Friday, 30 May 2003

James Branch Cabell: The Silver Stallion (1926)

Edition: Unwin, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1163

Many readers of fantasy today basically assume that it is a genre which originated with J.R.R. Tolkien; this is not at all the case, and the best of the earlier writing is, in my opinion, well worth resurrecting. James Branch Cabell is today almost completely unknown, even with the occasional cheap reprint in some "fantasy classics" series, and he has a charm and humour almost totally lacking in most post-Tolkien fantasy. In the second half of the twenties, he wrote a loosely connected trilogy set in the kingdom of Poictesme, of which this is the second. It was attacked at the time as blasphemous and indecent, two charges which would hardly be made today even though it is still just about possible to understand why people reacted in this way.

The Silver Stallion is the best of the volumes in the trilogy. Figures of Earth lacks the ingredients which mark out The Silver Stallion from just about every other fantasy novels, and Jurgen sometimes reads as though Cabell is trying too hard to shock the reader. The reason this novel is different is that it is about what happens after the end of the quest, during the living "happily every after". It starts with the death of Dom Manuel, central character (if not exactly hero) of Figures of Earth. The fellowship of nine companions who fought under the banner of the Silver Stallion ("rampant in every member") is disbanded, and his widow sets about turning his reputation as the liberator of Poictesme into that of a national saviour and redeemer, sort of a cross between Christ and King Arthur. (It is Cabell's appropriation of Christian ideas and even Biblical quotations to his manifestly false redeemer and in particular what is said about the survival of any religion in Part IX which provoked the charge of blasphemy.) The Silver Stallion is about both how the cult of Dom Manuel becomes established and the ageing of his former companions. These nine men find it hard to fit in with the changes in Poictesme, partly because they remember better than anyone else what Dom Manuel was really like, and partly because they miss the old days of fighting and wenching.

The them of the ageing heroes makes The Silver Stallion pretty unusual in the fantasy genre, even today. (In this era of debunked heroes, fantasy has generally continued to depict the old fashioned superhuman goodies.) The closest parallels I can think of are the world weariness of some of Michael Moorcock's heroes, the character of the aged Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings and Cohen the Barbarian, who has a minor role in several of the Discworld novels. Reading the novel reveals, however, that stylistically Cabell is not like these authors stylistically, reminding me instead of L. Sprague de Camp and Tom Holt. It is a pity that Cabell is not still widely known, and this trilogy at least is well worth seeking out.

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