Roots of the SFF Genre: James Branch Cabell

[— Karen Myers —]

I was born in 1953, and as soon as I could read, I pounced on everything I could find. By the age of eight or nine I was familiar with all the readily available retellings of the northern European folktales (not the sanitized-for-children Disneyesque ones) which included the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, and so forth. There were two feet or more of the childhood literary anthologies (bound like encyclopedias) my father had grown up on, from the 20s-30s, right outside my bedroom door, and I read them cover to cover during an extended period of nightly insomnia. It was an easy step from there to Robin Hood, King Arthur, and their ilk, and I devoured them all.

Then I ran out. I wanted more. I discovered (all while still very young) that there were more recent versions of these things, based on the same content, but not quite in the same… tone. I had already noticed that some of the things I was reading were more-or-less straight up folktales, but others seemed more childish (Victorian whimsy) or oddly grownup — ironic, philosophical, satirical, literary treatments (and I didn’t much like those). What we call the fantasy genre — serious adult extended story-telling using motifs largely derived from the traditional material — was almost nonexistent before Tolkien.

I found this very confusing at the time, lacking context for the general history of fiction.

By the time I was twelve, I recognized (with my limited background) that the adult literary versions took two forms (though I couldn’t have named them): the medieval/Renaissance renderings (more serious presentations of folktale material), and the ironic, parodistic, self-referential works. The older of these clusters (the Matter of Britain, as it is called, and the Matter of France, etc.) was still quite fascinating to me, though it was overlaid by poetic (literary) pretensions (e.g., troubador) and forms that left me cold.

I found the other style too adult (detached, ironic, etc.) for my taste but, damn, I tried a lot of them out, hoping to find something I actively enjoyed, at least at the basic story level. They were better than nothing, which is why I know them, but they are rather out of fashion now.

The way I look at things, the traditional tales and the core of the Matter of Britain et alia are what were distilled by Tolkien, with rigor. Very little that preceded him bore later fruit (e.g., Mervyn Peake, C. S. Lewis).

The modern genre of Fantasy is mostly based on the Tolkien model, one way or another, but there is also a stream that applies self-reference and irony and parody and satire (e.g., Discworld / Terry Pratchett), and those works find some of their roots in the older literary branch that has dropped into partial obscurity.

So, for today’s exploration, check out Virginian James Branch Cabell (1879-1958)

The image above is the endpapers from Figures of Earth, by Frank C Pape, his usual illustrator, though many other illustrators rendered his images. The editions are quite collectable.

His stories feature recognizable Moderns in whimsical worlds — overweight Colonel Blimp types (American style) complete with walrus moustaches and more than a whiff of decadent irony.

“James Branch Cabell’s aristocratic, whimsical, profane fantasies were a succès de scandal in the 1920s; his most famous book Jurgen was the subject of a famous obscenity trial. Jurgen is a medieval pawnbroker who as a result of ill- judged witticisms in praise of the devil “who labours hard in his vocation, which can be said of few pawnbrokers and no friars”, finds himself obliged to search the kingdom of Poicstesme, various magic realms, Heaven and Hell for his abducted wife, “a woman with no especial gift for silence”. Cabell’s inventive witticisms, sardonic irreverence and habit of the gently bawdy carry this off with panache. The same formula applies to various other novels in the Poictesme sequence, notably Figures of Earth, the story of how that realm’s great emperor Manuel rose from humble origins to make a fine figure for himself in the world, and The Silver Stallion in which various of Manuel’s paladins suffer ironic final fates—one of them for example being mistakenly assigned to a pagan heaven and gradually getting assimilated into its pantheon. Other books like The High Place or Something about Eve set characters in a decadent 18th Century France, or an entirely dream world, and confront them with similar entertaining ironies.”

— Extract from The Complete Cabell (Amazon code: B093T96NX7)

Cabell’s influence on later SFF genre writers:

“Cabell’s work was highly regarded by a number of his peers, including Mark TwainSinclair LewisH. L. MenckenJoseph Hergesheimer, and Jack Woodford. Although now largely forgotten by the general public, his work was remarkably influential on later authors of fantasy fiction. James Blish was a fan of Cabell’s works, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society. Robert A. Heinlein was greatly inspired by Cabell’s boldness, and originally described his book Stranger in a Strange Land as “a Cabellesque satire”. A later work, Job: A Comedy of Justice, derived its title from Jurgen and contains appearances by Jurgen and the Slavic god KoscheiCharles G. Finney‘s fantasy The Circus of Dr. Lao was influenced by Cabell’s work. The Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith are, in background, close to those of Cabell’s PoictesmeJack Vance‘s Dying Earth books show considerable stylistic resemblances to Cabell; Cugel the Clever in those books bears a strong resemblance, not least in his opinion of himself, to Jurgen. Cabell was also a major influence on Neil Gaiman, acknowledged as such in the rear of Gaiman’s novels Stardust and American Gods. This thematic and stylistic influence is highly evident in the multi-layered pantheons of Gaiman’s work, The Sandman, which have many parallels in Cabell’s work, particularly Jurgen.”

— Extract from

An excellent summary of his works and an exploration of his influence on other SFF authors is available here.

21 thoughts on “Roots of the SFF Genre: James Branch Cabell

    1. So did I, more than once, but what else was there? He’s actually quite good, but it’s a sophisticated taste from an earlier generation that I didn’t have as a sub-adult (and not all that much now, either). On the other hand, I didn’t like Terry Pratchett initially, either, so what do I know?

      Comparing the two is interesting…

  1. BTW, I used to think his name was pronounced as “cable”, but actually it’s “cabbel”. It was a pet peeve of his when his name was mispronounced, and he sardonically encouraged folks to think of his characters and associate it with “rabble”. 🙂

  2. He’s always mixed up in my mind with Lord Dunsany, I guess because I was reading both of them at the same time some 40+ years ago when I was buying everything I could find from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

  3. Cabell must have been an influence on H. Beam Piper, even though Piper limited himself to hard science fiction. Piper’s novel The Cosmic Computer is set on Poictesme. In the words of Piper:

    “Old Genji Gartner, the scholarly and half-piratical space-rover whose ship had been the first to enter the Trisystem, had been devoted to the romantic writers of the Pre-Atomic Era. He had named all the planets of the Alpha System from the books of Cabell, and those of Beta from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and those of Gamma from Rabelais. Of course, the camp village at his first landing site on this one had been called Storisende.”

    (The novel is available at Project Gutenberg.)

  4. I’ll have to take a look at those. I did enjoy some of eh Dying Earth stories, especially the one with the kid who wouldn’t stop asking questions, but Cugel the clever wasn’t really my cup of tea.

    I will say, I really enjoyed Leigh Brackette’s Eric John Stark stories, though the only ones that survive the advances since she wrote them are the final Ginger Star trilogy.

    It was striking to realize it was, essentially Conan the Barbarian vs the Hippies of Hoth. Holds up surprisingly, disturbingly, well.

  5. Also born in 1953, also devoured the pre-Disney Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson found in the library of my maternal grandparents. Alas, it appears you had access top better libraries than I did.
    I do remember trying Cabell as a recommended source from (somebody), but whatever I was able to get didn’t resonate with me.
    He’s not the only author recommended by the literary giants that just didn’t click with me. C. S. Lewis raved over “A Voyage to Arcturus” by David Lindsay, but if I made it past page 20, I’d be surprised.

  6. Talking Tolkien, I wonder how many people ever noticed how The Hobbit is almost a deconstruction of the admittedly few fantasy-quest novels that came out before it? In the older books from the few I ever got to read, the heroes travel through weather that is always nice and clear, supernatural beings like dwarfs and elves are unfailingly helpful and noble, and the hero is so achingly noble and manly that in poorer works it grates.

    Look at the Hobbit — Bilbo is brave and good, but he gets scared, cold, hungry, wet, nearly cooked by Smaug and the Trolls, and is even called a burglar rather than a hero or warrior. The weather is seldom cooperative — I wonder if this was some of Professor Tolkien’s WW1 experience showing through? The dwarfs are stubborn and quarrelsome, and noble in their own way. The elves of Mirkwood are anything but helpful. Even Smaug’s little speech to Bilbo still comes off as snarky, especially when he jeers about Bilbo’s ‘equal share’ and asks ‘have they mentioned taxes and tariffs and shipping and hauling?’ It’s hard to imagine many modern fictional dragons, including the movie Smaug, talking like that.

    None of which detracts from the story to me. If anything it says something about Professor Tolkien’s skill that he so completely overturned the older books that, whether he liked it or not, his work set the new standard.

    1. I have certainly read observations that LOTR reads like a deconstruction of its Tolkienesque imitators.

    2. Not long after the movies came out, and the centenary of WWI, several academic books appeared looking at WWI and the influence it had on Tolkien and some others. I have one of those volumes in my TBR stack. I suspect that your weather observation – and the Dead Marshes – are taken from his personal experience and observations.

      1. Are you talking about ‘Tolkien and the Great War’? That’s the main book on the subject that I recall reading.

        1. That’s the one. It’s slowly rising to the surface. (Or was before research ambushed me.) I’ve got another about WWI and what it did to religion that mentions Tolkien briefly, but in the context of religion in Britain.

  7. In one of my conversations with SF super-fan and genre historian Ben Yalow, I poked a little (in a friendly way) at one of his common arguments: that all modern fantasy has three wellsprings — Tolkien, Weird Tales, and John Campbell’s unfortunately short-lived pulp Unknown.

    I brought up Cabell (who, as other commenters have noted, is easy to bounce off of due to his style) and asked if he was of no influence. Yalow responded that he didn’t really have direct influence, and that if he had indirect influence, it would have been through other authors who did publish in Weird Tales and Unknown. Which, with exceedingly few exceptions, strikes me as perfectly fair.

    Indeed, the only exception that comes immediately to mind is Robert A. Heinlein, whose fantasy novels Glory Road and Job: A Comedy of Justice both show direct Cabellian influence (the latter one more directly, swiping its subtitle from Jurgen). But neither of those novels are particularly influential on the fantasy genre at large.

    As an example of non-Tolkien, but definite Unknown, influence, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories began life in that magazine in 1939, and continued for the rest of the magazine’s run (and far beyond). Leiber’s stories are sword and sorcery adventures, arguably a source of urban fantasy (since the city of Lankhmar is as much a character in the series as any of the actual characters), and a major influence on Terry Pratchett (Lankhmar, Ankh-Morpork; I rest my case).

  8. I have read a lot of Cabell, largely because my university library had a ton of old hardbacks of him. Most of them were checked out all year by a Certain Professor, who might have been doing academic work or keeping them from deaccessionment. But it was annoying, so I tried.

    Cabell’s big influence was crossing over everything, which probably inspired Heinlein’s grand future history. His historical novels crossed over with his contemporary novels, and his fantasies were crossed over with everything else.

    The annoying bit was Cabell’s idea that all women and goddesses were ultimately the same woman, who was basically either annoying or unfaithful, and all men were the same man. But he did do good characters whenever he forgot this idea. And there were other nihilistic things that annoyed me, and he is mad at God and everybody in power, and also everybody not in power. And he thinks it is everybody’s fault, because “the world loves to be deceived” is his motto.

    Basically he is funny and snide and clever, with some moments of great beauty. But you get tired of it, after reading a few novels in a row. If you were only reading one or two books a year, as they came out, you would not have this problem. Then it would be more like Twain does fantasy.

    He wrote one of the great sestinas. His poetry book is very worth reading, although it has the same attitude.

    His work is coming into the public domain now, so a lot is coming online.

    1. H.L. Mencken, I think, was of the opinion that Cabell damaged his own legacy by not being selective in choosing his works for republication. Cabell wanted it all together, Mencken thought the lesser books would keep readers from finding the better ones. History seems to have borne him out.

  9. I read some Cabell once: It left me feeling like i’d had a surfeit of cotton candy and wasn’t very interesting besides.

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