'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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What inspired Cabell to create Poictesme?

Rockbridge Alum Springs

“What inspired Cabell to create Poictesme? The answer is in part an area in Virginia called Rockbridge Alum Springs. Cabell went there throughout the ‘twenties even after its decline. It began as a summer retreat in the 1880s and rivalled America’s leading spas. Dedicated to romance and illusion it was far from the workaday world of Richmond. Towards the end of his life Cabell wrote: “I found nothing that sent my imagination soaring like that little charmed circle of buildings called Rockbridge Alum Springs.”

James Branch Cabell (1879-1958): America’s Greatest Mythmaker  by Desmond Tarrant