Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #13: James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell wrote over fifty books between the 1910s and the 1950s. Most of them tie into his ambitious fantasy cycle about Manuel the Redeemer, a thirteenth-century pigherd who rose to become a count, and his descendents. His books are ambitious, literate, imaginative, playful -- needless to say, most of them weren't selling very well. Luck came ironically disguised as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which had him hailed into court on obscenity charges for his publication of "Jurgen", in 1919. (I don't believe "Jurgen" has been out of print since.) The resulting notoriety made Cabell a best-selling author for a while, and when it eventually died down, it left behind people who knew and appreciated Cabell's work.

I'm going to confess straight off that I'm not a proper Cabellian: The true Cabellian has hunted down and read his obscure works as well as his better known ones. Aside from "Jurgen", I've only read the group of six books reprinted by Del Rey about twenty years ago. Cabell's best books are "Jurgen", "Figures of Earth", and "The Silver Stallion". (You should try one of them. They may be read in any order.) If you like those, try the other books in that set, "The High Place" (**), "The Cream of the Jest" (**+), "Something About Eve" (**), and "Domnei" (*). If you like *those*, you too can become a true Cabellian: If bookstores fail you, there's always the modern miracle of interlibrary loans.

"Jurgen" (***+) is my favorite of Cabell's books. It begins with good intentions: Jurgen, a middle-aged pawnbroker with a poetic flare, finds reason to praise the Devil at length (more to irk the monk with whom he argues than out of conviction), and the Devil tries to show his gratitudeby carrying off his shrew of a wife. Jurgen appreciates the thought, but feels it his duty to rescue her. Armed with a rejuvenated body, the wisdom of age, and a gorgeous shirt, he makes his way through a world of myth -- both Christian and Pagan. (Maybe I should qualify the comment about wisdom. Would you accept a shirt from a centaur named Nessus?) A certain equanimity, a sense of proportion, see him through his travels.

The universe this high comedy describes is a droll one, ruled by beings who are very powerful -- but not necessarily very bright. Jurgen himself achieves the fantasies of youth -- Guenevere and Helen of Troy, a crown, even a papacy of sorts -- but being a middle-aged pawnbroker at heart, he is unable to take these fantasies seriously enough to lose himself in them. He spends time in heaven and time in hell (readers of the comic book "Sandman" will recognize Cabell's influence) and finds that both are well enough in their own ways. (My favorite part of the book is the manner in which he manages to travel from hell to heaven without, as it were, a visa, by virtue of a good understanding of How Things Work.)

"Figures of Earth" (***+) tells the story of Manuel, the swineherd, who rises to become Count Manuel of Poictesme, in thirteenth-century France, and eventually Manuel the Redeemer. The motto on his coat of arms is "Mundus Vult Decipi" -- the world wishes to be deceived. It's appropriate. Manuel himself doesn't need to do much deceiving. Indeed, he's a remarkably passive hero. He does as he is told, he goes where he is sent, his actual loves don't seem to touch him very deeply. But the world takes itself seriously, and insists upon casting him in an appropriately heroic role.

"The Silver Stallion" (***+) follows "Figures of Earth" though it doesn't hurt to read it first. After Manuel's death or disappearance (only the young Jurgen saw him go, and he got thrashed for telling tales) Manuel's subordinates are summoned by Horvendile and sent a-questing. (Horvendile is either the power behind the greatest powers in the universe or a minor meddler. Cabell provides support for both interpretations.) This book follows the several adventures of these Lords. Over time the absent Manuel himself acquires a mythic significance which many find convenient to accept, some (as we are told at the start of the book) sincerely, some from policy, some as a joke, some because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I'm going to end this review with a digression about Tolkien, which may seem an odd way to end a review of Cabell. People who grew up reading modern fantasy tend not to realize how different it is from pre-Tolkien fantasy, or how much 95% of the fantasy they've read owes to Tolkien. (Peter David has a wonderful anecdote of hearing a kid in a bookstore tell his friend not to bother with "Lord of the Rings" because "it's a Terry Brooks ripoff.")

The best-selling fantasies today are almost all set in a homogenized, generic, pseudo-medieval world. Cabell's fantasies, like those of William Morris, of Lord Dunsany, of many of their contemporaries (not all, but I don't want to interrupt a perfectly good peroration just to get the facts straight), were rooted in the middle ages. There's a difference. They were written by people who grew up with Mallory and Arthur, Ariosto and Roland, rather than with Tokien and Gygax. (That Cabell's books play off of the earlier conventions doesn't make this less true.)

If you're newly come to the works of the earlier fantasists, and they're not what you've come to expect of fantasy, give them a chance. In one respect you may find them dry and unimaginative, lacking in the clever novelties that distinguish modern fantasies from each other. At the same time, they draw upon a rich cultural continuity which too many readers know only at second or third hand. You may also find the characters somewhat shallow: They don't spend much time emoting, overcoming angst or childhood traumas, or achieving triumph through self-knowledge. Is this bad? I'm inclined to acknowledge the fact that conventions change, and enjoy the older conventions, at least as a change of pace.


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Dani Zweig