I just finished reading James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, and it’s absolutely overflowing with references to lore and myth and legend, and plenty of couched philosophical commentary. I’m not going to get too far into that right now, but something has got the squeaky gears in my brain box turning.
In Jurgen, the supreme creator of the universe is one Koshchei the Deathless, an omnipotent but imperfect being who can feel neither pride nor love. As with the rest of Jurgen, there’s probably a lot to unpack about Koshchei, but first I want to refer to his physical description in the novel:
He entered into a notable place illuminated by six cresset lights. These lights were the power of Assyria, and Nineveh, and Egypt, and Rome, and Athens, and Byzantium: six other cressets stood ready there, but fire had not yet been laid to these. Back of all was a large blackboard with much figuring on it in red chalk. And here, too, was the black gentleman, who a year ago had given his blessing to Jurgen, for speaking civilly of the powers of darkness. To-night the black gentleman wore a black dressing-gown that was embroidered with all the signs of the Zodiac. He sat at a table, the top of which was curiously inlaid with thirty pieces of silver: and he was copying entries from one big book into another. He looked up from his writing pleasantly enough, and very much as though he were expecting Jurgen.
Koshchei is referred to many times throughout the story as the “black gentleman.” I find this curious, as the original mythical Koshchei is a Norse figure of no such description. In Jurgen, this supreme god appears to be neither especially beneficent nor malicious. He is mostly concerned with the operation and maintenance of all of creation. Despite his supposed inability to take pride in anything, he does seem to favor Jurgen for speaking well of evil, which if course is one of Koschei’s creations.
Is Koshchei described as being black for any particular reason? It seems that a Christian interpretation of the myth sees Koshchei as representative of sin. Could his black skin here, then, be a manifestation of his impurity? Perhaps it is simply meant to render him mysterious, but I have a feeling there’s more to it that’s eluding me.
This also made me think of Le Fanu, whose Carmilla I wrote about for this year’s Hallowread. I’ve also mentioned one of his short stories, “The Child that went with the Fairies.” One curiosity is that both stories contained brief appearances by a rather distinct character. In both instances the woman appears in a carriage accompanying another woman:
Then she described a hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.
The upper sides of the carriage were chiefly of glass, so that the children could see another woman inside, whom they did not like so well.
This was a black woman, with a wonderfully long neck, hung round with many strings of large variously-coloured beads, and on her head was a sort of turban of silk striped with all the colours of the rainbow, and fixed in it was a golden star.
This black woman had a face as thin almost as a death’s-head, with high cheekbones, and great goggle eyes, the whites of which, as well as her wide range of teeth, showed in brilliant contrast with her skin, as she looked over the beautiful lady’s shoulder, and whispered something in her ear.
– “The Child that went with the Fairies”
What’s the deal with this dark, mysterious, menacing woman? A recurring character in Le Fanu’s stories? Perhaps she is more prominently featured or explained in other of his works. Did he draw her from legend or folk tale, or maybe from the work of another writer?
In this case she seems rather clearly to be evil. Her physical description, along with the fact that she traffics with fairies and vampires, leaves little doubt of that. Her black skin may be a sign of this, though it may also serve to indicate that she’s foreign, exotic, mysterious.
Whatever the case, these are two interesting characters whom I’d like to investigate further when time allows. I think it’s worth noting that the artful cross-weaving of myth, legend, folklore, and even other writers’ works can be quite gratifying for readers.