Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Cabell, James Branch

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(1879-1958) US (emphatically Southern US) writer of some of this century's finest ironical fantasies, and also of lesser work, descending in his last years to mannered weariness. Amid wildly fantastic surroundings his characters exemplify a fixed, chiefly bleak view of unchanging human nature. JBC categorized his male Heroes as ruled by Chivalry, Gallantry (philandering) or Poetry; women are either acidulous but ultimately comfortable wives or instances of the elusive, unattainable Witch-woman which, according to JBC, every man desires (see Sehnsucht).

JBC's best-known works lie within the lengthy sequence Biography of the Life of Manuel – not a tautology, as the "life" of the hero Manuel, supposed redeemer of the Imaginary Land of Poictesme, is traced through descendants to the then contemporary USA. All JBC's works before 1930 (including nonfantasies) were forcibly assimilated into the Biography. The official ordering, broadly chronological except for the first and last volumes (serving as prologue and epilogue), runs: Beyond Life: Dizain des Démiurges (1919), dramatized essays outlining JBC's theories of literature in the setting of a fantasy Library; Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances (1921); The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption (coll of linked stories 1926); the Witch-Woman sequence, being The Music from Behind the Moon: Epitome of a Poet (1926), The White Robe: A Saint's Summary (1928) – an unusually black Werewolf story – and The Way of Ecben: A Comedietta Involving a Gentleman (1929), assembled as The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy About Her (omni 1948); The Soul of Melicent (1913; rev vt Domnei: A Comedy of Woman-Worship 1920); Chivalry: Dizain des Reines (coll of linked stories 1909; rev 1921); Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919; rev 1921 UK); The Line of Love: Dizain des Mariages (coll of linked stories 1905; rev 1921); The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment (1923); Gallantry: Dizain des Fêtes Galantes (coll of linked stories 1907; rev 1922); Something about Eve: A Comedy of Fig-Leaves (1927); The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poètes (coll 1916); The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking (1909; rev 1920); From the Hidden Way (1916 chap; rev 1924; rev vt Ballades from the Hidden Way 1928), verse; The Jewel Merchants (1921 chap), a play; The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck: A Comedy of Limitations (1915); The Eagle's Shadow: A Comedy of Purse-Strings (1904; rev 1923); The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion (1917 rev 1922); The Lineage of Lichfield: Another Comedy of Evasion (1922), fictional genealogy; and Straws and Prayer-Books: Dizain des Diversions (1924), essays plus two allegorical pendants to The Silver Stallion. The 1927-1930 "Storisende edition" of the Biography (rev throughout) is footnoted in Townsend of Lichfield: Dizain des Adieux (omni 1930), which includes: The White Robe, The Way of Ecben; Taboo (1921 chap), a satirical commentary on Jurgen's legal toils; Sonnets from Antan (dated 1929 but 1930 chap), verse; Jurgen and the Law (1922 chap) ed Guy Holt; and miscellanea. Preface to the Past (coll 1931) assembles JBC's prefaces to the deluxe Storisende edition.

Jurgen is a central JBC work, partly as perhaps his most fully achieved blend of characteristic irony, allusion, erudition, censor-teasing and creative joy, but also for its effect on his career. Its 1920 banning, instigated by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was ostensibly for "obscene" double-entendres (the hero's Sword, staff, sceptre, etc., are much admired by ladies in equivocal situations) but, as emerged in court, was also a reaction to Satire on Religion. After years of being admired by a select audience that had included Mark Twain, Cabell became and remained the highly notorious "author of Jurgen". (The obscenity case was tried and the publishers acquitted in 1922.)

Jurgen himself is a middle-aged poet-turned-pawnbroker who, having capriciously praised Evil, is rewarded by Koshchei (maker of this Universe) with the disappearance of his harridan wife. Reluctant search for her leads Jurgen on a year-long adventure: first on centaur-back to the Garden Between Dawn and Sunrise where imaginary beings live, including all lovers' versions of their objects of desire; and onward to encounter the many-named goddess Sereda, who is also Cybele (see Goddess), and who, outrageously flattered by Jurgen, gives him renewed youth together with a Shadow – her own – which takes notes on his doings. These involve much dalliance: with his first teenage love on a past day revisited by Time Travel; with Guinevere shortly before she marries Arthur (Jurgen is also a previous user of Caliburn/Excalibur); with his own step-grandmother's Ghost; with the Lady of the Lake, here identified as Anaïtis, goddess of erotic diversions, with whom he travels to Cocaigne; with a Dryad in Leukê, land of Greek/Roman Mythology; and very nearly with Helen of Troy, who is however so unsurpassably desirable that even Jurgen refrains. Leukê is conquered by the greyly reasonable forces of Philistia (America) and Jurgen condemned: later editions here incorporate The Judging of Jurgen (1920 chap), satirizing JBC's legal tormentor as a dung-beetle who indicates Weapons held by pageboys and declares, "You are offensive because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword ..." (see Recursive Fantasy). Having been deemed a solar myth by the Master Philologist, Jurgen must naturally winter underground in Hell (to the undoing of Satan's wife and an attractive Vampire). All along he has been promoting himself – duke, prince, king, emperor – and now tricks his way up Jacob's ladder into Heaven in the guise of Pope. God, as he suspected, is an Illusion (invented by Koshchei to please Jurgen's insistently pious grandmother): but even this illusion of perfect love overwhelms Jurgen. Still he ascends the throne of Heaven, but wearily renounces it; tricks Sereda into withdrawing his unnatural youth; and finally meets Koshchei, who like other potent beings encountered in his travels proves less intelligent than that "monstrous clever fellow", Jurgen himself. Though again offered Guinevere and Anaïtis and Helen, he chooses to have back his wife. The mercy of Koshchei is that the year's upsets become, retrospectively, a Dream; and like the Sun to whose myth Jurgen has been relegated, the tale comes full circle to its starting place.

The Biography's Multiverse extends in various directions from Jurgen. Figures of Earth tells of the previous generation's Manuel the Redeemer, who may be very shrewd or very obtuse. When he sells ordinary goose feathers to kings who believe them magical – and to whom, through belief, they are magical, like the gifts of L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) – Manuel's role in the bargain is passive, for the motto of Poictesme is Mundus vult decipi: "The world wishes to be deceived." We are not admitted to any of his thoughts, giving the book a chilly aspect despite fine poetic passages; his monomaniac desire to create and animate clay images is absurdly based on a maternal instruction to make himself a figure in the world. Manuel does so, betraying virtually everyone he deals with; even his reconquest of Poictesme is carried out for him by superannuated deities invoked by a Wizard, and he holds the land only as a fiefdom under the mysterious demiurge Horvendile. When Grandfather Death comes for Dom Manuel, time bends as in E R Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) and the Count of Poictesme is once again a young swineherd shaping figures futilely from mud (see Time Fantasies).

The Silver Stallion, another joyous book, relates the bizarre adventures of Manuel's barons after his death, and the growth of a sentimental, women-fostered and wholly untrue Legend of Manuel the Redeemer as quasi-Christian saviour and saint. One baron re-enacts, on a large and witty scale, the Fairytale of Three Wishes where the last wish must undo all the damage done – here to Koshchei's entire Universe. Another, dying in battle, is inadvertently carried off by the Valkyrie sent for his heathen foe, and adopted into a Nordic-Fantasy pantheon of which Koshchei is but a minor member. Others meet fates almost as strange.

In the sulphurous The High Place, the amoral hero Florian enters the Sleeping-Beauty story and (unlike Jurgen with Helen) does not draw back at the sight of excessive beauty. Complications ensue: Beauty is realistically diminished during pregnancy, the first-born child is forfeit to Satan under the Pact that guaranteed Florian's success, and an irascible saint is eager to call down holy fire on transgressors. Florian treads close to damnation and is saved only when Satan and the Angel Michael conspire to let recent events become, again, a dream: he has a rare second chance and Learns Better. Something About Eve, with a stronger than usual flavour of Allegory, shows its non-hero feebly intending to gain promised glory awaiting in the land of "Antan" but forever delayed on Mispec Moor (anagram: "compromise"), wearing literal rose-coloured spectacles and beguiled by the woman Maya, while bolder folk like Solomon and Odysseus pass by on the road to Antan.

The tortuousness of the Cabellian cosmology emerges in The Cream of the Jest, whose author hero Kennaston enjoys fantastic Dreams thanks to a sigil (actually the broken top of a modern cosmetics bottle), and flits through history as Horvendile – who has power over all these fictions. But Kennaston is himself documented as a descendant of Manuel, and the Frame Story complicates matters further. Meanwhile Horvendile's eternal doomed pursuit of Ettarre (sister of Jurgen's first love Dorothy, and of Melicent, the object of long-frustrated, absurdly chivalric love in Domnei) is prefigured in The Music from Behind the Moon. These connections can be traced endlessly, though many links seem merely decorative – like the Biography's repeated mentions of a sinister, undescribed Ritual involving a Mirror and two white pigeons. Such patterns, together with buried anagrams, verse passages disguised as prose, and JBC's great variety of historic, linguistic and mythic allusions, have been explored in the Cabell Society's magazine Kalki. Several "historical" Biography volumes (including Chivalry, Gallantry and The Line of Love) were initially illustrated by Howard Pyle; most of the major fantasies have appeared in ornate editions illustrated and decorated by Frank Papé.

Once the Manuel/Poictesme sequence was complete, in 1932, JBC marked this career watershed by writing as Branch Cabell, though in 1946 he resumed his full name. His most substantial post-Biography fantasy was The Nightmare Has Triplets, a sequence comprising Smirt: An Urbane Nightmare (1934), Smith: A Sylvan Interlude (1935) and Smire: An Acceptance in the Third Person (1937). This explicitly emulates the logic and geography of Dreams. The dreamer, another JBC-like author of romances, is triply eponymous – first as Smirt, a figure of Jurgen-like self-esteem who patronizes God and Satan, instructs the Stewards of Heaven in how to improve the world (by modelling it on Smirt's books), and sets up house with Arachne the Spider-woman; then as Smith, a retiring woodland deity presiding over inset tales of Smirt's dream-begotten sons; and finally, after further Thinning, as the dwindled wanderer Smire. Choruses of banal newspaper headlines and conversational platitudes give warning whenever wakefulness comes too near. It is indeed a successfully misty and dreamlike (if slightly inconsequential) work. The pamphlet The Nightmare Has Triplets (1937 chap) discusses the trilogy.

JBC's avowed aim was "to write perfectly of beautiful happenings". Readers taking this at face value were shocked by bitter ironies, cynicism and determined avoidance of wish-fulfilment. Indeed JBC strove to write beautifully (though sometimes affectedly) and, in his best work, of morally realistic happenings, stressing that prices must be paid and time's inevitable ravages endured. Comforting illusions are necessary, and are accepted with full knowledge of their illusory nature. This toughness always underlies the surface frivolity, wit, erudition and spiciness. JBC can still take us by surprise. [DRL]

other works: Between Dawn and Sunrise: Selections from the Writings of James Branch Cabell (anth 1930 coll) ed John Macy; Some of Us: An Essay in Epitaphs (coll 1930), literary commentary; the It Happened In Florida sequence, being There Were Two Pirates: A Comedy of Division (1946) and The Devil's Own Dear Son: A Comedy of the Fatted Calf (1949); The Nightmare Has Triplets: Smirt, Smith and Smire (omni 1972).

as Branch Cabell: Their Lives and Letters, a series comprising essays and imaginary letters, being These Restless Heads: A Trilogy of Romantics (1932), Special Delivery: A Packet of Replies (1933) and Ladies and Gentlemen: A Parcel of Reconsiderations (1943); Heirs and Assigns, associational historical fiction, being The King Was in His Counting House: A Comedy of Common-Sense (1938), Hamlet Had an Uncle: A Comedy of Honour (1940) and The First Gentleman of America: A Comedy of Conquest (1942; vt The First American Gentleman 1942 UK); the first It Happened In Florida title, The St Johns: A Parade of Diversities (1943) with A J Hanna, history/topography of the St Johns river, Florida (trio continued as by JBC alone).

further reading: James Branch Cabell (1925 rev 1932) by Carl van Doren, including JBC's Map of Poictesme; Cabellian Harmonics (1928) by Warren A McNeill; the Virginians Are Various volumes, including JBC autobiography and reminiscences, being Let Me Lie (coll 1947), Quiet, Please (1952) and As I Remember It: Some Epilogues in Recollection (1955); Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others (1962) ed Padraic Colum and Margaret Freeman Cabell; "The James Branch Cabell Case Reopened", in The Bit Between My Teeth (coll 1965) by Edmund Wilson; James Branch Cabell: The Dream and the Reality (1967) by Desmond Tarrant; The Letters of James Branch Cabell (1975) ed Edward Wagenknecht.

see also: Books.

James Branch Cabell


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.