If you are interested in fantasy, and besides the current novels you are interested in some older classics of the genre, and then after reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Mervyn Peake you develop a further interest in the origins of the genre, and then you read E.R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany, then you have dived into a very deep hole. Somewhere at the bottom of this hole lies James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen.
It is a difficult-to-read, challenging and profound little book. And very rewarding if you have the energy to try a narrative style that isn’t used nowadays.
For some reason, the old books of Dunsany, Eddison and Cabell and the like have something that today’s fantasy has lost sight of. Before the current genre of fantasy, there were myths, and underneath myths there were psychological archetypes, and underneath archetypes were primal emotions. The first writers of fantasy are the granddaddies of the genre because they invented how to express the most basic emotions of humanity through the fantastic, like myths were once created.
In inventing fantasy, it wasn’t about elves and dwarfs and dragons. That is just surface level stuff, nothing but smoke and mirrors. Real fantasy is about the deepest hopes and fears and desires of humanity. Lord Dunsany evokes almost painfully beautiful visions that speak to a deep melancholy of lost things. Eddison speaks directly about a lust for life and grandiose living and a volcanic self-sacrificing energy in the pursuit of beauty and honor.
Somehow, these old writers knew what they were talking about and they cut right through the surface level crap of elves and whatever and talked about what was really underneath, beauty and horror. Cabell’s Jurgen is like that. There are no modern fantasy tropes in Jurgen, but instead it is a fantasy about life and hope and crisis and a search for meaning.
Jurgen is a tale about a middle-aged guy with a mid-life crisis who searches for meaning in life. The novel opens with him giving an appreciation of the devil, and then the devil actually appears and gives him the gift of a fantasy world in which he can chase after his dreams in search for meaning in life. In the course, he chases after women, lobs of his wife’s head, tries out some religion, and so on and so forth.
It isn’t a series of unrelated adventures. Every adventure brings Jurgen to new realizations, like a personal development. It is a book filled with lust for life and humor, and it is simultaneously very sad. If you have had experiences in life where you have become disillusioned or lost hope in some faraway goal of happiness, some of the scenes cut right through you. In one of the first scenes, Jurgen travels back in time to a garden where only imaginary creatures live. He travels back “over the grave of a dream and the malice of time” to meet his first love again in that garden. After all of that crashes and burns a second time, he is ready to move on to the next adventure, and so on.
At the same time, it is a funny book. Jurgen is witty and droll, in the style of Jack Vance’s magicians in the later Dying Earth tales. He calls himself a “monstrous clever fellow” and tries to outwit the universe at every turn. There is also a lot of inexplicit sexual innuendo, that caused the book being banned at the time, which only increased its popularity.