On Rereading “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell

It’s not my fault that I reread “Jurgen” at this time; it is the fault of one of my characters.  I was typing away on the new novel I am working on, and one of my characters made a reference to “Jurgen”, completely unexpectedly, and that led me to check the exact wording.  It’s easy to find an electronic copy of “Jurgen” online, as it was first published as “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” in 1919 and so is in the public domain.  I looked up what I needed to, and read a little more, and a little more, and was enchanted as I was back when I was a teen and first came across this amazing fantasy novel.

I first heard about the book when I went with my family on vacation one year.  We were on our way to California from Seattle, and I think we had stopped somewhere in Oregon.  I had unaccountably left without something to read, or I had finished the book I had brought during the day’s drive, and so my father took me out for a night walk to see if I could find a book.  On a wire rack in some sort of supermarket or drug store I came across a book called “One Hundred Great American Novels”.  It consisted of synopses of books which the author esteemed as the cream of American literature.  Two of the books I discovered for the first time therein were “On the Road” and “Jurgen”.

Some time afterwards I came across a copy of “Jurgen”, and it quickly became my second-favorite fantasy book, the first being “The Lord of the Rings”.  I read it over and over again.  The language is intoxicating, and the story is enchanting.  Once, during my dark year at university, I took a class in writing, and I discovered that the teacher was a very old, very slow professor who bored the hell out of me.  I had a short attention span in those days, partly brought about by drug use, and rather than take the trouble to attend the class, I decided to prove to the teacher I deserved an “A” by writing a short story.  The story was not anything like “Jurgen” in subject matter, but Cabell’s lyrical, poetic style was a heavy influence on it.  I skipped the whole term of classes and showed up on the last day, turned in the story, and told the teacher that it proved I deserved an “A”.  Looking back, it was a rather arrogant, pompous gesture on my part.  If I had been patient, I might have learned something from the teacher, who knows?  But he did give me an “A” – well, an “A-” actually, perhaps shaving off that bit because of my truancy.

Anyway, “Jurgen” is about a middle-aged pawnbroker who, meeting a monk who has stubbed his toe and is cursing the devil for placing the rock in the road, urges him not to speak so unkindly about the devil, not because he is a Satan-worshiper but because he is enthralled with his own cleverness.  He thereafter meets a dark gentleman who thanks him for his kind words and offers to do Jurgen a good deed.  Jurgen tells him his wife does not understand him, and when he gets home, his wife has mysteriously vanished.  He is content at first until the neighbors and his wife’s relatives, after seeing his wife out haunting the countryside, urge Jurgen to do something about it.  Jurgen reluctantly enters a mysterious cave in search of his missing spouse, and embarks upon a fantastic adventure that lasts a year.  During this time he tricks a goddess into giving him back his youthful body and engages in amorous relationships with many of the great beauties of history and fantasy. Relying on his wits, as a self-proclaimed “monstrous clever fellow”, he journeys from one fantasy kingdom to the next, including hell and heaven, having affairs with Helen of Troy, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, a hamadryad, a vampire, Satan’s wife, and many other women.  Everywhere he goes he seeks justice and some sort of contentment, but cannot find it anywhere.  In the end, he confronts Koshchei the Deathless, who made things as they are, and Koshchei offers Jurgen any sort of life he wants with any of the women he has met, and urges Jurgen to choose.

I do not think I should give away the ending, but instead urge you to read the book.  It’s a wonderful, absorbing read, one of those rare books whose story and language are equally captivating.  Be careful, though, of the edition you select, if you want to read it in print.  I ordered a British Dover edition with elaborate illustrations that seems to be unabridged, but as the work is in the public domain, there are inferior copies with poor layout, obviously slipshod productions hastily assembled.  You can tell the difference quickly on Amazon if you try the “look inside” app.  It’s probably safer to buy a used older edition, and in retrospect that’s what I think I would do if I were to do it over.

“Jurgen” was immensely popular when it first appeared, but it was as infamous as it was famous.  Many wanted to ban it for its content, which at the time was considered ribald.  It is considered a landmark of fantasy, and has influenced such writers as Terry Prachett and Robert Heinlein, the latter especially in his famous novels “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Job: A Comedy of Justice”.

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2 Responses to On Rereading “Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell

  1. Reading this right now, and I am enthralled

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