Hellsgarde Enshrined – Jirel of Joiry’s Darkest Hour
By Matthew Knight
In the spirit of Samhain which just passed, I would like to talk about one of my favorite ghost stories of all-time – Hellsgarde by C.L. Moore. This tale will be one of the main concepts that my band Eternal Winter will be covering on our upcoming album, Archaic Lore Enshrined: Songs of Savage Swords and Dark Mysticism. As the lyricist of the group, I recently had to become heavily immersed in the story, in order to pen some descriptive words to the coinciding epic that will appear on the release.
The first time I came across Hellsgarde was in the 1963 anthology, Swords And Sorcery edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which was a thin paperback that I used to keep in the inside pocket of my leather jacket. This was my first introduction to the First Lady of Fantasy, Jirel of Joiry. Along with The Citadel of Darkness by Henry Kuttner (C.L. Moore's husband, consequently) it was my favorite story in the book, and caused me to seek out Moore's other works.
I soon discovered the ACE paperback anthology featuring all five of the fiery sword-maiden’s strange adventures, simply titled Jirel of Joiry. Moore’s Jirel tales are masterpieces of dark fantasy, bejeweled with rare words, and flashes of macabre weirdness – all containing a mystical, dreamy quality about them that conjure up a true sense of otherworldliness.
In the series, Jirel is the ruler of a fictional province of Medieval France, which is constantly at feud with other kingdoms. She leads her men into battle, raging beside them in wars that are usually the cause of her heroic adventures that lead her into strange worlds. Jirel's most unique aspect (along with being female) is that unlike most sword and sorcery heroes, her fiercest weapon is not a tempered broad sword, deadly rapier, or soul-stealing runeblade – but a strong, emotional will-power that allows her to plunge into hellish domains, facing evil and the supernatural, all in the name of Joiry... In essence, she IS Joiry.
Hellsgarde is the final tale in the cycle, and the one that most closely fits into the horror genre. In the story, Jirel's men have been taken captive in battle by the lord of a rival nation – Guy of Garlot, and are being held for ransom. The warlord has promised Jirel that if she retrieves for him the mythical treasure said to reside in the reputedly haunted castle of Hellsgarde, her soldiers will be returned to her.
In the opening scene, we find Jirel and her warhorse standing on a hill at sunset, gazing down at the ominous castle which is set in a glimmering marshland, and said only to appear at dusk. Here are a few lyrics depicting this scene from the beginning verse of the upcoming Eternal Winter song I mentioned above, which bears the same name as this story:
The sunset fell over the misty swampland
She drew her reign to the edge of the hill
With wild, flowing, red mane of fire
And sword in hand, she observed below
So this was the castle known as Hellsgarde
That looms in the haunted marsh at dusk
To free her men from Garlot's shackles
Joiry's lady must venture onward...
This scene paints a perfect example of Jirel's strong power of will that pushes her forward into any sinister situation. As she regards the haunted castle, and resolves to enter and seek out the treasure, we are reminded of her noble morale, knightly courage, and the fact that she is willing to do anything for her kin and country – even die (or worse) at the mercy of a malign spirit, or whatever else waits inside the great fortress...
I thought that the dark majesty of this epic scene was extremely powerful, and decided to have it depicted as the album cover for Archaic Lore Enshrined. It is currently being executed by the amazing artist Louis Braquet and is turning out fantastic. I will be excited to share it with all when the time comes!
As Jirel approaches the castle, after moving through rows of impaled soldiers surrounding the gate, the castle door swings open, and she is greeted by a smiling hunchback who invites her inside. She soon learns that the castle is ruled by a descendant of the ancient inhabitants named Alaric. Jirel is led into a large room in which a dining table is set up, and a great fire roars upon the hearth. In the glowing firelight, our heroine sees that the table is occupied by a host of strange characters and their pets, all of whose countenances reflect a freakish 'taint'. Alaric's eyes fall upon the elegant figure of his new guest. He arises, greets her, and invites her to join him and his strange family at the table.
Now in the Great Hall the fire is blazing
The Master, Alaric sits with his kin
He stands and greets her with lingering eyes
And invites her to dine with his queer company-
Twisted faces of daemonic children
And hounds of hell with glowing eyes
Sluttish wenches in soiled garments
Deformed and inbred, dark henchmen stare...
Jirel suffers through the meal, holding awkward conversation with Alaric and trying to ignore the evil glances and disturbing behavior of the weird company. She refuses to eat the wine and meat, which seems unnatural, and tainted with an unpleasant taste and odor (This part always reminds me of the dining scene from one of my favorite vampire stories, A Rendezvous in Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith.) After the conclusion of the meal, Alaric leads Jirel into the ancient halls where he reveals to her the horrifying secret of the castle. From here her adventure takes an even darker twist as she is plunged into a whirlwind of supernatural terror.
The secrets of Hellsgarde revealed in blood and shadow-magick
The Hunters of Undeath return - The feasting of souls begins
They have come to ravage the night, and drink thy ghostly power
The castle of Hellsgarde accursed - The ominous spirit invoked
Eternal Winter’s Archaic Lore Enshrined album will be out in 2018. In the meantime, I invite all fans of sword & sorcery and dark fantasy who haven't read them to pick up one of these glorious anthologies containing the Jirel tales, and dive deeply into the uniquely dark and exotic worlds created by one of the true masters of the genre... In doing so, I think that one could learn a lot from Moore's character... For if we all possessed the courage and divine will of Jirel of Joiry, there is no telling what we might accomplish...
Now Guy of Garlot has something to fear
And Joiry's Lioness shall be the victor
In triumph she'll hand him an iron-bound chest
The tyrant shall go forth bearing her gift, accursed