C.L. Moore

I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.

These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.

The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in ‘Hellsgarde’

So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)

This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.

Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).

Moore’s first Jirel story, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’; trailblazer.

Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’

These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.

In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.

Jirel at the start of ‘The Black God’s Kiss’. In the story she wasn’t naked, though.

The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.

In the last decade or there has been a reclaiming of C.L. Moore as one of the founders of the genre; Cora Buhlert’s recent (and Hugo-eligible) articles, ‘Black God’s Kiss’ by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing and ‘Black God’s Shadow’ by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery are must-reads. The tide is turning, yet it will still take time before the pervasive smell of sexism has fully washed away.

(RvS)

Flashing Swords 6: A Deeper Cut

The past couple of days have seen controversy over Flashing Swords! #6, the revival of Lin Carter’s Sword and Sorcery anthology series by his literary executor, Robert M. Price. When pop culture site Bleeding Cool revealed that Price’s foreword was a screed excoriating feminists and trans people, slipping in a racist dogwhistle while he was at it, authors lined up to withdraw their work. In a statement regarding the decision to withdraw his story “Godkiller” from the collection, Cliff Biggers summed up his views:

This introduction does not reflect my beliefs, my feelings, or my philosophy of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. I still believe that sword and sorcery is a fine genre that has room for people of all races, genders, lifestyles, and beliefs, as it has from the early days when women like C.L. Moore and Margaret Brundage played a vital role in developing and popularizing the genre.”

Margaret Brundage’s cover illustration for Weird Tales, September 1934

Frank Schildiner, Paul MacNamee and Charles R. Rutledge likewise withdrew their work, making it clear that they had been unaware of the political context in which it would be published, with MacNamee stating that, “A request to remove the introduction [had been] refused.”

In light of all this, it’s interesting to revisit Lin Carter’s foreword to Flashing Swords! #1, which – as the title’s original exclamation mark implies – is exuberant, enthused and most of all, dedicated to the idea of a genre as a community. Carter tells of the formation of SAGA, the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guide of America, Limited, which would give birth to the first anthology: “Think of it: an author’s guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards! A far-flung legion of kindred craftsmen, with no fees, dues, tithes, or weregilds”

The tone evokes the fellowship you find at conventions when everything’s going right; in short, when you find your people. It couldn’t be further from Price’s attitude.

Lin Carter (1930-1988) at Iguanacon, the 1978 Worldcon

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m grateful to be part of a community where authors step up and defend what’s right, even when it means the loss of an outlet for their work. But they shouldn’t had to. They should never have been put in the position of finding their work in a collection whose foreword seeks to exclude so many of their colleagues and readers, because in 2020 we should be well beyond prejudice and gatekeeping. Of course, we’re not. And contrary to popular belief, the problem is not confined to the actions of some old guard, jealous that they’re no longer the vital centre of things.

As I write this, social media is awash with discussion of the Hugo Awards, where it seems that inclusion has been an afterthought instead of the foundation it should be. Instead, what was centred was nostalgia for a mythical time when men were men and writers were whiter. Campbell and Lovecraft came up. But diversity in Sword and Sorcery, as in SFF in general, is not a new thing, regardless of whose names have been most prominent in the past. Women have always been here. And indeed, Margaret Brundage and C.L. Moore are as much at the foundations of the genre as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And to use a Sword and Sorcery anthology to add to the extensive media pilloring of trans people is not only cruel, it is absurd when our imaginations live in the worlds that Jeffrey Catherine Jones painted.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones’ 1975 cover for “The Sowers of the Thunder”

When they reviewed The Red Man and Others, the Rogues in the House podcast dubbed our stories New Wave Sword and Sorcery, and Remco and I found that hugely encouraging. But the representation of lesbian, bi and disabled women in the world of Ymke and Kaila isn’t revolutionary, as these themes have been with us in fantastic fiction from the ’70s. And while we aim to be inclusive in our stories, it’s not a box to tick to score woke points: we wrote along the demographics of our own social world, and these are our friends and our colleagues we represent, and also ourselves.

At the same time we’re limited, as people often are at our age, by nostalgia. We know we’re not the crest of the genre wave, and that somewhere, some twenty-year-old is writing stories that will wash Sword and Sorcery up on a new and exciting shore. That should fill us all with anticipation, not defensiveness.

Even when we use our stories to subvert conventions, literary or societal, we still find ourselves reacting against tropes that aren’t confined to the past. Kaila follows a trail blazed by Dark Agnes and Jirel of Joiry, but still she encounter people (including her future girlfriend) who are surprised to meet a short, female swordmaster. And maybe that’s because progress, social or literary, has not been linear. If we’re a New Wave, it’s one that echoes that of the 60s and 70s, when Michael Moorcock and Tanith Lee, whose works still influence us, transformed Fantasy. Successive waves never entirely wash away what came before, and that includes the bad as well as the good.

Catherine L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in “Hellsgarde” (1939)

It would be easy, and tempting, to lay the blame for the Flashing Swords #6 controversy entirely at Price’s door. Discussion among fans and pros on social media yesterday made clear that his remarks don’t represent where Sword and Sorcery is going, or at least not the part of it that has a future. We could bury the whole thing as yet another case of King Canute railing hopelessly at the incoming egalitarian tide. However, as I said earlier, such ugliness is not unknown to us, and such rants are written with the assumption of receptive readers. Publisher Bob McClain of Pulp Hero Press delisted the collection and released a rather odd, limp statement:

When Bob Price sent me the manuscript, I assumed that he had shared his introduction with the authors, given the controversial content. I don’t agree with much of anything in that introduction, but I also don’t like to censor other viewpoints – so, on the assumption that all the authors were on board, I published the book. The problem, of course, is that the authors didn’t know what Bob had written in the introduction. Surprise! And of course they don’t want to be seen as implicitly accepting or endorsing Bob’s opinions by having their work appear in his book.”

McClain behaves as if he were a shocked bystander at a road accident, when in fact he had chosen to publish the foreword in the first place, and it’s interesting that he evades the implications of his own complicity: by publishing Price’s words, he apparently was satisfied to be seen as accepting or endorsing those words. Had that foreword not become common knowledge pre-publication, we must assume he would have gone ahead and published it, adding to the hostility experiences by women and minorities while standing on his principles.

As a woman working in the genre, I’m grateful for the solidarity of authors who said in no uncertain terms that Sword and Sorcery is for everyone, and I equally understand perspective of those who just want to tell stories, and had not expected or wanted those stories to be plunged into a political context of any kind. It is telling though that three major S&S-themed podcasts, The Cromcast, Rogues in the House and Appendix N Book Club, have a great love for the genre and its old staples, but are also progressive and richly analytical of the genre’s shortcomings.

This genre went through a major schism not so many years ago. People made statements, chose sides, left discussion groups, and in some cases ended friendships. You’ll get no finger-wagging about echo chambers from me; I support people’s right to avoid people and places where they are made to feel unwelcome in the world of escapist fantasy. The real world being what it is, many of us have had an awful lot to escape. Speaking personally, having spent most of my life fighting a disease that’s proved impervious to both blades and magic, I’m in Sword and Sorcery for enemies I can run through with a sword, for courage and wit to save the day, and for bands of allies of all kinds who make it worth splitting up the rewards.

(ABA)

SWORDSWOMEN!

A commentator has recently made some waves in S&S and Fantasy circles by claiming that it would be impossible for swordswomen to exist because, basically, they’re feeble and no match for a man. This, of course, is nonsense. By the same argument, a poorly armoured foot soldier would be no danger to a knight in full metal on horseback. And yet, medieval wars were full of simple foot folk. Could it perhaps be that there’s more at play?

No medieval battle was a simple equation. How many troops do you bring to the field? Your superior horseman won’t fare well against twenty peasants with pikes. Where is the fight? Does your army have to cross a stream, to be picked off by archers? Staircases in castle towers wind a certain way so that defenders have a nice reach for the sword in their right hand, while it’s hard going upwards. Have your generals made the right tactical choices? There’s so much more to add to the mix than “one woman, one man – pah!”.

Being a good swordsman also is not simply a matter of superior weight and strength, of course. Why have tournaments otherwise? Just put them on the scales, have them lift weights and appoint a winner. No, that’s not how it works. How fit is the fighter? And how quick and nimble? Looks to me as if speed and technique could have an edge over brute strength. Not everyone can be a champion, or even adequate, and many did not go enthusiastically: either you went because you were poor and had no other choice, or your were the second son of a rich family and it was expected of you.

Kaila, one of the heroines in our stories

And then there are other circumstances, where it came down to ‘defend or die’, rebellion, uprising and other situations were the rules of warfare were blurred. And my guess is that you’d definitely find women holding swords then; sometimes by choice, sometimes out of desperation, or spurred by a calling – or revenge. In our stories in The Red Man and Others we’ve introduced the female sell-sword Kaila. We very clearly wanted to give counterweight to the big, manly barbarian of Sword & Sorcery, so she’s not only a woman, she’s also small. When we ‘found’ erstwhile weightlifter and now fitness instructor Samantha Wright, we were convinced it’d work.

Kaila will get a bit of a backstory in which we’ll also meet the woman who trained her. Of course, it was a woman. Kaila is originally from her world’s equivalent of the Middle East, and she made her way north to land, on the other side of a mountain range, in the care of a retired female warrior. I asked a colleague from Ukraine whether she’d know a suitable name for Kaila’s mentor, and she pointed us towards Nastasia Mikulishna (Настасья Микулишна).

Nastasia Mikulishna

She’s a famous woman warrior from Russian folklore, appearing in the cycle of tales around the Bogatyr, comparable to the knights of the Round Table. She’s the daughter of the epic hero Mikula Selyaninovich, and when another knight, fresh from killing a dragon, seeks to conquer her, she literally grabs him by the golden curls, drags him off his horse and sticks him in her pocket. She decides that if he’s good looking she’ll marry him, but that she’ll kill him if he disappoints. This blog post from the Russian immigrant Nicholas Kotar gives a nice overview of the different Russian valkyries.

The Eastern European swordswoman we’re most familiar with in the west, at least by name, will be Red Sonya of Rogatino. She was introduced by Robert E Howard in 1934 in the pulp story The Shadow of the Vulture. The chain mail bikini of her later comic book incarnation Red Sonja is nowhere to be found. Instead: “She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather, came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian sabre.”

Roy G. Krenkel’s illustration of Red Sonya of Rogatino

Red Sonja, with a “j” (this tor.com blog goes into the particulars) meanwhile was very loosely based on Sonya in the ’70s by Roy Thomas, for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comics. She’s had enduring popularity, now via the same Dynamite shelf that brings similarly (un)clad female heroines such as Vampirella, and Dejah Toris of Mars – they even teamed up. Some may find Red Sonja overly exploitative, some may find her a strong female character (particularly when handled by writers like Gail Simone); I’ll leave it up to you, but it was not greeted with enthusiasm when Marguerite Bennett and Nicola Scott ditched her chain mail bikini: the Mary Sue liked it, bros on the internet didn’t. Bros won out.

Nicola Scott’s redesign of Red Sonja

In Sword Woman Howard launched another heroine; Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who killed her groom and fled an unwanted marriage, then gets trained with the sword. He wrote three stories about her, which didn’t sell during his lifetime. He sent them to colleague pulpster C.L. (Catherine) Moore, who wrote: “My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures.” Moore could know; she’d already launched the successful stories around the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry.

Maybe a rake thin and scantily clad Red Sonja is more comforting for certain men than a tough-as-old-boots Red Sonja would be: it keeps it firmly in the realm of Fantasy. And when writers start to challenge this image there are protests. “Game of Thrones? Unrealistic!” – dismissed off-hand, while physically Brienne of Tarth actually can measure herself against most men, and has had the training too, while Arya Stark is plausibly a dab hand at fencing and makes her size and appearance work for her as an assassin.

Gwendoline Christie as GoT’s Brienne of Tarth

Robert E Howard was widely read, knew his classics, and perhaps he’d read Thomas Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne. In it we find the saga of Bradamante, a female Christian knight who falls in love with the Saracen warrior Ruggerio, provided he renounces Islam. So he does, but meanwhile Bradamante’s parents have another knight lined up to marry her. Eventually, she’ll consent to marry only he who can best her in a fight; only Ruggerio is up to the task. Shadows of Roy Thomas’ Red Sonja too here, with her vow of chastity; no surprise, as in his series Arak he introduced the paladin Valda, daughter of Bradamante. There is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed in Bradamante’s tale – there’s her magic lance and the wizard Atlantes for instance – but it strikes me that for a Renaissance, well-bred audience closely familiar with sword fights, the central premise of a warrior woman must not have sounded too ridiculous to believe.

Alex Kingston as Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

It seems that the further we go back in Western history and legend, the less the sword becomes a male privilege. There’s Scáthach, the Scottish warrior who instructs the legendary heroes of Ulster, amongst them Cú Chulainn. And more firmly rooted in history we find Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led the combined Celtic tribes against the Roman army in AD 60/61. It’s hard to believe that hundreds of thousands of rebels would have followed her if she had until then confined herself to the kitchen. With an eye on what we now know of Celtic history, it’s equally hard to believe that amongst her army there were not a fair amount of women, willing to fight for justice and their freedom.

(RvS)