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 fantasy book by James Branch Cabell, the eighth among his fifty-two books, which gained fame (or notoriety) shortly after its publication in 1919. It is a humorous romp through a medieval 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 Pratchett 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 search of a parodized version of courtly love. Everywhere he goes he meets eccentric knights and damsels, in an acerbic satire of contemporary America. Jurgen gains 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. 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. They argued that the "indecencies" were double entendres that also had perfectly decent interpretations, 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 thanked John H. Sumner and the Society for the Suppression of Vice for generating the publicity that gave his career a boost.
Writing in the Pacific Review in 1921, Vernon Louis Parrington praised Jurgen, and described Cabell as "one of the greatest masters of English prose". Aleister Crowley called 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."
Reviewing Cabell's later novel, Hamlet Had An Uncle, Basil Davenport called Jurgen "a masterpiece".
Robert A. Heinlein consciously patterned his best-known novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, after Jurgen, and Cabell's influence is also evident in the titles and themes of at least two other novels by Heinlein: his long-unpublished first novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (written 1938, published 2003), and his late work Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984).
- Ash, Russell (2010). It Just Slipped Out... headline. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-7553-6086-4.
- Fred C. Hobson, The Silencing of Emily Mullen and Other Essays, LSU Press, 2005 ISBN 0807130974 (p. 140).
- The Confessions of Aleister Crowley
- Thelema Lodge Calendar for June 1998 e.v
- Liber AL, III:60
- Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Everyman's Library. ISBN 978-0-679-43137-4
- Jurgen, ch. XXII
- "In the Lineage of "Jurgen"" by Basil Davenport (Review of Hamlet Had an Uncle, by James Branch Cabell) The Saturday Review, January 27, 1940, p. 11
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 70.