'The Somewhat Freudian Gug'

Paul Carrick's Illustration of a Gug from Lovecraft's Dreamlands

The somewhat Freudian Gug with its vertical mouth is a denizen of Lovecraft’s ‘Dreamlands.’ I find the name resonant of the biblical titans Gog and Magog- the Gug’s gigantic size heightening this association.

‘The Gugs, hairy and gigantic, once reared stone circles in that wood and made strange sacrifices to the Other Gods and the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, until one night an abomination of theirs reached the ears of earth’s gods and they were banished to caverns below. Only a great trap door of stone with an iron ring connects the abyss of the earth-ghouls with the enchanted wood, and this the Gugs are afraid to open because of a curse. That a mortal dreamer could traverse their cavern realm and leave by that door is inconceivable; for mortal dreamers were their former food, and they have legends of the toothsomeness of such dreamers even though banishment has restricted their diet to the ghasts, those repulsive beings which die in the light, and which live in the vaults of Zin and leap on long hind legs like kangaroos…

…It was a paw, fully two feet and a half across, and equipped with formidable talons. After it came another paw, and after that a great black-furred arm to which both of the paws were attached by short forearms. Then two pink eyes shone, and the head of the awakened Gug sentry, large as a barrel, wabbled into view. The eyes jutted two inches from each side, shaded by bony protuberances overgrown with coarse hairs. But the head was chiefly terrible because of the mouth. That mouth had great yellow fangs and ran from the top to the bottom of the head, opening vertically instead of horizontally’.

‘Dwellers In The City Of Eternity’

I am struck by Bahá’u’lláh’s use of city metaphors to describe spiritual states, or planes of existence in the following verses from the ‘The Hidden Words’

‘O YE THAT PRIDE YOURSELVES ON MORTAL RICHES! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendor of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth’!

‘O MY FRIENDS! Call ye to mind that covenant ye have entered into with Me upon Mount Paran, situate within the hallowed precincts of Zaman. I have taken to witness the concourse on high and the dwellers in the city of eternity, yet now none do I find faithful unto the covenant. Of a certainty pride and rebellion have effaced it from the hearts, in such wise that no trace thereof remaineth. Yet knowing this, I waited and disclosed it not’.

O SON OF MY HANDMAID! Quaff from the tongue of the merciful the stream of divine mystery, and behold from the dayspring of divine utterance the unveiled splendor of the daystar of wisdom. Sow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of the heart, and water them with the waters of certitude, that the hyacinths of knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green from the holy city of the heart.

‘O COMRADES! The gates that open on the Placeless stand wide and the habitation of the loved one is adorned with the lovers’ blood, yet all but a few remain bereft of this celestial city, and even of these few, none but the smallest handful hath been found with a pure heart and sanctified spirit’.

‘O DWELLERS IN THE CITY OF LOVE! Mortal blasts have beset the everlasting candle, and the beauty of the celestial Youth is veiled in the darkness of dust. The chief of the monarchs of love is wronged by the people of tyranny and the dove of holiness lies prisoned in the talons of owls. The dwellers in the pavilion of glory and the celestial concourse bewail and lament, while ye repose in the realm of negligence, and esteem yourselves as of the true friends. How vain are your imaginings’!

‘O YE THAT ARE FOOLISH, YET HAVE A NAME TO BE WISE! Wherefore do ye wear the guise of shepherds, when inwardly ye have become wolves, intent upon My flock? Ye are even as the star, which riseth ere the dawn, and which, though it seem radiant and luminous, leadeth the wayfarers of My city astray into the paths of perdition’.

Source: The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh

Lyonesse and ‘The Foundered Town’ in Romance and Fantasy of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Lyonesse--Down-A-Down-Derry---Dorothy P. Lathrop

‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town…’

‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922)

Arthurian legend tells of the sunken land of Lyonesse. One of the earliest literary references to Lyonesse appears in the 15th Century Arthurian tale ‘Le Morte Darthur’ by Sir Thomas Malory. In Malory’s version of the legend Lyonesse is imagined to have once formed a land bridge between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles- the birthplace of the hero Tristan. During the 19th and early 20th Century as the Arthurian legend enjoyed a revival the legend of Lyonesse was directly referenced by in a number of works by writers of romantic and fantastic fiction. These works include ‘Idylls of the King’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1856-1885), ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) and ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922). In addition although not directly referenced the image of a Lyonesse-like ‘foundered town’ or sunken city appears in a number of other works of this period  ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ by Lord Dunsany (1915) and also in ‘What the Moon Brings’ (1923) ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927)  and ‘The Call of Cthulu’  (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft.

In the ‘Idylls of the King’ (1856-1885) Alfred, Lord Tennyson re-imagines the Arthurian legend in a series of twelve narrative poems picturing Lyonesse as  a ‘land of old’ brought up from the ‘abyss’ and returning to the depths from whence it came.

‘Then rose the King and moved his host by night

And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,

Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse–

A land of old upheaven from the abyss

By fire, to sink into the abyss again;

Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,

And the long mountains ended in a coast

Of ever-shifting sand, and far away

The phantom circle of a moaning sea’.

There seems to be an air of divine judgement in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse with an image of the land emerging from fire and falling back into the depths of the earth. This image brings to mind the destruction by fire and brimstone of the infamous biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are also echoes of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) in Tennyson’s description of the destruction of Lyonesse, note the corresponding imagery of abyss, mountains and sea in this section of Milton’s poem.

‘They  view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss

  Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,

  Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes

  And surging waves, as Mountains to assault

  Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole’.

The poet also evokes a feeling of great antiquity with the sunken land descending ‘Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt’. Even the ‘moaning sea’ seems to lament its descent beneath the waves.

Tristram of Lyonesse by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882) is a lengthy narrative poem which ends in tragedy with the hero slain and his lover dying of a broken heart. The poem depicts Lyonesse as the watery grave of the hero Tristram and his lover Iseult.

‘For the strong sea hath swallowed wall and tower,
And where their limbs were laid in woful hour
For many a fathom gleams and moves and moans
The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones
In the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine:
Nor where they sleep shall moon or sunlight shine
Nor man look down for ever: none shall say,
Here once, or here, Tristram and Iseult lay:
But peace they have that none may gain who live.
And rest about them that no love can give,
And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea’.

The submerging of Lyonesse and the dead lover’s tomb beneath ‘The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones’ is arguably a metaphor for the eternal peace of death- the ‘peace they have that none may gain who live’. At the same time there is a sense of desecration created by the reference to ‘the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine’ suggesting a certain unhallowed quality to their burial place beneath the’ light and sound and darkness of the sea.’

Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’ (1915) makes no direct reference to Lyonesse but uses the metaphor of drowned cities to show the futility of trying to use art to create a surrogate immortality, picturing the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh’-

‘All we who write put me in mind of sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships.

When we break up under the heavy years and go down into eternity with all that is ours our thoughts like small lost rafts float on awhile upon Oblivion’s sea. They will not carry much over those tides, our names and a phrase or two and little else.

They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.

See now Oblivion shimmering all around us, its very tranquility deadlier than tempest. How little all our keels have troubled it. Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale; and, like a whale, feeds on the littlest things–small tunes and little unskilled songs of the olden, golden evenings–and anon turneth whale-like to overthrow whole ships.

See now the wreckage of Babylon floating idly, and something there that once was Nineveh; already their kings and queens are in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries that hide the sodden bulk of sunken Tyre and make a darkness round Persepolis.

For the rest I dimly see the forms of foundered ships on the sea-floor strewn with crowns.

Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.

There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen’.

Note how Dunsany pictures oblivion as the sea ’shimmering all around us’ and imagines that ‘Time in its deeps swims like a monstrous whale.’  The great civilisations of Tyre and Persepolis with all their glory are now submerged by time ‘ in the deeps among the weedy masses of old centuries.’

‘Sunk Lyonesse’ by Walter de la Mare (1922) mirrors Swinburne’s vision of Lyonesse as a watery grave with its carver Caged in his stone-ribbed side.’

‘In sea-cold Lyonesse,
When the Sabbath eve shafts down
On the roofs, walls, belfries
Of the foundered town,
The Nereids pluck their lyres
Where the green translucency beats,
And with motionless eyes at gaze
Make ministrely in the streets.

And the ocean water stirs
In salt-worn casement and porch.
Plies the blunt-nosed fish
With fire in his skull for torch.
And the ringing wires resound;
And the unearthly lovely weep,
In lament of the music they make
In the sullen courts of sleep:
Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’.

De la Mare’s description of Lyonesse relies on the juxtaposition of opposites for its effect.  The ‘Sabbath eve’ with its silent Christian belfries contrasts with the image of the pagan Nereids or sea nymphs of classical mythology who ‘pluck their lyres.’ The rhythm of the ‘green translucency beat’ of the sea contrasts with the ‘motionless eye’ of the Nerieds. The ‘ocean water’ is an elemental contrast with ‘the blunt-nosed fish/With fire in his skull.’  The image of ‘marble flowers’ is a paradoxical juxtaposition of organic with inorganic matter. There is a wavelike rhythm in this repetitious juxtaposition which heightens the impression of submergence beneath the sea.  In ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ the ‘foundered town’ can be seen as a metaphor for time obscuring the works of the artist in similar terms to Lord Dunsany in ‘The Raft-Builders’ in ‘Fifty-one Tales’. The final lines of the poem depict the irony of human creation outliving their creator.

‘Whose marble flowers bloom for aye:
And – lapped by the moon-guiled tide –
Mock their carver with heart of stone,
Caged in his stone-ribbed side’

In ‘What the Moon Brings’ by H. P. Lovecraft (1923) the ‘foundered town’ makes another appearance but unlike ‘Sunk Lyonesse’ where it is the eternal aspects of death which are considered Lovecraft dwells on the ephemeral aspects of decay and the drowned city pictured is a kind of shallow grave of’ all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…’

‘Upon that sea the hateful moon shone, and over its unvocal waves weird perfumes breeded. And as I saw therein the lotos-faces vanish, I longed for nets that I might capture them and learn from them the secrets which the moon had brought upon the night. But when that moon went over to the west and the still tide ebbed from the sullen shore, I saw in that light old spires that the waves almost uncovered, and white columns gay with festoons of green seaweed. And knowing that to this sunken place all the dead had come, I trembled and did not wish again to speak with the lotos-faces…

…So I watched the tide go out under that sinking moon, and saw gleaming the spires, the towers, and the roofs of that dead, dripping city. And as I watched, my nostrils tried to close against the perfume-conquering stench of the world’s dead; for truly, in this unplaced and forgotten spot had all the flesh of the churchyards gathered for puffy sea-worms to gnaw and glut upon…

…Nor had my flesh trembled without cause, for when I raised my eyes I saw that the waters had ebbed very low, shewing much of the vast reef whose rim I had seen before. And when I saw that the reef was but the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon whose monstrous forehead now shown in the dim moonlight and whose vile hooves must paw the hellish ooze miles below, I shrieked and shrieked lest the hidden face rise above the waters, and lest the hidden eyes look at me after the slinking away of that leering and treacherous yellow moon.

And to escape this relentless thing I plunged gladly and unhesitantly into the stinking shallows where amidst weedy walls and sunken streets fat sea-worms feast upon the world’s dead’.

In contrast to the melancholic mood of De la Mare where ‘the unearthly lovely weep,/In lament of the music they make ‘ the mood of ‘What the Moon Brings’ is one of horror where low tide exposes  ‘dead dripping city’ on a reef which is ‘the black basalt crown of a shocking eikon’.

There are further echoes of de la Mare’s Lyonesse in Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (1927) which has references to submerged ‘ruins‘walls  ‘spires’ and ‘phosphorescent fish.’

‘On the fifth day the sailors were nervous, but the captain apologized for their fears, saying that the ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory, and that when the water was clear one could see so many moving shadows in that deep place that simple folk disliked it. He admitted, moreover, that many ships had been lost in that part of the sea; having been hailed when quite close to it, but never seen again.

That night the moon was very bright, and one could see a great way down in the water. There was so little wind that the ship could not move much, and the ocean was very calm. Looking over the rail Carter saw many fathoms deep the dome of the great temple, and in front of it an avenue of unnatural sphinxes leading to what was once a public square. Dolphins sported merrily in and out of the ruins, and porpoises revelled clumsily here and there, sometimes coming to the surface and leaping clear out of the sea. As the ship drifted on a little the floor of the ocean rose in hills, and one could clearly mark the lines of ancient climbing streets and the washed-down walls of myriad little houses.

Then the suburbs appeared, and finally a great lone building on a hill, of simpler architecture than the other structures, and in much better repair. It was dark and low and covered four sides of a square, with a tower at each corner, a paved court in the centre, and small curious round windows all over it. Probably it was of basalt, though weeds draped the greater part; and such was its lonely and impressive place on that far hill that it may have been a temple or a monastery. Some phosphorescent fish inside it gave the small round windows an aspect of shining, and Carter did not blame the sailors much for their fears. Then by the watery moonlight he noticed an odd high monolith in the middle of that central court, and saw that something was tied to it. And when after getting a telescope from the captain’s cabin he saw that that bound thing was a sailor in the silk robes of Oriab, head downward and without any eyes, he was glad that a rising breeze soon took the ship ahead to more healthy parts of the sea’.

In the final work considered  ‘The Call of Cthulu’ (1928) Lovecraft describes ‘ the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters’  which unlike the drowned city in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ is not content to accept its doom (or divine judgement) but whose dread inhabitant Cthulu threatens  to ‘rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway’.

‘They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him’.

One interpretation of ‘R’lyeh under the waters’ is as a metaphor for the unconscious mind and the irrational- with the rise of Cthulu  as a kind of Freudian tsunami threatening  to submerge the dry land of the rational mind. (The image can also be understood in the context of the theme of dystheism which permeates Lovecraft’s works).

‘Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47°9′, W. Longitude l23°43′, come upon a coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror–the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration..’

Although R’lyeh is sunken it is not even in a clear state of being submerged. It is landscape of paradoxes   a ‘coastline of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry’ i.e. not land not sea not organic (‘weedy’) or a construction (‘cyclopean masonry’) but a mixture of all of these elements. The inhabitants did not fly from the stars but ‘seeped down’ in manner suggestive of bodily fluids. There is a sense of the ‘foundered town’ as a psycho-geography, a mind plagued by Freudian nightmares of a phallic ‘great stone pillar sticking out of the sea’ which ‘sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive.’


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Apollonius of Tyana in Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘Tablet of Wisdom’

Illustration depicting Alexander the Great and the seven philosophers (Aristotle, Apollonius of Tyana, Socrates, Plato, Thales, Porphyry, and Hermes). From p.729 of MS Browne 1434, the Khamsa of Nizami (Persian, 1540). This scene comes from the fifth part of the Khamsa, ‘The Book of Alexander’.

I am intrigued by Bahá’u’lláh’s appreciation of the life and works of Bálinus in the Lawh-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom). Bálinus (or Apollonius of Tyana) was a first century A.D. Neopythagorean philosopher and familiar figure in classical Islamic thought.

I will also mention for thee the invocation voiced by Bálinus who was familiar with the theories put forward by the Father of Philosophy regarding the mysteries of creation as given in his chrysolite tablets, that everyone may be fully assured of the things We have elucidated for thee in this manifest Tablet, which, if pressed with the hand of fairness and knowledge, will yield the spirit of life for the quickening of all created things. Great is the blessedness of him who swimmeth in this ocean and celebrateth the praise of his Lord, the Gracious, the Best-Beloved. Indeed the breezes of divine revelation are diffused from the verses of thy Lord in such wise that no one can dispute its truth, except those who are bereft of hearing, of vision, of understanding and of every human faculty. Verily thy Lord beareth witness unto this, yet the people understand not.

This man hath said: ‘I am Bálinus, the wise one, the performer of wonders, the producer of talismans.’ He surpassed everyone else in the diffusion of arts and sciences and soared unto the loftiest heights of humility and supplication. Give ear unto that which he hath said, entreating the All-Possessing, the Most Exalted: ‘I stand in the presence of my Lord, extolling His gifts and bounties and praising Him with that wherewith He praiseth His Own Self, that I may become a source of blessing and guidance unto such men as acknowledge my words.’ And further he saith: ‘O Lord! Thou art God and no God is there but Thee. Thou art the Creator and no creator is there except Thee. Assist me by Thy grace and strengthen me. My heart is seized with alarm, my limbs tremble, I have lost my reason and my mind hath failed me. Bestow upon me strength and enable my tongue to speak forth with wisdom.’ And still further he saith: ‘Thou art in truth the Knowing, the Wise, the Powerful, the Compassionate.’ It was this man of wisdom who became informed of the mysteries of creation and discerned the subtleties which lie enshrined in the Hermetic writings.

LAWḤ-I-HIKMAT (Tablet of Wisdom)

(According to the footnotes of the  U.S.  Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988 edition when referring to the Greek philosophers Bahá’u’lláh quotes verbatim from the works of historians as Abu’l-Fatḥ-i-Sháhristání (1076–1153 A.D.) and Imádu’d-Dín Abu’l-Fidá (1273–1331 A.D.)

The ‘Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ describes the historical Apollonius of Tyana in the following terms-

Our most detailed account of a Neopythagorean living a life inspired by Pythagoras is Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was active in the second half of the first century CE and died in 97; Philostratus’ life, which was written over a century later at the request of the empress Julia Domna and completed after her death in 217 CE, is more novel than sober biography. Some have even wondered if Apollonius’ Pythagoreanism is largely the creation of Philostratus, but there is evidence that Apollonius wrote a life of Pythagoras used by Iamblichus (VP 254) and Porphyry (Burkert 1972, 100), and the fragment of his treatise On Sacrifices has clear connections to Neopythagorean philosophy (Kahn 2001, 143–145). According to Philostratus, Apollonius identified his wisdom as that of Pythagoras, who taught him the proper way to worship the gods, to wear linen rather than wool, to wear his hair long, and to eat no animal food (I 32).

Like Pythagoras, Apollonius journeys to consult the wise men of the east and learns from the Brahmins in India that the doctrine of transmigration, which Apollonius inherited from Pythagoras, originated in India and was handed on to the Egyptians from whom Pythagoras derived it (III 19). Philostratus (I 2) emphasizes that Apollonius was not a magician, thus trying to free him from the more disreputable connotations of Pythagorean practices associated with figures such as Anaxilaus and Vatinius (see above). Nonetheless, Philostratus’ life does recount a number of Apollonius’ miracles, such as the raising of a girl from the dead (IV 45).

These miracles made Apollonius into a pagan counterpart to Christ. The emperor Alexander Severus (222–235 CE) worshipped Apollonius alongside Christ, Abraham and Orpheus (Hist. Aug., Vita Alex. Sev. 29.2)’.

Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoreanism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/pythagoreanism/>.

‘This Is An Existence Which Knoweth No Decay’


The Lawh-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom) by Bahá’u’lláh includes some fascinating teachings about the nature of existence. My personal understanding of the teachings is as follows-

  • God and creation have always existed and will always exist but the exact nature of the relationship is a mystery to human intelligence-

As regards thine assertions about the beginning of creation, this is a matter on which conceptions vary by reason of the divergences in men’s thoughts and opinions. Wert thou to assert that it hath ever existed and shall continue to exist, it would be true; or wert thou to affirm the same concept as is mentioned in the sacred Scriptures, no doubt would there be about it, for it hath been revealed by God, the Lord of the worlds. Indeed He was a hidden treasure. This is a station that can never be described nor even alluded to. And in the station of ‘I did wish to make Myself known’, God was, and His creation had ever existed beneath His shelter from the beginning that hath no beginning, apart from its being preceded by a Firstness which cannot be regarded as firstness and originated by a Cause inscrutable even unto all men of learning.

  • The Word or Command of God transcends all physical form-

Know thou, moreover, that the Word of God—exalted be His glory—is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive, for it is sanctified from any property or substance. It transcendeth the limitations of known elements and is exalted above all the essential and recognized substances. It became manifest without any syllable or sound and is none but the Command of God which pervadeth all created things. It hath never been withheld from the world of being. It is God’s all-pervasive grace, from which all grace doth emanate. It is an entity far removed above all that hath been and shall be.

  • Creation is being ‘being renewed and regenerated at all times’-

Every thing must needs have an origin and every building a builder. Verily, the Word of God is the Cause which hath preceded the contingent world—a world which is adorned with the splendours of the Ancient of Days, yet is being renewed and regenerated at all times. Immeasurably exalted is the God of Wisdom Who hath raised this sublime structure.

  • Observation of creation will reveal what God has ‘inscribed therein’-

Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.

  • The diversity of the causes of the natural world are are ‘signs for men of discernment’ as they reveal something of the will of God-

Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe.

  • To worship the creation and to reject the creator shows a lack of ‘knowledge and wisdom’-

those who have rejected God and firmly cling to Nature as it is in itself are, verily, bereft of knowledge and wisdom. They are truly of them that are far astray. They have failed to attain the lofty summit and have fallen short of the ultimate purpose; therefore their eyes were shut and their thoughts differed, while the leaders among them have believed in God and in His invincible sovereignty. Unto this beareth witness thy Lord, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.

'Jurgen: A Comedy Of (Cosmic) Justice'

Illustration for ‘Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice’ by Frank Cheyne Papé (1878-1972)

In my opinion ‘Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice’ (1919) by James Branch Cabell is one of the seminal ironic fantasy novels of the early Twentieth Century. In many ways it is a vehicle for the humorous discussion of the author’s philosophy- including his views on religious belief. The work could be described as a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ for the sceptical with the hero Jurgen ’a monstrous clever fellow’  journeying through fantastic realms and expressing his disbelief in all the worldviews on offer. This is spite of the mischievous disclaimer at the beginning of the work that

“Equally in reading hereinafter will the judicious waive all allegorical interpretation, if merely because the suggestions hitherto advanced are inconveniently various…”

In his collection of essays ‘Beyond Life’ (1919) Cabell described his viewpoint in the following terms-

“I prefer to take it that we are components of an unfinished world, and that we are but seething atoms which ferment towards its making, if merely because Man as he now exists can hardly be the finished product of any Creator whom one could very heartily revere. We are being made into something quite unpredictable, I imagine: and through the purging and the smelting, we are sustained by our instinctive knowledge that we are being made into something better. For this we know, quite incommunicably, and yet as surely as we know that we will to have it thus.

And it is this will that stirs in us to have the creatures of earth and the affairs of earth, not as they are, but “as they ought to be”, which we call romance. But when we note how visibly it sways all life we perceive that we are talking about God”.

(I find this a significantly ambiguous statement on Cabell’s part- is he suggesting that what we ‘perceive’ as God is in reality ‘romance’ or is he alternately suggesting that ‘romance’ is  just another name for an ineffable God)?

In order to imaginatively discuss ideas such as the existence of God, the afterlife, and the nature of religious belief Cabell employs an eclectic pantheon of gods and demi-gods that interact with the eponymous hero in the Homeric manner. This pantheon includes Persian, Russian, Classical and Norse elements. The Persian fertility goddess Anaitis (or Anahita) appears as one of Jurgen’s lovers- the hero enjoys ‘much curious pleasure’ with her in the kingdom of ‘Cocaigne’. ‘Mother Sereda’ a goddess based on Russian folklore launches Jurgen on his quest through the realms of Poictesme. Jurgen revisits his lost youth in ‘The Garden between Dawn and Sunrise’- a realm with distinctly Arcadian overtones. Ædhumla, the cow of the first created being of Norse Mythology also makes an appearance. Cabell categorises these diverse supernatural beings inhabiting Poictesme as ‘Léshy’ a term borrowed from Russian folklore-

“He made a song of this, in praise of the Léshy and their Days, but more especially in praise of the might of Mother Sereda and of the ruins that have fallen on Wednesday. To Chetverg and Utornik and Subbota he gave their due. Pyatinka and Nedelka also did Jurgen commend for such demolishments as have enregistered their names in the calendar of saints, no less. Ah, but there was none like Mother Sereda: hers was the centre of that power which is the Léshy’s. The others did but nibble at temporal things, like furtive mice: she devastated, like a sandstorm, so that there were many dustheaps where Mother Sereda had passed, but nothing else”.

Cabell also appears to poke fun at Aleister Crowley’s tantric rites in this description of the ritual goings-on in the aptly named kingdom of ‘Cocaigne’

Said the hooded man behind Jurgen: “So be it! but as you are, so once was I.”

Anaïtis answered: “There is no law in Cocaigne save, Do that which seems good to you.”

He laughed, and turned to Anaïtis: now that the candles were behind him, she was standing in his shadow. “Well, well! but you are a little old-fashioned, with all these equivocal mummeries. And I did not know that civilized persons any longer retained sufficient credulity to wring a thrill from god-baiting. Still, women must be humored, bless them! and at last, I take it, we have quite fairly fulfilled the ceremonial requisite to the pursuit of curious pleasures.”

An amusing aspect of Cabell’s pantheon is that the power that appears to control the lesser gods is the ‘Master Philologist’ presumably because he names and categorises the pantheon.

You will discover very soon, sir, that actions speak louder than words.”

“I believe that is so,” said the Master Philologist, still blinking, “just as the Jewish mob spoke louder than He Whom they crucified. But the Word endures.”

“You are a quibbler!”

“You are my guest. So I advise you, in pure friendliness, not to impugn the power of my words.”

(The ‘Master Philologist’ may also be a humorous reference to Sir James George Frazer author of the anthropological work ‘The Golden Bough’ who categorised myths and legends and theorised that human belief progressed through three stages- a belief in magic, religious beliefs and then finally into a modern scientific worldview).

It is notable that Cabell depicts a ‘Master Philologist’ rather than a ‘Master Philosopher’ as a demi-god- is this because a philosopher uses words to explain reality whereas a philologist is essentially concerned with words alone? This theme of words obscuring reality rather than illuminating it is a thread that runs through the novel as a whole- note for example the following passage of dialogue between the protagonist and the Bishop of Merion.

“Now the Bishop of Merion passed him, coming from celebration of the early mass.”My Lord Bishop,” says Jurgen, simply, “can you tell me the truth about this Christ?”

“Why, indeed, Messire de Logreus,” replied the Bishop, “one cannot but sympathize with Pilate in thinking that the truth about Him is very hard to get at, even nowadays. Was He Melchisedek, or Shem, or Adam? or was He verily the Logos? and in that event, what sort of a something was the Logos? Granted He was a god, were the Arians or the Sabellians in the right? had He existed always, co-substantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, or was He a creation of the Father, a kind of Israelitic Zagreus? Was He the husband of Acharamoth, that degraded Sophia, as the Valentinians aver? or the son of Pantherus, as say the Jews? or Kalakau, as contends Basilidês? or was it, as the Docetês taught, only a tinted cloud in the shape of a man that went from Jordan to Golgotha? Or were the Merinthians right? These are a few of the questions, Messire de Logreus, which naturally arise. And not all of them are to be settled out of hand.”

Despite his exotic pantheon, as is indicated in the previous passage Cabell’s principal philosophical engagement is with Christian theology and the established church. At the beginning of the tale Jurgen berates a monk for his ingratitude to the Prince of Darkness for his hard labour-

“None the less,” observes Jurgen, “it does not behoove God-fearing persons to speak with disrespect of the divinely appointed Prince of Darkness. To your further confusion, consider this monarch’s industry! day and night you may detect him toiling at the task Heaven set him. That is a thing can be said of few communicants and of no monks. Think, too, of his fine artistry, as evidenced in all the perilous and lovely snares of this world, which it is your business to combat, and mine to lend money upon. Why, but for him we would both be vocationless! Then, too, consider his philanthropy! and deliberate how insufferable would be our case if you and I, and all our fellow parishioners, were to-day hobnobbing with other beasts in the Garden…”

This use of ironic theological conceits is the defining style of Jurgen. For example Cabell pictures the devils of Hell attending church and celebrating Christmas

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine”.

Another one of the many ironies of Cabell’s vision of Hell is that the lesser devils express surprise that Jurgen does not want to be punished like all the other damned souls-

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

A further humorous aspect of the nature of hell in ‘Jurgen’ is this description of infernal politics

“For with the devils Jurgen got on garrulously. The religion of Hell is patriotism, and the government is an enlightened democracy. This contented the devils, and Jurgen had learned long ago never to fall out with either of these codes, without which, as the devils were fond of observing, Hell would not be what it is”.

In ‘Jurgen’ heaven and hell are portrayed as the psychological constructs of the human imagination or perhaps the afterlife defined by human belief; both states of being given concrete form by the obliging deity ‘Koschei the Deathless.’

“But wherefore is this place called the Hell of my fathers?”

“Because your forefathers builded it in dreams,” they told him, “out of the pride which led them to believe that what they did was of sufficient importance to merit punishment. Or so at least we have heard: but if you want the truth of the matter you must go to our Grandfather at Barathum.”

“I shall go to him, then. And do my own grandfathers, and all the forefathers that I had in the old time, inhabit this gray place?”

“All such as are born with what they call a conscience come hither,” the devils said. “Do you think you could persuade them to go elsewhere? For in that event, we would be deeply obliged to you. Their self-conceit is pitiful: but it is also a nuisance, because it prevents our getting any rest.”

Likewise the ‘God of Jurgen’s grandmother’ is described in the conventional terms of a pious old lady of the time-

“Jurgen then went unhindered to where the God of Jurgen’s grandmother sat upon a throne, beside a sea of crystal. A rainbow, made high and narrow like a window frame, so as to fit the throne, formed an arch-way in which He sat: at His feet burned seven lamps, and four remarkable winged creatures sat there chaunting softly, “Glory and honor and thanks to Him Who liveth forever!” In one hand of the God was a sceptre, and in the other a large book with seven red spots on it.

There were twelve smaller thrones, without rainbows, upon each side of the God of Jurgen’s grandmother, in two semi-circles: upon these inferior thrones sat benignant-looking elderly angels, with long white hair, all crowned, and clothed in white robes, and having a harp in one hand, and in the other a gold flask, about pint size. And everywhere fluttered and glittered the multicolored wings of seraphs and cherubs, like magnified paroquets, as they went softly and gaily about the golden haze that brooded over Heaven, to a continuous sound of hushed organ music and a remote and undistinguishable singing.”

I think is important to note here that whilst striking a sceptical note and highly critical of the established church and hypocritical believers there are a number of passages in the novel which imply a deep respect for Christ, his apostles and his teachings. The conversation between St. Peter (‘an Apostle and a gentleman’) and Jurgen in heaven is a good example of this viewpoint.

“Well, it is true, St. Peter, that you founded the Church—”

“Now, there you go again! That is what those patronizing seraphim and those impish cherubs are always telling us. You see, we Twelve sit together in Heaven, each on his white throne: and we behold everything that happens on Earth. Now from our station there has been no ignoring the growth and doings of what you might loosely call Christianity. And sometimes that which we see makes us very uncomfortable, Jurgen. Especially as just then some cherub is sure to flutter by, in a broad grin, and chuckle, ‘But you started it.’ And we did; I cannot deny that in a way we did. Yet really we never anticipated anything of this sort, and it is not fair to tease us about it.”

“Indeed, St. Peter, now I think of it, you ought to be held responsible for very little that has been said or done in the shadow of a steeple. For as I remember it, you Twelve attempted to convert a world to the teachings of Jesus: and good intentions ought to be respected, however drolly they may turn out.”

It was apparent this sympathy was grateful to the old Saint, for he was moved to a more confidential tone. Meditatively he stroked his long white beard, then said with indignation: “If only they would not claim sib with us we could stand it: but as it is, for centuries we have felt like fools. It is particularly embarrassing for me, of course, being on the wicket; for to cap it all, Jurgen, the little wretches die, and come to Heaven impudent as sparrows, and expect me to let them in! From their thumbscrewings, and their auto-da-fés, and from their massacres, and patriotic sermons, and holy wars, and from every manner of abomination, they come to me, smirking. And millions upon millions of them, Jurgen! There is no form of cruelty or folly that has not come to me for praise, and no sort of criminal idiot who has not claimed fellowship with me, who was an Apostle and a gentleman. Why, Jurgen, you may not believe it, but there was an eminent bishop came to me only last week in the expectation that I was going to admit him,—and I with the full record of his work for temperance, all fairly written out and in my hand!”

Despite his scepticism Jurgen is far too egotistical to accept that his life has no meaning (reflecting Cabell’s views on the human condition). Note his response to a notice he finds in the ‘Garden between Dawn and Sunrise’

“Read me!” was written on the signboard: “read me, and judge if you understand! So you stopped in your journey because I called, scenting something unusual, something droll. Thus, although I am nothing, and even less, there is no one that sees me but lingers here. Stranger, I am a law of the universe. Stranger, render the law what is due the law!”

Jurgen felt cheated. “A very foolish signboard, indeed! for how can it be ‘a law of the universe’, when there is no meaning to it!” says Jurgen. “Why, for any law to be meaningless would not be fair.”

In a probable reference to the ‘Livre d’Artus’ Jurgen also meets Merlin in the form of a brown man with ‘curious feet’ who imparts him with knowledge of the futility of human existence- but he yet again is too vain to accept the views of  ‘a delusion or a god or a degraded Realist’.

…”Facts! sanity! and reason!” Jurgen raged: “why, but what nonsense you are talking! Were there a bit of truth in your silly puppetry this world of time and space and consciousness would be a bubble, a bubble which contained the sun and moon and the high stars, and still was but a bubble in fermenting swill! I must go cleanse my mind of all this foulness. You would have me believe that men, that all men who have ever lived or shall ever live hereafter, that even I am of no importance! Why, there would be no justice in any such arrangement, no justice anywhere!”…

…”That vexed you, did it not? It vexes me at times, even me, who under Koshchei’s will alone am changeless….”.

…”Make answer, you who chatter about justice! how if I slew you now,” says the brown man,—”I being what I am?”

“Slay me, then!” says Jurgen, with shut eyes, for he did not at all like the appearance of things. “Yes, you can kill me if you choose, but it is beyond your power to make me believe that there is no justice anywhere, and that I am unimportant. For I would have you know I am a monstrous clever fellow. As for you, you are either a delusion or a god or a degraded Realist. But whatever you are, you have lied to me, and I know that you have lied, and I will not believe in the insignificance of Jurgen.”

A curious figure in ‘Jurgen’ is that of ‘Koshchei the Deathless’. The name is taken from Russian folklore- originally an ancient Slavonic god now reduced to an evil spirit. However the Koschei of Cabell although initially mistaken by Jurgen for Satan (‘the black gentleman’) appears instead as the vague, put-upon but benign manager of all existence. Koschei is perhaps a humorous depiction of’ the Platonic Demiurge.  In a scene reminiscent of the dénouement of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ Jurgen finds Koschei in ‘the last part of the cave.’

So Jurgen went on down the aisle between the rows of benches wherefrom Thragnar’s warriors had glared at Jurgen when he was last in this part of the cave. At the end of the aisle was a wooden door painted white. It was marked, in large black letters, “Office of the Manager—Keep Out.” So Jurgen opened this door”.

Significantly Koschei is the final step of Jurgen’s quest but can give no ultimate answers.

“I do not know, sir. But I suspect that my quest is ended, and that you are Koshchei the Deathless.”

The black gentleman nodded. “Something of the sort. Koshchei, or Ardnari, or Ptha, or Jaldalaoth, or Abraxas,—it is all one what I may be called hereabouts. My real name you never heard: no man has ever heard my name. So that matter we need hardly go into.”

“Precisely, Prince. Well, but it is a long way that I have traveled roundabout, to win to you who made things as they are. And it is eager I am to learn just why you made things as they are.”

Up went the black gentleman’s eyebrows into regular Gothic arches. “And do you really think, Jurgen, that I am going to explain to you why I made things as they are?”

“I fail to see, Prince, how my wanderings could have any other equitable climax.”

“But, friend, I have nothing to do with justice. To the contrary, I am Koshchei who made things as they are.”

Jurgen saw the point. “Your reasoning, Prince, is unanswerable. I bow to it. I should even have foreseen it. Do you tell me, then, what thing is this which I desire, and cannot find in any realm that man has known nor in any kingdom that man has imagined.”

Koshchei was very patient. “I am not, I confess, anything like as well acquainted with what has been going on in this part of the universe as I ought to be. Of course, events are reported to me, in a general sort of way, and some of my people were put in charge of these stars, a while back: but they appear to have run the constellation rather shiftlessly. Still, I have recently been figuring on the matter, and I do not despair of putting the suns hereabouts to some profitable use, in one way or another, after all. Of course, it is not as if it were an important constellation. But I am an Economist, and I dislike waste—”

James Branch Cabell’s influence on the fantasy writers that followed him is marked. For example the idea of God as an overworked technocrat can be seen in the character of Slartibartfast the planet designer in Douglas Adams ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1978) who complains about being given the boring  job of creating Africa rather than designing fjords. The figure of Koschei can also be detected in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ creator who appearing in ‘Eric’ (1990) complains that the ‘Big Bang’ was too ‘showy’ for his tastes.  Cabell’s use of philosophical conceits appears also to have strongly influenced Neil Gaimen in his novel ‘American Gods’ (2001) where the underlying premise is that the mythological beings depicted only exist because human beings believe in them.


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