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James Branch Cabell


Jurgen is James Branch Cabell’s most famous novel, and a highly influential one in the fantasy genre. The novel is a witty, parodic send-up of the ideal of courtly love. Soon after publication, its bawdy style and double-entendre-laden dialog brought it to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who promptly attempted to prosecute it for obscenity. After some years Cabell finally won the trial, and the publicity the trial brought made the book and Cabell famous. In his revised 1922 edition (on which this ebook is based) Cabell satirizes the Society in his Foreword, where Jurgen is placed on trial by the Philistines, overseen by a giant dung beetle as prosecutor.

The eponymous Jurgen is a pawnbroker and self-described “monstrous clever fellow” who, after passing by a demon and offering an offhand compliment, finds himself having regained his youth as he is launched on a magical, amorous journey. On his quest for love Jurgen meets a series of mythological and legendary characters—from Nessus the centaur, to Guinevere, to Helen of Troy, to the Lady of the Lake, and more. His wit charms all of them, though Jurgen never seems happy with whatever astonishing situation he finds himself in—whether it’s pestering the devils of hell or chatting with the creator in heaven.

The novel is dense with allegory and allusion, but despite its erudition it maintains a brisk pace as puns and witticism zip by. It influenced a huge number of authors, including Fritz Leiber and Robert A. Heinlein, and was widely considered a masterpiece of its time, with personalities like Aleister Crowley proclaiming it an “epoch-making masterpiece of philosophy.” Its publication and widespread popularity and acclaim set the stage for the modern fantasy-comedy genre perfected by authors like Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony.

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