Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tolkien and Cabell

So, while I'm on the topic, I shd mention (if I haven't already done so before) Tolkien's own opinion of James Branch Cabell.

I'd heard about this second-hand at Kalamazoo four years ago, where my topic for the ON FAIRY STORIES roundtable was Tolkien's knowledge of his fellow fantasists (e.g., MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, Eddison, Carroll, et al.). Now I'm able to confirm this from a second source: Arne Zettersten's J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S DOUBLE WORLD AND CREATIVE PROCESS (a.k.a. MY FRIEND RONALD). In one of the many passing mentions of some topic which Zettersten says he discussed with Tolkien at one point or another, A.Z. mentions sending Tolkien a newspaper article which argued that JRRT had been influenced by Cabell:

"Tolkien wrote back to me and denied forcefully that this was true. The next time we met he took up the matter again and maintained that he knew Cabell well, but that he had read only one of this books and that it was 'quite boring'." [Zettersten, p. 199]

So, looks like we can take it fairly good evidence that (a) Tolkien was aware of Cabell's work and (b) didn't think much of him. I've heard the book in question was Cabell's JURGEN [1917], certainly his most famous work, and one I wd expect Tolkien to find thoroughly uncongenial.

I do find myself wondering if Wilson and Cabell were among those Tolkien had in mind when he wrote in the Foreword to the LotR's second edition: Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writings that they evidently prefer. Ouch. Especially in the suggestion that at least some negative reviewers hadn't necessarily bothered to read the book they were criticizing.

No way to know for certain, I suppose. But interesting to speculate.

--JDR

P.S.: I shd probably add that my own opinion of Cabell is considerably higher than was Tolkien's: while I haven't read anything like his full works, I do recommend first and foremost JURGEN; anyone who enjoys that might want to press on to read whichever of the following he or she comes across, in no particular order: FIGURES OF EARTH, SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, THE CREAM OF THE JEST, THE SILVER STALLION, and perhaps THE HIGH PLACE. All these were published in the decade from 1917 to 1927; of the books he wrote earlier, I've only read one, which I found underwhelming; of the ones I've read from his final three decades, all combined triviality, self-indulgence, and a real underlying nastiness (the latter already all too present in THE HIGH PLACE).

Maybe at some point I'll be able to revive my 'Classics of Fantasy' column; I'd planned to do Cabell's JURGEN in the next three or four titles I got to (after Howard and Vance). We'll see.
--JDR




10 comments:

JL said...

To bring this full circle, Cabell did cherish the work of e.g. Dunsany, Eddison, Charles G. Finney and Arthur Machen, evidence of which can be found in "The Letters of JBC" by E. Wagenknecht ... so at least some of the titans found some nice words for each other.

Dale James Nelson said...

(blush) How's JBC's last name pronounced -- "ca-BELL" or "cable"?

John D. Rateliff said...

PRONOUNCING CABELL:

It's my understanding that it rhymes with 'rabble' and 'babble'. Unfortunately y the time I learned this I'd been calling him 'ca-BELL' for so many years I've never been able to break myself of it.

By the way, DUNSANY isn't pronounced DUN-si-ny, as some wd have it, but dun-SAIN-y (rhymes with 'rainy'). Hence his nickname among his colleagues in Athens as 'Lord Insaney'.

--JDR

John D. Rateliff said...

re JL's comment: well said.

In fact, we know Tolkien admired Morris and Dunsany, and had qualified admiration for Eddison and MacDonald as well.

I once tried to find out if Fletcher Pratt (d. 1956), Dunsany (d. 1957), or Cabell (d. 1958) ever read LotR; there's no absolute evidence but the overwhelming probability is 'no' in each case. Too bad!

I did find out while researching my dissertation back in 1987 that late in life that Dunsany learned of Lovecraft's 'Dunsanian' works; his response was bemused but gracious.

--JDR

Dale James Nelson said...

Well, that's good to know about Cabell's pronunciation. Sounds like Lin Carter got the pronunciation of "Dunsany" right in his remarks about the matter in this or that Ballantine edition. There are rather a lot of related authors with (for us Americans) tricky names -- Buchan, Tolkien, Le Guin, etc. Does anyone know if Lovecraft pronounced the A in his name as in "black" or to rhyme with "croft"?

JL said...

As for pronouncing JBC, indeed he came up with the mnemonic "Tell the rabble / my name is Cabell" :)

MorganThomsen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MorganThomsen said...

Perhaps worth noting: the anthology The Young Magicians (1969) edited by Lin Carter, to which Tolkien contributed with two poems, also includes Cabell's "The Way of Ecben" from The Witch-Woman. As the anthology was published within his lifetime, it is possible that Tolkien (likely receiving a contribtor's copy) read this text by Cabell.

John D. Rateliff said...

Good point, Morgan. No way to know for sure. It's my impression Carter found out about the two poems from their first publication four years earlier, but there may have been some Tolkien contact we don't know about. Possible, anyway.

We do know Tolkien read at least two stories (the ones by Dunsany and Howard) in the collection SWORDS & SORCERY that de Camp had sent him, but then that may have been because de Camp was coming over for a visit. Hard to say. Wonder if he read the Clark Ashton Smith, the Lovecraft, or the Leiber as well? Too bad there's no Cabell in that little book. It's my impression that de Camp didn't like Cabell as much as Lin Carter did (as witnessed by the fact there's no chapter on Cabell in LITERARY SWORDSMEN AND SORCERERS, while the Adult Fantasy Series included no less than six titles by Cabell).

--JDR

Sarah said...

(Coming to this late, sorry, John.)

It's interesting to me, now that I think about it, that Cabell seems to have made precious little impact on me. I guess I'm with Tolkien there - although I certainly read more than Jurgen. I got all the Ballantine reprints as they came out, under Carter. But frankly, I don't think I remember a thing about them! I read The King of Elfland's Daughter in that same period, and Dunsany definitely made more of an impact.