RIP XIII #5: Jurgen

Why does this lady have this face?
Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell

I like weird Dover reprints of weird old books, so I picked this up somewhere a while back and it's been on the TBR pile.  It's one of those fantasy stories written before Tolkien came along and everybody kind of standardized into the modern genre -- the era of Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison.  So I thought it would be fun, and a good RIP title, but I was wrong.  It was completely meh.

Jurgen was first published in 1919, and somebody promptly tried to ban it, which made it enormously popular.*  This is the "revised and definitive" 1926 version. 

Set in a sort of early modern folktale setting, the story features Jurgen, a pawnbroker and poet, whose bitter, naggy wife Lisa disappears into a cave and is presumably taken by a...devil?  Maybe?  (It's rather unknown until the end.)  Jurgen ventures in and meets a cast of characters, most notably Mother Sereda (Time), and he is so flattering to her that she gives him a year of youth -- or possibly it's a punishment.  He spends it in meeting his first love and various other charming ladies -- I think he gets married three times, not to mention the innumerable girlfriends.

There is a good deal about the charm of first love, and a lot of innuendo, and some rather funny bits when Jurgen is not being tiresomely amorous.  I did enjoy the part where the ghost of his great-grandfather needs help haunting two places at once, and there was a great piece where Jurgen has gotten together with a girl who turns out to be mythological.  After a while she sadly tells him he has to leave:
For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists, and in that event would be compelled to leave Cocaigne with the Equinox...
On the whole, though, this is a great big Don't Bother.  The back cover blurb says it's a "tightly structured symbolic journey of many levels" and I'm sure it knows better than I do, plus also it's supposed to be an influential classic of comic fantasy, but to me it mostly felt like a shapeless mass to slog through for little reward. 

*Don't forget, next week is Banned Books Week, so don't forget to read something for that!  Not Jurgen though.  Try for something more interesting.  Harry Potter, maybe.


  1. Your plot description of Jurgen didn't ring any bells even though I read this, oooh, in the 80s probably. I shall have to give it another go sometime, having hung onto it all this time, no doubt for just such an occasion... 😁

  2. Well, no time like the present! You will undoubtedly see more of the layers of symbolism than I did. :)

    1. Possibly towards in a few weeks, Jean, so much else on the go and also wanted to include a longish YA in translation for German Literature Month in November. But, yes, tempting!


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

Dewey Readathon post

The Four Ages of Poetry

Howl's Moving Castle