Classic Fantasy Authors: James Branch Cabell and George MacDonald

What does a Victorian Scottish Minister-turned author and lecturer in England have in common with an urbane, contemporary Southern writer and journalist? They were both showcased in 1969, the first year of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, and they both wrote fantastic tales, though of a very different nature. James Branch Cabell’s The Silver Stallion was released by Ballantine as its August, 1969 offering, and George MacDonald’s Lilith was the September, 1969 release. Later that year, Cabell’s Figures of Earth was also featured.

James Branch Cabell(1879-1958), a Virginian who studied mythology and the classics, incorporated many of those themes into  his own fantasy tales, which were popular in the 1920s.  In the thirties, however, when the reading public became more receptive to realistic writers, his medieval and fantastic tales fell out of favor.

Six of Cabell’s novels were released during the 5-year span of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. Prominently missing from the line-up is Cabell’s most famous, or infamous work, Jurgen, which was first published in September, 1919. It was the tale of a middle-aged pawnbroker whose wife is taken hostage by the god of the domain wherein the fantasy is set. Jurgen sets out to find her and, on the way, has a series of trysts with famous women from mythological history such as Guinevere, Helen of Troy and the Lady of the Lake.

In 1920, the Society for the Preservation of Vice sought to confiscate all traces of Jurgen after presenting a warrant to Cabell’s publisher, seeking the plates, copies and any proofs. Two years later the Judge dismissed the charges. As with most banned or confiscated works, the trial had served to give the work much more attention than it would ordinarily have received.

Cabell was a prolific writer, writing short stories, essays, book reviews and a play. His work is witty and filled with word play and satire. He was a pioneer of fantasy, merging mythology and legends and using his imagination to people his alternative worlds.

George MacDonald(1824-1905) wrote children’s fables and tales and fantastic tales for grownups, most notably Lilith and Phantastes. His work is rich in symbolism, and his heroes undergo many toils and hardships in their quests. Of all the authors in this series, I was most impressed by MacDonald’s Phantastes and consider it one of the finest pieces of fantastic literature I’ve ever read. Three of MacDonald’s works were featured in the Adult Fantasy Series.

MacDonald trained in chemistry and physics in University in his native Scotland but later decided to become a minister. He received a degree in divinity and was given a pastorate in England. This calling was not terribly successful, and his congregation asked him to leave within two years. He then turned to writing  and lecturing to support his large family. He wrote realistic novels, poetry and children’s tales, but his most famous works were the adult fantasies, which he continued to write until his death at the age of 80.

You’re by now curious about the obscenity trial and furor over Jurgen. To get you equally intrigued by MacDonald’s works, here’s one of my favorite passages from Phantastes. It’s found at the beginning of the second chapter and marks the start of Anodo’s quest, It’s also the most inventive transition from reality to faerie I’ve encountered:

While these strange events were passing through my mind, I suddenly, as one awakes to the consciousness that the sea has been moaning by him for hours, or that the storm has been howling about his window all night, became aware of the sound of running water near me; and, looking out of bed, I saw that a large green marble basin, in which I was wont to wash, and which stood on a low pedestal of the same material in a corner of my room, was overflowing like a spring; and that a stream of clear water was running over the carpet, all the length of the room, finding its outlet I knew not where. And, stranger still, where this carpet, which I had myself designed to imitate a field of grass and daisies, bordered the course of the little stream, the grass-blades and daisies seemed to wave in a tiny breeze that followed the water’s flow; while under the rivulet they bent and swayed with every motion of the changeful current, as if they were about to dissolve with it, and forsaking their fixed form, become fluent as the waters…..Not knowing what change might follow next, I thought it high time to get up; and springing from my bed, my bare feet alighted upon a cool green sward; and although I dressed all in haste, I found myself completing my toilet under the boughs of a great tree, whose top waved in the golden stream of the sunrise with many interchanging lights, and with shadows of leaf and branch gliding over leaf and branch, as the cool morning wind swung it to and fro, like a sinking sea-wave.

A Selection of Cabell’s Works on Kindle:

  1. Jurgen A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.7 stars on 24 reviews. 382 pages.
  2. Figures of Earth by James Branch Cabell. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 3.7 stars on 6 reviews. 264 pages.
  3. The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck A Comedy of Limitations by James Branch Cabell. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 3.5 stars on 2 reviews. 372 pages.
  4. Chivalry by James Branch Cabell. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.5 stars on 2 reviews. 200 pages.
  5. The Cords of Vanity A Comedy of Shirking by James Branch Cabell. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 5 stars on 1 review. 189 pages.

A Selection of MacDonald’s Works on Kindle:

  1. Lilith, a romance by George MacDonald. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.5 stars on 61 reviews. 369 pages.
  2. The Princess and the Goblin  by George MacDonald. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.5 stars on 13 reviews. 273 pages.
  3. The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.2 stars on 26 reviews. 168 pages.
  4. At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 4.2 stars on 25 reviews. 336 pages.
  5. Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald. Price: Free. Genre: Fantasy. Rated 3 stars on 4 reviews. 166 pages.

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