James Cabell: Jurgen. A Comedy of Justice

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    Jurgen. A Comedy of Justice
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JURGEN

A Comedy of Justice

By

JAMES BRANCH CABELL

"Of JURGEN eke they maken mencioun,

That of an old wyf gat his youthe agoon,

And gat himselfe a shirte as bright as fyre

Wherein to jape, yet gat not his desire

In any countrie ne condicioun."

TO

BURTON RASCOE

Before each tarradiddle,

Uncowed by sciolists,

Robuster persons twiddle

Tremendously big fists.

"Our gods are good," they tell us;

"Nor will our gods defer

Remission of rude fellows'

Ability to err."

So this, your JURGEN, travels

Content to compromise

Ordainments none unravels

Explicitly … and sighs.

A Foreword: Which Asserts Nothing.

"Nescio quid certè est: et Hylax in limine latrat."

In Continental periodicals not more than a dozen articles in all would seem to have given accounts or partial translations of the Jurgen legends. No thorough investigation of this epos can be said to have appeared in print, anywhere, prior to the publication, in 1913, of the monumental Synopses of Aryan Mythology by Angelo de Ruiz. It is unnecessary to observe that in this exhaustive digest Professor de Ruiz has given (VII, p. 415 et sequentia) a summary of the greater part of these legends as contained in the collections of Verville and Bülg; and has discussed at length and with much learning the esoteric meaning of these folk-stories and their bearing upon questions to which the "solar theory" of myth explanation has given rise. To his volumes, and to the pages of Mr. Lewistam's Key to the Popular Tales of Poictesme, must be referred all those who may elect to think of Jurgen as the resplendent, journeying and procreative sun.

Equally in reading hereinafter will the judicious waive all allegorical interpretation, if merely because the suggestions hitherto advanced are inconveniently various. Thus Verville finds the Nessus shirt a symbol of retribution, where Bülg, with rather wide divergence, would have it represent the dangerous gift of genius. Then it may be remembered that Dr. Codman says, without any hesitancy, of Mother Sereda: "This Mother Middle is the world generally (an obvious anagram of Erda es), and this Sereda rules not merely the middle of the working-days but the midst of everything. She is the factor of middleness, of mediocrity, of an avoidance of extremes, of the eternal compromise begotten by use and wont. She is the Mrs. Grundy of the Léshy; she is Comstockery: and her shadow is common-sense." Yet Codman speaks with certainly no more authority than Prote, when the latter, in his Origins of Fable, declares this epos is "a parable of … man's vain journeying in search of that rationality and justice which his nature craves, and discovers nowhere in the universe: and the shirt is an emblem of this instinctive craving, as … the shadow symbolizes conscience. Sereda typifies a surrender to life as it is, a giving up of man's rebellious self-centredness and selfishness: the anagram being se dare."

Thus do interpretations throng and clash, and neatly equal the commentators in number. Yet possibly each one of these unriddlings, with no doubt a host of others, is conceivable: so that wisdom will dwell upon none of them very seriously.

With the origin and the occult meaning of the folklore of Poictesme this book at least is in no wise concerned: its unambitious aim has been merely to familiarize English readers with the Jurgen epos for the tale's sake. And this tale of old years is one which, by rare fortune, can be given to English readers almost unabridged, in view of the singular delicacy and pure-mindedness of the Jurgen mythos: in all, not more than a half-dozen deletions have seemed expedient (and have been duly indicated) in order to remove such sparse and unimportant outcroppings of mediæval frankness as might conceivably offend the squeamish.

Since this volume is presented simply as a story to be read for pastime, neither morality nor symbolism is hereinafter educed, and no "parallels" and "authorities" are quoted. Even the gaps are left unbridged by guesswork: whereas the historic and mythological problems perhaps involved are relinquished to those really thoroughgoing scholars whom erudition qualifies to deal with such topics, and tedium does not deter….

In such terms, and thus far, ran the Foreword to the first issues of this book, whose later fortunes have made necessary the lengthening of the Foreword with a postscript. The needed addition—this much at least chiming with good luck—is brief. It is just that fragment which some scholars, since the first appearance of this volume, have asserted—upon what perfect frankness must describe as not indisputable grounds—to be a portion of the thirty-second chapter of the complete form of La Haulte Histoire de Jurgen.

And in reply to what these scholars assert, discretion says nothing. For this fragment was, of course, unknown when the High History was first put into English, and there in consequence appears, here, little to be won either by endorsing or denying its claims to authenticity. Rather, does discretion prompt the appending, without any gloss or scholia, of this fragment, which deals with

The Judging of Jurgen.

Now a court was held by the Philistines to decide whether or no King Jurgen should be relegated to limbo. And when the judges were prepared for judging, there came into the court a great tumblebug, rolling in front of him his loved and properly housed young ones. With the creature came pages, in black and white, bearing a sword, a staff and a lance.

This insect looked at Jurgen, and its pincers rose erect in horror. The bug cried to the three judges, "Now, by St. Anthony! this Jurgen must forthwith be relegated to limbo, for he is offensive and lewd and lascivious and indecent."

"And how can that be?" says Jurgen.

"You are offensive," the bug replied, "because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff. And finally, you are indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody."

"Well, that sounds logical," says Jurgen, "but still, at the same time, it would be no worse for an admixture of common-sense. For you gentlemen can see for yourselves, by considering these pages fairly and as a whole, that these pages bear a sword and a lance and a staff, and nothing else whatever; and you will deduce, I hope, that all the lewdness is in the insectival mind of him who itches to be calling these things by other names."

The judges said nothing as yet. But they that guarded Jurgen, and all the other Philistines, stood to this side and to that side with their eyes shut tight, and all these said: "We decline to look at the pages fairly and as a whole, because to look might seem to imply a doubt of what the tumblebug has decreed. Besides, as long as the tumblebug has reasons which he declines to reveal, his reasons stay unanswerable, and you are plainly a prurient rascal who are making trouble for yourself."

"To the contrary," says Jurgen, "I am a poet, and I make literature."

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