Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice
Dust-jacket of Jurgen
|Author||James Branch Cabell|
|Series||Biography of the Life of Manuel|
|Publisher||Robert M. McBride|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
|Pages||ix, 368 pp|
|Followed by||The Line of Love|
Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice is a 1919 fantasy book by James Branch Cabell – the eighth among some fifty-two books written by this author – which gained fame (or notoriety) shortly after its publication. It is a humorous romp through a mediaeval cosmos, including a send-up of Arthurian legend and excursions to heaven and hell as in The Divine Comedy. Cabell's work is recognized as a landmark in the creation of the comic fantasy novel, influencing Terry Prachett and many others.
The book and its reception
The eponymous hero, who considers himself a "monstrous clever fellow", embarks on a journey through ever more fantastic realms in a search for a parodized version of the chivalrous courtly love. Everywhere he goes, he meets the acquaintance of rather eccentric knights and damsels, in an acerbic satire of contemporary America. Jurgen gets the attention of the Lady of the Lake, Queen Guinevere, and even the Devil's wife.
The novel became more widely known after the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to bring a prosecution for obscenity, and the printing plates were seized on January 4, 1920. The case went on for two years before Cabell and his publisher, Robert M. McBride, won: the "indecencies" were double entendres that also had a perfectly decent interpretation, though it appeared that what had actually offended the prosecution most was the work's mocking expression of philosophy, including a jest about the nature of papal infallibility.
Cabell took an author's revenge: the revised edition of 1926 included a previously "lost" passage in which the hero is placed on trial by the Philistines, with a large dung-beetle as the chief prosecutor. He also wrote a short book, Taboo, in which he thanks John H. Sumner and the Society for Suppression of Vice for generating the publicity that gave his career a boost.
Aleister Crowley dubbed Jurgen one of the "epoch-making masterpieces of philosophy" in 1929, even though the book contains a parody of Crowley's Gnostic Mass. Crowley's famous phrase from The Book of the Law, "There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt" – or its source, Rabelais's "there was but this one clause to be observed, Do What Thou Wilt – is parodied as "There is no law in Cocaigne save, Do that which seems good to you."
Robert A. Heinlein consciously patterned his best-known novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, after Jurgen, and the title and themes of his 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice also show Cabell's influence, as do those of his first novel, the 1938 For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs.
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 70.