A Comedy of Justice
BEFORE the Maundy Grail was ever mentioned in the English-speaking world, old Poictesme was already a familiar place. This is thanks to the romances of James Branch Cabell, a Virginian writer of belles-lettres who brought characters of the region to life with his sophisticated adult fantasies in the early part of the Twentieth Century.
His tales of Poictesme formed part of the “Biography of Manuel,” which recounted the lives and affairs of Count Manuel and his descendants, both natural and not so much. Manuel, a one-time swinehered became the celebrated Redeemer of Poictesme by throwing out Norman invaders before vanishing mysteriously in 1239.
Manuel left behind not only progeny but a legend and a promise that he would return. So a century before the Flagellants and Pedilavists would combine into the heretical sect of the Endurists, a veritable “cult of Manuel” flourished in Poictesme. Yet it withered and blew away in the storms of the English invasion in 1347. The gaunt, grim, grey King Edward III bore a decided resemblance to the long-absent count, and the people quickly lost any nostalgia remaining for his return. Instead, their hopes turned even more unworldly.
But Cabell’s romantic tale of the poet Jurgen, (the historical character is called “Jürgen” by scholars to distinguish from his fictional counterpart) was a true masterpiece, a witty and erotic fantasy. It gave the former pawnbroker more enduring fame than the former swineherd earned from Cabell’s Figures of Earth, or his band of paladins in The Silver Stallion.
First published in 1919, Jurgen launched Cabell like a flaming meteor soaring across the literary heavens. Critics were either delighted – comparing him to Rabelais, Swift, and Voltaire – or utterly appalled with the barely-concealed eroticism and riotous metaphysical hijinks involved. The prudish American Society for the Suppression of Vice actually got it judicially banned in Boston for several years supposedly over obscenity (but more likely for making fun of the pope). Happily, however, the case won the attention of noted critics like H.L. Menken, and became a cause celebre. The trial ironically won Cabell far more admirers and lasting fame than he could ever have achieved otherwise.
In Jurgen, Cabell tells the story of a dream on Beltane, 1277, that returned youth to the poet turned middle-aged pawnbroker. Erudite and funny, it is not for children. Jurgen is an adult, somewhat melancholic tale, dealing with lost regrets and the inevitable tempering of age in the midst of a libertine romp through Hell and Heaven, not to mention the bedchambers of various maids, queens, demonesses, and goddesses.
Jurgen still holds up remarkably well even after all this time. It’s one of my favorite books, and a major inspiration on this project. So it is therefore with pride and thanks, that I present Jurgen – complete with the wonderful illustrations of Frank C. Papé – for your enjoyment and edification.
This e-book edition is public-domain and absolutely FREE. Download it in whatever format you can use, and bon appetit!
– Tony Caganer
This production contains the full text of the definitive 1921 edition, combined with all the striking Frank C. Papé illustrations from that of 1926. Click here for a larger-size version of the cover.