Have any of you heard of James Branch Cabell? I first learnt of this turn of the 20th century author via the Owlcroft SF&F site (which is a fantastic source for great and esoteric books of speculative fiction), and the glowing recommendations have always remained with me. So, curious and browsing books on Amazon.com, I dipped into the ‘Read Inside’ feature for Jurgen, and found myself pulled in by the opening tale. It was fun and smart but what gave me pause, and impelled me to write this entry, was a brief exchange between Jurgen and a centaur. Here’s the excerpt:
“Hail, friend,” says Jurgen, “if you be the work of God.”
“Your protasis is not good Greek,” observed the Centaur, “because in Hellas we did not make such reservations. Besides, it is not so much my origin as my destination which concerns you.”
Now, like probably most people, I had no idea what ‘protasis’ meant. So I looked it up on dictionary.com and was told the following:
1. the clause expressing the condition in a conditional sentence, in English usually beginning with if. Compare apodosis.
2. the first part of an ancient drama, in which the characters are introduced and the subject is proposed. Compare catastasis, catastrophe (def. 4), epitasis.
3. (in Aristotelian logic) a proposition, esp. one used as a premise in a syllogism.
And what struck me was how brilliant the Centaur’s response was on all fronts. For one, he responds to Jurgen’s qualifier that he will be considered a friend if he is a ‘work of God’; the if clause is an example of the conditional protasis to which the Centaur objects, given that, being of Classical Greek origin, he would indeed not be such.
But further! This happens within the first few pages of the novel, and thus qualifies as the ‘first part of an ancient drama’–the protasis of the novel itself. To which the centaur admonishes Jurgen by saying that it is not the origin (protasis) that should interest Jurgen (or the reader?) but the destination.
In two brief lines the Centaur utters a profoundly insightful and complex response to Jurgen’s standard greeting, based upon the Centaur’s own origins, his parsing of Jurgen’s grammar, and his evaluation of the importance of Jurgen’s focus. A pun wrapped within a grammatical analysis inserted into an admonishment that he look to the future! I mean, hot diggity damn. I’m sold.