Archives for category: Ultrafiction — F & SF

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Readers of The Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, have probably wondered, as I have for nearly four decades, about the lore surrounding the word “geas,” apparently meaning a binding pledge or promise, which appears in the book repeatedly.

IMG_3989The word suggests the chivalrous approach to life that James Branch Cabell contrasts with the poetic and gallant attitudes.

The word popped into my head again today, and upon this occasion of memory I looked it up using Google’s ngram viewer.

The most interesting use I found, preceding Cabell, is by William Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod in 1899. The book is The Dominion of Dreams, and the word can be found in the chapter titled “Honey of the Wild Bees.”

“Geas,” we discover, is singular; “geasan” is the plural. (In The Grimoire, from 1990, we are told the plural is “geasa.”)

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Look for the volume on Google Books. The Dominion of Dreams actually appears more than relevant to Cabell’s work — the title indicates that clearly enough — even disregarding this particular strange word’s meaning and etymology, there illumined.

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Jurgen by Cabell

Chapter 34, in which our hero learns
the true nature of torture in hell:

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine.

“Anatomy is hereabouts even more inconsequent than in Cocaigne,” was Jurgen’s first reflection. But the first thing the devils did was to search Jurgen very carefully, in order to make sure he was not bringing any water into Hell.

“Now, who may you be, that come to us alive, in a fine shirt of which we never saw the like before?” asked Dithican. He had the head of a tiger, but otherwise the appearance of a large bird, with shining feathers and four feet: his neck was yellow, his body green, and his feet black.

“It would not be treating honestly with you to deny that I am the Emperor of Noumaria,” said Jurgen, somewhat advancing his estate.

Now spoke Amaimon, in the form of a thick suet-colored worm going upright upon his tail, which shone like the tail of a glowworm. He had no feet, but under his chops were two short hands, and upon his back were bristles such as grow upon hedgehogs.

“But we are rather overrun with emperors,” said Amaimon, doubtfully, “and their crimes are a great trouble to us. Were you a very wicked ruler?”

“Never since I became an emperor,” replied Jurgen, “has any of my subjects uttered one word of complaint against me. So it stands to reason I have nothing very serious with which to reproach myself.”

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

And then the mob of devils made a great to-do over Jurgen.

“For it is exceedingly good to have at least one unpretentious and undictatorial human being in Hell. Nobody as a rule drops in on us save inordinately proud and conscientious ghosts, whose self-conceit is intolerable, and whose demands are outrageous.”

“How can that be?”

“Why, we have to punish them. Of course they are not properly punished until they are convinced that what is happening to them is just and adequate. And you have no notion what elaborate tortures they insist their exceeding wickedness has merited, as though that which they did or left undone could possibly matter to anybody. And to contrive these torments quite tires us out.”

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The artwork featured here are details from that produced by Virgil Burnett for the Limited Editions Club edition of Jurgen, 1976. The female figure is of the vampire Florimel, who was created from the mind of Jurgen’s father, Coth, as fit punishment for his own sins. She is featured in the chapters on hell as one of Jurgen’s two romantic dalliances, the other being the wife of Grandfather Satan.

Chapter 39, in which our hero laments the
affection shown to him by his demon lover:

“It is my title she loves, not me,” reflected Jurgen, sadly, “and her affection is less for that which is really integral to me than for imperial orbs and sceptres and such-like external trappings.”

And Jurgen would come out of Florimel’s cleft considerably dejected, and would sit alone by the Sea of Blood, and would meditate how inequitable it was that the mere title of emperor should thus shut him off from sincerity and candor.

“We who are called kings and emperors are men like other men: we are as rightly entitled as other persons to the solace of true love and affection: instead, we live in a continuous isolation, and women offer us all things save their hearts, and we are a lonely folk. No, I cannot believe that Florimel loves me for myself alone: it is my title which dazzles her. And I would that I had never made myself the emperor of Noumaria: for this emperor goes about everywhere in a fabulous splendor, and is, very naturally, resistless in his semi-mythical magnificence. Ah, but these imperial gewgaws distract the thoughts of Florimel from the real Jurgen; so that the real Jurgen is a person whom she does not understand at all. And it is not fair.”

Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men. It was not possible, of course, actually to blame the girl, since she was the victim of circumstances, and had no choice about becoming a vampire, once the cat had jumped over her coffin. . . .

Chapter 39, in which our hero continues his
search for justice (and his missing wife):

“It is a comfort, at any rate,” said Jurgen, “to discover who originated the theory of democratic government. I have long wondered who started the notion that the way to get a wise decision on any conceivable question was to submit it to a popular vote. Now I know. Well, and the devils may be right in their doctrines; certainly I cannot go so far as to say they are wrong: but still, at the same time—!”

For instance, this interminable effort to make the universe safe for democracy, this continual warring against Heaven because Heaven clung to a tyrannical form of autocratic government, sounded both logical and magnanimous, and was, of course, the only method of insuring any general triumph for democracy: yet it seemed rather futile to Jurgen, since, as he knew now, there was certainly something in the Celestial system which made for military efficiency, so that Heaven usually won. Moreover, Jurgen could not get over the fact that Hell was just a notion of his ancestors with which Koshchei had happened to fall in: for Jurgen had never much patience with antiquated ideas, particularly when anyone put them into practice, as Koshchei had done.

“Why, this place appears to me a glaring anachronism,” said Jurgen, brooding over the fires of Chorasma: “and its methods of tormenting conscientious people I cannot but consider very crude indeed. The devils are simple-minded and they mean well, as nobody would dream of denying, but that is just it: for hereabouts is needed some more pertinacious and efficiently disagreeable person—”
And that, of course, reminded him of Dame Lisa: and so it was the thoughts of Jurgen turned again to doing the manly thing. And he sighed, and went among the devils tentatively looking and inquiring for that intrepid fiend who in the form of a black gentleman had carried off Dame Lisa. But a queer happening befell, and it was that nowhere could Jurgen find the black gentleman, nor did any of the devils know anything about him.

“From what you tell us, Emperor Jurgen,” said they all, “your wife was an acidulous shrew, and the sort of woman who believes that whatever she does is right.”

“It was not a belief,“ says Jurgen: “it was a mania with the poor dear.”

“By that fact, then, she is forever debarred from entering Hell.”

“You tell me news,” says Jurgen, “which if generally known would lead many husbands into vicious living.”

“But it is notorious that people are saved by faith. And there is no faith stronger than that of a bad-tempered woman in her own infallibility. Plainly, this wife of yours is the sort of person who cannot be tolerated by anybody short of the angels. We deduce that your Empress must be in Heaven.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable. And so to Heaven I will go, and it may be that there I shall find justice.”

“We would have you know,” the fiends cried, bristling, “that in Hell we have all kinds of justice, since our government is an enlightened democracy.”

“Just so,” says Jurgen: “in an enlightened democracy one has all kinds of justice, and I would not dream of denying it. But you have not, you conceive, that lesser plague, my wife; and it is she whom I must continue to look for.”

“Oh, as you like,” said they, “so long as you do not criticize the exigencies of war-time. But certainly we are sorry to see you going into a country where the benighted people put up with an autocrat Who was not duly elected to His position. And why need you continue seeking your wife’s society when it is so much pleasanter living in Hell?”

And Jurgen shrugged. “One has to do the manly thing sometimes.”

from Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, James Branch Cabell

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In Harold Bloom’s introduction to David Rosenberg’s translation of The Book of J, he floats the notion that it was a woman who authored this ancient portion of the Torah.

nausicaaToday I read Samuel Butler’s thesis in his 1897 treatise, The Authoress of the Odyssey, in which he develops the idea that “Homer” did not compose The Odyssey, but a Sicilian woman did.

Comparing the two theses, Butler’s seems the more likely. Butler has more to work with. His arguments are a bit stronger.

Neither idea is all that important, I admit, though both spark interest, a very human interest in the authorship questions. Which Butler directly addresses early on in his book:

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While I deny that art is only as interesting as its revelation of an artist — deny quite strongly — I nevertheless understand Butler’s scratching of an ancient phantom limb.

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I am now going to have to read Butler’s translation of the Odyssey. But once I have set my mind to that, reading his prose Iliad seems a pre-requisite, no? Alas, I tend not to read long fiction, any more — I call it my “Bleak House Rule”: no long novels until I have read Bleak House, and since I haven’t yet read the Dickens masterpiece. . . well, you get the idea. So my new project seems a bit daunting. And doubly so, since the first few pages of Fagles’s poetic translation of the first Homeric epic strikes me as far more entertaining than Butler’s rendition in prose. Well, I would become neither the first nor last reader (or writer) to kick himself.

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FullSizeRender 4According to Samuel Butler — whose Erewhon is a strange sort of masterpiece of science fiction, a sort of comedy of ideas (I wrote a foreword to an ebook reprint edition) — it is Homer’s Iliad and Nausicaa’s Odyssey. The sheer bravado of the thesis reminds me of other great revisionisms, such as Freud’s outrageous reinterpretation of Moses or Julian Jaynes’s speculative history of the “breakdown of the bicameral mind.”

This could be fun.

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ballantine put out a number of high fantasy paperbacks. The publisher called the series “Adult Fantasy,” and many of them featured the unicorn head colophon as well as introductions by Lin Carter. I rate the books here, for no particular reason. I have not read them all yet. (But I would probably sell my complete set for $500. Inquire.) And it is worth mentioning, most of my ratings do not figure in the quality of the forewords, which range from the excellent (the Kai Lung books) to the inaccurate (James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest) to the maddening (The Man Who Was Thursday — do not read the foreword before you read the novel: Carter gives away one of the big surprises).

Several of the books I label “not read” (with the letters “nr”) are the result of me giving up on them. I have never been able to get into E. R. Eddison, and the joys of Lovecraft have so far eluded me.

I offer my judgments with asterisks, in the usual five-star manner, common in movie reviews. (Four-star may be more common, for all I know, but I went with the odd number.) Five stars mean not only did I enjoy the book, but think it has great literary merit. Three means either I enjoyed it, but think it lacks high literary merit, or I did not enjoy it, but confess to seeing its literary merit nevertheless. One star means I definitely did not enjoy it and I regard it as not good. Two means a fairly low interest from me, personally, and recommendation, literarily.

Well, here’s the list, taken from The Haunted Bibliophile, marked with my judgments.

Precursors to The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

  • THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. Tolkien. August, 1965. ****
  • THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE TWO TOWERS, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE RETURN OF THE KING, J.R.R. Tolkien. December, 1965. *****
  • THE TOLKIEN READER, J.R.R. Tolkien. September, 1966. ****
  • THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison. April, 1967. [nr]
  • MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, E.R. Eddison. August, 1967. [nr]
  • A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, E.R. Eddison. February, 1968. [nr]
  • THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, J.R.R. Tolkien & Donald Swann. October, 1968.  *
  • TITUS GROAN, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • TITUS ALONE, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. ***
  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay. November, 1968. *****
  • THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle. February, 1969. *****
  • SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR & FARMER GILES OF HAM, J.R.R. Tolkien. March, 1969. ****
  • THE MEZENTIAN GATE, E.R. Eddison. April, 1969. [nr]

The Series proper

1969

  1. THE BLUE STAR, Fletcher Pratt. May. **
  2. THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, Lord Dunsany. June. ****
  3. THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris. July. [nr]
  4. THE SILVER STALLION, James Branch Cabell. August. *****
  5. LILITH, George Macdonald. September. **
  6. DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES, Lin Carter, ed. October. **
  7. THE YOUNG MAGICIANS, Lin Carter, ed. October. ****
  8. FIGURES OF EARTH, James Branch Cabell. November. ****
  9. THE SORCERER’S SHIP, Hannes Bok. December. ***

1970

  1. LAND OF UNREASON, Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp. January.  **
  2. THE HIGH PLACE, James Branch Cabell. February. *****
  3. LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees. March. ****
  4. AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Lord Dunsany. March. *****
  5. PHANTASTES, George Macdonald. April. **
  6. THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, H.P. Lovecraft. May. **
  7. ZOTHIQUE, Clark Ashton Smith. June. ****
  8. THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT, George Meredith. July. *****
  9. THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, Evangeline Walton. July.  ****
  10. DERYNI RISING, Katherine Kurtz. August. [nr]
  11. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 1, William Morris. August. *****
  12. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 2, William Morris. September. ***
  13. GOLDEN CITIES, FAR, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR, Hannes Bok. November. **

1971

  1. THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson. January. [nr]
  2. THE BOATS OF THE `GLEN CARRIG’, William Hope Hodgson. February. **
  3. THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH, H.P. Lovecraft. February. [nr]
  4. SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  5. RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN, Joy Chant. March. ***1/2
  6. HYPERBOREA, Clark Ashton Smith. April. ***
  7. DON RODRIGUEZ: CHRONICLES OF SHADOW VALLEY, Lord Dunsany. May. ***
  8. VATHEK, William Beckford. June. ****
  9. THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton. July. ****1/2
  10. THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton. August. *****
  11. THE CREAM OF THE JEST, James Branch Cabell. September.  *****
  12. NEW WORLDS FOR OLD, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  13. THE SPAWN OF CTHULHU, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. 37. DOUBLE PHOENIX, Edmund Cooper & Roger Lancelyn Green. November. [nr]
  15. THE WATER OF THE WONDEROUS ISLES, William Morris. November. ****
  16. KHALED, F. Marion Crawford. December. ****1/2

1972

  1. THE WORLD’S DESIRE, H. Rider Haggard & Andrew Lang. January. [nr]
  2. XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith. February. ***
  3. THE LOST CONTINENT, C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne. February. **
  4. DISCOVERIES IN FANTASY, Lin Carter, ed. March. ***
  5. DOMNEI, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  6. KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah. April. ****
  7. DERYNI CHECKMATE, Katherine Kurtz. May. [nr]
  8. BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW, Lord Dunsany. May. *****
  9. THE THREE IMPOSTERS, Arthur Machen. June. [nr]
  10. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 1, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  11. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 2, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  12. THE SONG OF RHIANNON, Evangeline Walton. August. ****
  13. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #1, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  14. EVENOR, George Macdonald. November. ****

1973

  1. ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica, Volume 1, Translation by Richard Hodgens. January. [nr]
  2. THE CHARWOMAN’S SHADOW, Lord Dunsany. February. ***1/2
  3. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #2, Lin Carter, ed. March. [nr]
  4. THE SUNDERING FLOOD, William Morris. May. *****
  5. IMAGINARY WORLDS, Lin Carter. June. ***1/2
  6. POSEIDONIS, Clark Ashton Smith. July. [nr]
  7. EXCALIBUR, Sanders Anne Laubenthal. August. **
  8. HIGH DERYNI, Katherine Kurtz. September. [nr]
  9. HROLF KRAKI’S SAGA, Poul Anderson. October. [nr]
  10. THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard. December. **

1974

  1. KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT, Ernest Bramah. February. *****
  2. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Lord Dunsany. April. *****

Honorable Mention (Related Follow-up Volumes)

  • MERLIN’S RING, H. Warner Munn. June, 1974. [nr]
  • PRINCE OF ANNWN, Evangeline Walton. November, 1974. *****

In looking over this list, I see that it is obvious that I need to re-read some of these, give others another try, and maybe amend my judgments here and there.

The books I have pictured here are ones I have extra copies of. I am more than willing to sell these for c. $10 per copy. Inquire.

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