Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery: James Branch Cabell

I do not seek to copy nature. I, on the contrary, create to divert me such faith and dreams as living among men would tend to destroy... Life is a pageant that passes very quickly, going hastily from one darkness to another darkness with only ignes fatui to guide; and there is no sense in it.”

”Tell the rabble my name is Cabell.
— James Branch Cabell

"James Who?" a Gentle Reader of the DMR Blog might ask, and with good reason. James Branch Cabell, who was born on April 14, 1879--just over one hundred forty years ago--has slipped into genteel literary obscurity. An author once praised and befriended by the likes of Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, JBC had his entire fantasy epic, known as “The Biography of the Life of Manuel,” printed in a uniform hardcover eighteen-volume set at the height of his popularity in the 1920s and early '30s. He was, by far, the preeminent American literary fantasist of that era. And yet, he is barely known outside hardcore literary fantasy circles now.

There are certainly understandable reasons for that. Cabell wrote in a "high" style, which has been compared to Arthur Machen, P.G. Wodehouse and Jack Vance. His fantasy tales are riddled with historic, mythic and literary allusions, along with various kinds of wordplay, including anagrams. There is also the fact that JBC wrote his tales of fantasy long before the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. In other words, Cabell isn't even close to being the Current Year.

However, here at the DMR blog, we're more concerned with JBC's influence upon the sword and sorcery genre, especially his effect on the First Dynasty of S&S scribes who created the genre in the 1930s. Let's take a look at what they had to say about ol' JBC.

Robert E. Howard was a big fan of Cabell. We can confidently date his appreciation of JBC from 1927-on, but he quite possibly read Cabell even earlier. Here is what REH had to say about Cabell's Something About Eve:

Something About Eve is perhaps the crowning achievement of a man who, speaking in a purely literary sense, is undoubtedly the ablest writer of the present age. Cabell writes with a diamond pen, if you understand me. Well, Something About Eve would be a masterpiece, if for no other reason, because of its perfect English and its juicy morsels of carefully turned obscenity. Cabell has the elegant knack of being beautifully vulgar, and of concealing — from the mass — the most jubilant depravities in innuendo.

"[T]he ablest writer of the modern age". "[A] masterpiece". A strong endorsement, indeed. As we know from the REH Bookshelf, Howard also owned JBC's The Cream of the Jest, as well as continuing to read Cabell right up through his relationship with Novalyne Price. In my opinion, it's quite likely that Howard read JBC's most famous novel, Jurgen, at some point. I could go into what I see as possible Cabellian influences upon REH, but I don't want to derail this post. A subject for another day. 


Clark Ashton Smith would seem an obvious candidate for Cabellian fanhood, but I can nowhere find a Klarkash-Tonian paean regarding JBC to rival that bestowed by REH. CAS did mention Cabell's imaginary French province of Poictesme numerous times in his letters, however. I don't think it any kind of stretch to speculate that Poictesme had an influence on the creation of Smith's own Averoigne. In fact, CAS --probably jokingly--made Averoigne coterminus with Poictesme in a letter to R.H. Barlow.


As usual, we know less about the literary likes of, and influences upon, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. I did manage to learn that Kuttner and Moore's "The Children's Hour" from 1944 namechecks Cabell. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they had both read and liked JBC.

Finally, we come to Fritz Leiber. It is with Fritz that we find the most direct evidence of Cabell's influence upon early S&S. Check this out: 

One of the original motives for conceiving Fafhrd and the Mouser was to have a couple of fantasy heroes closer to true human stature than supermen like Conan and Tarzan and many another. In a way they’re a mixture of Cabell and Eddison, if we must look for literary ancestors. Fafhrd and the Mouser have a touch of Jurgen’s cynicism and anti-romanticism, but they go on boldly having adventures — one more roll of the dice with destiny and death.

The "Jurgen" that Leiber refers to is the eponymous hero of JBC's most famous novel, Jurgen--which received a glowing review from Fritz in a 1966 issue of Amra. Cabell and Jurgen are right there in the DNA of Fafhrd and the Mouser. Leiber also wrote an essay on Cabell titled "Titivated Romance."

Cabell's popularity amongst--and influence upon--sword and sorcery authors didn't end with Leiber. JBC's star fell into almost total eclipse in the 1950s, but Lin Carter--himself a steadfast fan--brought Cabell back out for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series in the late '60s. More or less simultaneous with this was the establishment of Kalki, the Cabellian literary journal. Looking at the table of contents of the various issues of Kalki is enlightening. Poul Anderson shows himself to be a major JBC fan, contributing not only letters to the editor, but also several articles. Roger "Dilvish the Damned" Zelazny also sent in a letter, as did L. Sprague de Camp. It should be noted that finding, subscribing to and writing for such small journals in pre-Internet times required a fair amount of effort.*


Michael Moorcock is also on record as being a Cabell fan in his youth, though his admiration is more tempered these days. To wit, "While I admire the work of James Branch Cabell, ultimately I find his ironies too relentless."

John Brunner has stated that his "Traveler in Black" S&S tales were written as a conscious homage to Cabell. He specifically cited JBC's The Silver Stallion as a model and inspiration.

Finally, we come to the foremost Cabellian S&S author of the last forty years: Karl Edward Wagner. I can imagine a few of you are surprised by that fact, just as several Gentle Readers were astonished to learn that KEW considered Robert W. Chambers to be his foremost literary influence, not Robert E. Howard or somesuch. Anyway, here is a quote from Wagner's lifelong friend, John Mayer:

Karl was a great Cabell fan; I’ve no reason to think he ever lost his admiration for the man. The first of his books he read was, I believe, Jurgen. I read Jurgen at Karl’s urging and The Cream of the Jest (at least) later on.

Once again, we see Jurgen and The Cream of the Jest being namechecked.

What is it about Cabell's fantasy that resonated so much with Howard, Leiber and Wagner? While it could certainly be argued that Leiber's Lankhmar tales are fairly Cabellian, what did REH and KEW see in Cabell? I think it has to be the themes JBC dealt with again and again. That what we strive for with such gusto may not be all it seems and, in the end, may not be worth the candle. That even if we accomplish all our dreams, they will be as one with the dust of forgotten ages soon enough. Those concepts can certainly be found in the fiction--and nonfiction--of Howard, Leiber and Wagner.

I think this excerpt from Cabell's Beyond Life is a good illustration of his thoughts and a fine way to end this retrospective into his influence upon the sword and sorcery field...

There were how many dynasties of Pharaohs, each one of whom was absolute lord of the known world, and is to-day forgotten? Among the countless popes who one by one were adored as the regent of Heaven upon earth, how many persons can to-day distinguish? And does not time breed emperors and czars and presidents as plentiful as blackberries, and as little thought of when their season is out? For there is no perpetuity in human endeavor: we strut upon a quicksand: and all that any man may do for good or ill is presently forgotten, because it does not matter.

*Robert Heinlein, Evangeline Walton, H. Beam Piper and Lloyd Alexander were all Cabell fans. Neil Gaiman counts JBC as his favorite author. However, a look at such things falls outside the purview of this article.

Previous installments in the "Forefathers" series:

Harold Lamb

H. Rider Haggard

H.P. Lovecraft

A. Merritt

Robert W. Chambers

Jack London