Before J.R.R. Tolkien, there was James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), a pioneer in the fantasy genre from Richmond, Virginia, who achieved his greatest fame during the roaring 1920s. Cabell published a series of 23 novels (The Biography of Manuel) based in the fictional land of Poictesme. Poictesme was the Middle Earth of the 1920s, complete with fictional map, history, legends, and swords-and-magic adventure. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, each volume of The Biography of Manuel can be read as a standalone novel, and they can be read in any order. Jurgen is the most popular and, arguably, the best entry in The Biography of Manuel.
The main character, Jurgen, is a self-described “monstrous clever fellow” who “will try any drink once.” His adventures begin as he follows his wife into a cave in an attempt to rescue her and bring her home safely. Jurgen finds himself in a series of magical realms, meeting a succession of beautiful women. Jurgen soon forgets the mission to save his wife, falling in love with every pretty face he encounters.
The novel is full of double entendres. As a result, Cabell and his publisher were sued for indecency. They won the lawsuit after two years, and then published a revised version of Jurgen containing a supposedly “lost” chapter in which Jurgen is on trial by the Philistines for indecency. The chief prosecutor is represented as a dung beetle in the following quote:
“You are offensive,” the bug replied, “because this page has a sword which I choose to
say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is
not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is
not a staff. And finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be
objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”
“Well, that sounds logical,” says Jurgen, “but still, at the same time, it would be no
worse for an admixture of common sense. For you gentlemen can see for yourselves, by
considering these pages fairly and as a whole, that these pages bear a sword and a lance
and a staff, and nothing else whatever; and that all the lewdness is in the insectival mind
of him who itches to be calling these things by other names.”
This above passage should give you a good feel for Cabell’s snarky writing style. For modern grimdark readers, I feel like Cabell’s style could be described as a Jazz Age version of Dyrk Ashton or Clayton W. Snyder.
The lore presented in Jurgen is an amalgamation of various sources, including Arthurian legend, Greek mythology, and Biblical stories. As the novel progresses, the stakes continue to be raised on Jurgen, until he eventually remembers his mission and once again finds domestic bliss with his wife, whom he calls “a high-spirited woman with no especial gift for silence.”
Jurgen is a lot of fun to read. Cabell was one of the pioneers of the comical fantasy subgenre. Jurgen is also full of philosophical musings that will make you ponder and smile at the same time. In that sense, it’s very much in the spirit of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
I should also mention the beautiful artwork included throughout the book. I love how the art intertwines with the text at the beginning and end of many of the chapters.
Jurgen is quite nearly a forgotten masterpiece. Cabell went out of style during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and even more so during World War II. There is no grand battle between good and evil here. Cabell’s fantasies represent darkly humorous escapism, pure and simple.