Hidden Gems: James Branch Cabell

So, I’ve probably reached the end of the line (for the moment) with this Hidden Gems series. It’s been a fun ride, but there are only so many books out there that a) I’ve read and b) I think are underappreciated. No doubt I’ll update it as and when I unearth another one.

Before I go, however, I thought it worth mentioning James Branch Cabell. Never heard of him? Not really a surprise. Cabell was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, but wrote comic fantasies before fantasy was really a genre. As such, though apparently widely admired (and made notorious by trials and scandals), he’s been largely forgotten by a fantasy tradition to which he never really belonged.

Having read some of his work (of which there is a lot), I think this is a shame. Just because his fantasies are comedies, they are by no means fluff to be dismissed. Obviously, they aren’t going to satisfy a craving for Sword & Sorcery or Grimdarkness, and they aren’t Epic in the sense we’ve come to know. However, the characters do go on epic adventures through fantastic lands full of peril, strange creatures, gods, devils, and other recognisable trappings of the genre.1110887

However, whereas Terry Pratchett had a wealth of well-known tropes to spoof, Cabell mainly had the romantic legends to draw on – Arthurian, Ancient Greek, etc. From what have read, his books also have a deep melancholy at the core of the comedy. His flawed heroes crave adventure but are probably better off without it, their wanderlust never quite leading them where they wanted.

The heroes I’m talking about are Jurgen – the titular monstrously clever fellow of his most famous book – and Dom Manuel, the protagonist of the 25-volume “Biography” which Cabell spent 23 years writing (obviously, I haven’t read it all). Both feel quite similar due to Cabell’s voice, but of the two Jurgen seems more cheeky, Dom Manuel (at least, in Figures of Earth) more earnest. Both have an astounding weakness for a pretty face; in fact, Jurgen puts James Bond to shame both in conquest and double entendres.

These double entendres were the reason for the aforementioned obscenity trial (which he won), but they are very tame by today’s standards. In fact, due to the old-fashioned prose, it took a while before I was sure they were even there – it was much funnier afterwards. Even without them, there’s still enough of an adventure (though more philosophical than action-oriented), but the “monstrous” character of Jurgen is what sets it apart.

figures-of-earth1Dom Manuel is a more considered fantasy, less of a humorous comedy. The world-building is a bit more consistent, but the fantasy-land in Cabell’s head is closer to the mythical Albion of Arthurian tales than anything post-Tokien (or Eddison). The series is confusing as well, without a clear chronology as far as I can tell – though this does make it easier to read without collecting all twenty-five volumes.

So, why are these hidden gems? For me, it’s because they are a window onto a different era of fantasy, but proof that people were already having fun with the genre, such as it was, both deconstructing the mythological epic, and also using fantasy to make points about human existence (even while laughing).

Also, they are just a lot of fun.

NB: Cabell apparently rhymes with “rabble”. Now you can sound smart!

 

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