an eyeblink, and yet she swears defiance and refuses to surrender. Through passion she has common ground with many Strong Female Characters, as well as heroes from pulp tales and shounen stories.
But where a Robert E Howard would have the protagonist cutting down legions of foes with mighty sword blows, where a shounen manga would have her beat down an army of mooks, where a modern action show would devolve into a spectacle of stylized violence, Moore’s Jirel rarely engages in combat.
She can’t. Where she goes, her sword and armor are useless. How do you kill something that is the anthropomorphic manifestation of an eldritch realm with mere steel? How can you raise a blade against an unseen ghost? Instead of empowering her, her equipment emphasizes her vulnerability and underscores the perils she faces. She fights not foes of flesh and blood, but weird beings so utterly powerful that a sword is nothing to them.
Where most male and modern writers would indulge in gratuitious violence, Moore focuses on atmosphere. Every story is infused with a creepy atmosphere of dread and malice, where the seemingly immutable laws of nature can be violated at whim, hinting at cosmic truths so mind-shatteringly incomprehensible that mere humans cannot begin to fathom them.
Yet in this darkness, there is still room for faith. A devout Christian, Jirel reveals her religion in the small things. In her quest for the Black God’s Kiss, Jirel asks to be shriven — and wonders if in seeking out a tool for vengeance she has damned her soul. Later, she must set down her crucifix to perceive, must less enter, the realm of the Black God; and to return home she must retrieve it.
In Hellsgarde, when interacting with a minor character, she notes that ‘God in his wisdom does not mark a whole and healthy man with a cripple’s face’ and concludes that he has a ‘deformity of a soul’. Instead of being force-fed to the reader, religion is treated as one of the many aspects of Jirel’s personality and of the world.
Jirel may be a warrior woman, but she is still a woman first. Indeed, her femininity is an integral part of her stories. Black God’s Kiss has her seeking the Black God to avoid a forced marriage to the man who conquered her realm, and at the end realizing she was in love with him. Black God’s Shadow has her returning to the land of the Black God to make amends. In Jirel Meets Magic, she faces a supremely powerful sorceress, and taps on the power of her passions to prevail. The Dark Land sees her spirited away to a mysterious dimension whose ruler aims to wed her, while Hellsgarde pits her against an invisible ghost hellbent on ravishing her as she seeks a treasure to ransom her soldiers.
These stories tap into the primal feminine fear of the violent, conquering male and the wrath of the jealous female. With her sword and armor useless against her enemies, she must adapt to strange circumstances, endure the unendurable and deceive those who would seek to destroy her.
In Jirel’s stories we see reflections of the classic feminine virtues: adaptability, stoicism, emotional intelligence, reckless daring in facing overwhelming odds for a higher end, devotion to faith and duty.
Jirel of Joiry embodies the greatness in women. Her femininity is front and center, the core of her being. It is an approach utterly alien to the fiction of Current Year; I do not think there will ever be a Jirel in traditional publishing for years to come, if at all.
Jirel of Joiry is a strong female character — not a man in a dress.
I also believe that female characters should be treated as females, not men with breasts. Check out my latest novel DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 2: KAMI NO KISHI to see my take on a shrine maiden caught in a dark dungeon crawler.
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