If you are a fan of British comedies, you know they can often be
understood at different levels, depending on your age and mindset. For instance, on the long-running Are You
Being Served, when Mrs. Slocum talks about her pussy, she means her pet cat. . . . Right???
Well, it's the same with this book. Mr. Cabell wrote some naughty humor here. Enough to get him and his publisher sued by the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1920, claiming the book was "lewd, lascivious, indecent, obscene and disgusting."
Have I piqued your interest to read it yet?
Publication was temporarily stopped, and, like Mrs. Slocum's pussy, Cabell claimed that when Jurgen brandished his big sword or pulled out his lance, or held his staff erect, he was talking about a sword and a lance and a staff. Cabell won in court, and publication was resumed.
It really is an hysterically funny book. Jurgen embarks on a kind of psycho-fantasy, like Lewis Carroll's Alice, except in place of the funky 'shrooms, Jurgen visits the land of Cocaigne. The book is filled with innuendos, and I am sure I missed half of them. Several readings of this book would probably help, because at first I felt like I didn't understand it, and then I realized it wasn't necessary to understand everything, because as it moved along, it all made more and more sense. Having a dictionary and/or Google (or a large set of encyclopedias!) handy as you read is also helpful, because Cabell uses a lot of material from obscure myths and legends, like Egyptian, Celtic, Germanic, and especially Slavic, and also some stuff he just made up, so it's hard to tell what actually came from legend. But it doesn't matter that much. It's still pretty funny even if you miss half the jokes.
Here is a passage from Jurgen's conversation with Queen Dolores of Philistia:
"Come then, and sit next to me on this couch, if you can find it in the dark; and do explain to me what you mean."
"Why, madame, by a concrete example I mean one that is perceptible to any of the senses—as to sight or hearing, or touch—"
"Oh, oh! said the Queen, "now I perceive what you mean by a concrete example. And grasping this, I can understand that complications must of course arise from a choice in the wrong example."
What makes this Dover edition even better are the superb illustrations
by Frank C. Papé. He and Cabell were of one mind: (mischievous). My favorite is
the one of Anaïtis, Queen of Cocaigne, firmly holding Jurgen's big staff.
The story is set in an ambiguous Medieval-ish period. Jurgen is a forty-something pawnbroker married to a shrew called Dame Lisa. One day as Jurgen walks home from his shop, he passes a monk cursing the devil because he has stubbed his toe on a stone. Jurgen stands up for the Prince of Darkness and his industriousness, pointing out that, if not for him, neither he nor the monk would have a profession. Soon after, he is confronted by a black man who thanks him for the complement and promises a reward.
When he returns home, he finds that his wife is not there, and is still not there the next day. Gradually he learns from his wife's sister that Lisa has gone into a forbidden cave, and Jurgen knows that the manly thing to do is go after her. But instead he finds a centaur named Nessus, whom he tells that he seeks his wife, and whom he believes has been carried off by devils. Nessus replies that Koshchei the Deathless, who made things as they are would know the answer.
There are several phrases that repeat throughout the book, and this is one. Another is that Jurgen, who is a regular smart-ass, brags about being a "monstrous clever fellow." And another is that he is willing to taste any drink once. So when Nessus offers him a ride to the garden between Dawn and Sunrise, Jurgen goes along, but not before Nessus gives him the shiny gold shirt he is wearing. It is another element that becomes central to the story.
When they arrive at the garden, he encounters the passion of his life, Dorothy, who is once again young and doesn't recognize Jurgen, and swears she will not marry Heitman Michael, but she does. And it is her jilting of Jurgen that he believes closed his heart and made him able to cope with all of life's disappointments.
So he turns to speak with Nessus, but as the sun rises, he finds he instead has an ordinary horse standing beside him. Considering it an omen, he mounts the horse and lets it go where it will. It takes him into the forest where he comes across an old woman, Mother Sereda, who is Wednesday, and who bleaches things and wears a kitchen towel around her head. She gives him a gift, and it is to relive a day of his youth, a Wednesday, the day of a masque which he and Dorothy attended. He is now youthful again, and knows what will become of all the people he encounters. But this time, when Heitman Michael steals Dorothy for a dance, which he knows is the beginning of their romance, he stabs him to death. As the clock strikes midnight, Dorothy reverts to her older age, but Jurgen does not. Thus he begins his wild fantasy—a year to spend once again as a young and virile man, in which he exploits his sexual prowess.
His first conquest is earned by the rescue of Guenevere (before her marriage to King Arthur). She had been put under a spell by King Thragnar, and Jurgen awakens her with a kiss, as she lay in the Troll King's lap. Unfortunately, he awakens also. So the two escape, but Guenevere warns Jurgen that Thragnar will attempt to trick them in disguise. However, there are two ways they can tell it is him, due to a curse. First, he will offer a gift, and second, if you deny what he says, he will agree with you. As an added bonus, Jurgen now has his enchanted sword, Caliburn. Incidentally, Thragnar is one of the beings that didn't show up on Google as a legitimate legend.
So presently they come to one who, in all appearances, is Jurgen's wife, Dame Lisa. But she is just a bit too agreeable (in fact, the real Lisa isn't agreeable at all), so Jurgen and Guenevere come to the conclusion that it is Thragnar in disguise, so he chops off his head with Caliburn. All through the rest of his journey, he wonders if he hasn't maybe killed his wife.
Nevertheless, they arrive at the castle of the King of Glathion, Gogyrvan Gawr, (and this is from Welsh legend), where, suddenly Jurgen claims to be the Duke of Logreus, and naturally expects the hand of Guenevere, whom he believes he is in love with. The king, of course, says that will be impossible, since she is already promised to Arthur, but with a wink implies that he has no problems with a bit of hanky-panky between the two. It is here that Jurgen suddenly notices he is being followed by a shadow, and it is not his but that of Mother Sereda. And though only he can see it, it makes him a bit uncomfortable. Therefore, he finds it necessary to conduct all his, ahem, business, in the dark. This proves to be a wise choice.
One night while he is sleeping in his chamber, he realizes it is haunted, and there appears before him the image of King Smoit, and his ninth murdered wife, Sylvia. Smoit requests a small favor of him to do some haunting, as he is tied up with conflicting errands at the moment. He also informs Jurgen that he is his actual grandfather, the lover of Jurgen's late grandmother, Steinvor. (This comes as a surprise to Jurgen!), and it is the reason Smoit is seeking him as a substitute haunt. (Keeping it in the family, you know.)
After Sylvia and Jurgen finish their haunting task, which takes place where the Lady of the Lake, Anaïtis, sleeps, they slip out onto the winding staircase. Sylvia becomes interesting in Jurgen's big sword. . . and Anaïtis, seeing it, also becomes interested. When Guenevere is sent to become Arthur's wife, Anaïtis invites Jurgen to his her realm, Cocaigne, where they marry. Here Jurgen, who is now a Prince, actually becomes wearied of the constant "exploration" expected by Anaïtis, and finds himself wanting to spend time with the children instead. But soon it becomes necessary for him to depart, and he now enters Leukê, where Queen Helen abides with King Achilles (OK, now we switch to Greek. . .) in Pseudopolis. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, and reminds Jurgen too much of Dorothy. Instead, he marries a nymph named Chloris, whom, of all the women he encounters, he loves best. By this time Jurgen is now a King.
After the Philistines invade Leukê, Jurgen is sentenced to Hell, where he makes new friends and lives with a female vampire, on vacation from her earthy business. But here is also where the tone changes a little, from one sexual exploit to another, to a question of beliefs, justice, and how we create reality in our own minds. For instance, Jurgen's father, who resides in Hell, demands harsher punishment because he believes he deserves it. And all those who reside in Hell are there, simply because they believe they should be. Jurgen is now an Emperor.
So he tries the other direction, and is let up the ladder into Heaven by the innocent little boy he once was—loved and adored by his Grandmother Steinvor, who is also in Heaven, because she believed so strongly in God. However, God also is nothing but an illusion, created by those who believe in him, and by Koshchei, who made things as they are. One day God is gone from his throne, and Jurgen sits down on it. He has now reached the highest he can get, yet he still has not discovered what he wants. Incidentally, the original title of this book was Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice.
I highly recommend reading this book, not only for its fun and entertaining qualities, but for the really deep philosophical questions it presents. Here are some Wikipedia links to get you started, but it's good to have your computer handy as you read, because you'll find that there are lots of names and terms you'll want to look up.
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