Sunday, January 8, 2017

Tsundere of Joiry: Black God's Kiss

Summary: When the citadel of Joiry falls in battle, it's conqueror, Guillaume steals both lands and a kiss from its commander, the red-haired battle maiden Jirel.  Incensed, she escapes from Joiry's cells, seeking a weapon capable of defeating Guillaume.  To do so, she must descend into Hell itself, to bring back the cursed weapon: a kiss. Once she escapes, she learns that the gift comes with a terrible price.  As she gives Guillaume the Black God's Kiss that kills him, she realizes that she loves him.

"Black God's Kiss" introduces Jirel of Joiry, one of the very first heroines of sword and sorcery. Celebrated as a forebear of Red Sonja, Xena, and today's action girls, many critics claim that she stands on the same level as Conan in sword and sorcery. Much is made of Jirel being a woman adventurer, however, what makes "Black God's Kiss" stand apart is not the strength of Jirel as a protagonist, but the vividness of her decent into Hell.  While the story, of a woman scorned, requires a female protagonist, Jirel herself is not indispensable to it.

While I do recommend that fans of fantasy read "Black God's Kiss", as it is an evocative tale mercifully free of the modern tropes choking the genre, I found "Shambleau" to be the stronger story after the first read. But it is many current attitudes, including Pixy Fu and genre readers' growing avoidance of female writers, that may keep modern audiences from reading either.

 Pixy Fu

Time to address the first elephant in the room regarding C. L. Moore's work:

Kuroko Shirai, Pixy Fu black belt.
Chyna, the Ninth Wonder of the World
As the first in the long line of fantasy warrior maidens, Jirel delightfully embodies none of the tropes of what is now known as Pixy Fu (to avoid confusing waif-fu with waifu).  Where the Pixy Fu specialist is a 90 lb. slip of a girl able to kick her way with style through a football field of linebackers without breaking her nails, Jirel is tall, muscular, not particularly feminine in appearance, and, like Conan, willing to run when discretion is the better part of valor. She towers on the battlefield like 90s pro-wrestler Chyna, and in the arms and armor of the battlefield, Jirel is often mistaken for a man. Furthermore, the Pixy Fu girl goes from triumph to triumph on the battlefield. She would never be captured on the battlefield, nor would she have to rely on secret weapons to defeat Guillaume. Yet "Black God's Kiss" requires Jirel to be not only defeated, but to struggle against a warrior that she could never defeat with her own strength.  Instead, she must rely on the poisons and curses often considered to be woman's weapons. That Jirel might need to fight from a position of disadvantage is a thought utterly alien to a modern Pixy Fu girl.

Tsundere of Joiry

The idea of a tsundere comes from Japanese anime and manga, and has spread into English through the American anime fandom.  The term is shorthand for a number of similar characterizations, from a thawing Ice Queen to an otherwise sweet girl unable to express her affection without resorting to angry embarrassment.  Although the idea was popularized in Japan, tsundere behavior has been a long running trope in literature, stretching back to Katherina in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and even earlier.

In fantasy works, a tsundere girl is often depicted as a princess and a fearsome fighter in her own right who happens to be attracted to a stronger man capable of beating her.  After an embarrassing introduction that wounds the tsundere's pride, she uses catty remarks and sometimes even violence in the attempt to best the man who beat her.  These efforts salve her pride, but the also hide the tsundere's attraction to the man, an attraction that she is either unable to recognize or unwilling to admit.  Despite her cattiness, she is also jealous of any other potential suitor.  Eventually, she comes to terms with her emotions, acting more on her love than her pride.  Finally, in visual works, the tsundere will often be depicted with red or pink hair.  (See The Familiar of Zero or The Asterisk War for recent examples of this Fantasy Tsundere.)

So, how does this apply to Jirel?  Guillaume wounds Jirel's pride twice, once as a warrior by defeating her, once as a man by stealing her kiss.  She responds to the affronts with violence. Enraged, Jirel escapes and seeks the one weapon to avenge her pride, instead of seeking refuge with her relatives. The intensity of her emotions keeps her from recognizing what she is actually feeling. Only when her retaliation is complete, does she realize the truth.
They knew he was dead. That was unmistakable in the way he lay. Jirel stood very still, looking down upon him, and strangely it seemed to her that all the lights in the world had gone out. A moment before he had been so big and vital, so magnificent in the torchlight— she could still feel his kiss upon her mouth, and the hard warmth of his arms… 
Suddenly and blindingly it came upon her what she had done. She knew now why such heady violence had flooded her whenever she thought of him— knew why the light-devil in her form had laughed so derisively— knew the price she must pay for taking a gift from a demon. She knew that there was no light anywhere in the world, now that Guillaume was gone.  
Father Gervase took her arm gently. She shook him off with an impatient shrug and dropped to one knee beside Guillaume’s body, bending her head so that the red hair fell forward to hide her tears.
And despite coming face to face with her feelings from Guillaume, Jirel can never name it as love. Later in "Black God's Shadow", she reflects on the emotion as not-hate, not-anger:
And how had she to know, until he lay dead at last at her vengeful feet, that it was not hate which bubbled up so hotly whenever she remembered the insolence of his arms, or that he had defeated her men and conquered unconquerable Joiry? For she had been the commander of the strongest fortress in the kingdom and called no man master, and it was her proudest boast that Joiry would never fall, and that no lover dared lay hands upon her save in answer to her smile.  
No, it had not been hatred which answered Guillaume’s overwhelming arrogance. Not hate, though the fire and fury of it had gone storming like madness through her.
The tsundere, despite her pride in her abilities, is still an immature woman, unable to face directly her emotions, especially those that might reveal her vulnerability. This is also telling as Jirel is C. L. Moore's author avatar, written while she was yet a maiden.
If you have read past Shambleau to Jirel, you will probably have noticed what a close relationship the two women bear to one another. They set the keynote for a lot of my own (incessant) writing until I met and married Henry Kuttner. I realize now that, unconsciously, no doubt, both were versions of the self I’d like to have been. I’d never noticed this before. The unconscious works in a mysterious way, doesn’t it?
Moore, C.L.. The Best of C.L. Moore (Kindle Locations 5372-5375). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition. 
Like many a maiden, Jirel assumes that because she knows a bit of the light loving, she is experienced in all of the ways of the heart.  Her education otherwise, unlike many a tsundere, proved lethal.

1 comment:

  1. Heh, Tsundere. Never thought about it, but yeah, I guess there is something of that.