Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
In the old days, a middle-aged pawnbroker named Jurgen says a good word for the Prince of Darkness. In gratitude, the Prince of Darkness removes from the earth Dame Lisa, Jurgen’s shrewish wife. Some time later, Jurgen hears that his wife returned to wander on Amneran Heath; consequently, the only manly thing for him to do is to look for her.
It is Walpurgis Night when Jurgen meets Dame Lisa on the heath. She leads him to a cave, but when he follows her inside, she disappears and Jurgen finds a centaur instead. Jurgen inquires for his wife. The centaur replies that only Koshchei the Deathless, the maker of things as they are, can help Jurgen in his quest. The centaur gives Jurgen a beautiful new shirt and starts off with him to the Garden between Dawn and Sunrise, the first stopping place of Jurgen’s journey to find Koshchei.
In the garden, Jurgen finds Dorothy la Désirée, who was his first sweetheart and who retains all the beauty he praised in his youthful poetry. She no longer knows him, for she is in love only with Jurgen as he was in youth, and he cannot make her understand that in the real world she, too, is middle-aged and commonplace. Sadly he parts from her and finds himself suddenly back in his native country.
His friend the centaur becomes an ordinary horse. Jurgen mounts and rides through a forest until he comes to the house of Mother Sereda, the goddess who controls Wednesdays and whose job it is to bleach the color out of everything in the world. By flattery, Jurgen persuades her to let him live over a certain Wednesday in his youth with Dorothy la Désirée. When the magic Wednesday ends, however, Dorothy la Désirée turns into the old woman she really is, and Jurgen quickly departs.
He wanders again to Amneran Heath and enters the cave to look for Koshchei and Dame Lisa. There he finds a beautiful girl who says that she is Guenevere, the daughter of King Gogyrvan of Glathion. Jurgen offers to conduct her back to her home. When they arrive at the court of King Gogyrvan, Jurgen, pretending to be the duke of Logreus, asks for the hand of Guenevere as a reward for her safe return, but she is already promised to King Arthur. Jurgen stays on at court. He makes the discovery that he still looks like a young man; the only trouble is that his shadow is not his shadow; it is the shadow of Mother Sereda.
King Arthur’s envoys, Dame Anaïtis and Merlin, arrive to take Guenevere to London. Jurgen watches her depart for London without feeling any sorrow because of a magic token Merlin gives him. Dame Anaïtis invites Jurgen to visit her palace in Cockaigne, the country where time stands still. There Jurgen participates with her in a ceremony called the Breaking of the Veil, to learn afterward that it was a marriage ceremony and that Dame Anaïtis is now his wife. Dame Anaïtis, a myth woman of lunar legend, instructs Jurgen in every variety of strange pleasures she knows.
Jurgen visits a philologist, who tells him that he, too, is a legend; consequently, he cannot remain long in Cockaigne. When the time comes for him to leave the country, Jurgen chooses to go to Leuke, the kingdom where Queen Helen and Achilles rule. Jurgen’s reason for wishing to go there is that Queen Helen resembles Dorothy la Désirée.
In Leuke, Jurgen meets Chloris, a Hamadryad, and marries her. He is still curious about Queen Helen, however, and one evening he enters her castle and goes to her bedchamber. The sleeping queen is Dorothy la Désirée, but he dares not touch her. Her beauty, created from the dreams of his youth, is unattainable. He leaves the castle and returns to Chloris.
Shortly afterward, the Philistines invade Leuke and condemn all its mythical inhabitants to limbo. Jurgen protests because he is flesh and blood, and he offers to prove his claim by mathematics. Queen Dolores of the Philistines agrees with him after he demonstrates his proof to her by means of a concrete example. However, he is condemned by the great tumblebug of the Philistines for being a poet.
After Chloris is condemned to limbo, Jurgen goes on to the hell of his fathers. There he visits Satan and learns that Koshchei created hell to humor the pride of Jurgen’s forefathers. Then he remembers that he is supposed to be looking for Dame Lisa. Learning that she is not in hell, he decides to look for her in heaven. Mistaken for a pope by means of the philologist’s charm, he manages to gain entrance to heaven, but Dame Lisa is not there. St. Peter returns him to Amneran Heath.
On the heath, he again meets Mother Sereda, who takes away his youth and returns him to his middle-aged body. Actually, it is a relief to Jurgen to be old again. Then for the third time, he enters the cave in search of Dame Lisa. Inside he finds the Prince of Darkness who took her away. The Prince is really Koshchei; Jurgen is near the end of his quest. He asks Koshchei to return Dame Lisa to him.
Koshchei again shows him Guenevere, Dame Anaïtis, and Dorothy la Désirée, but Jurgen will not have them. He had his youth to live over, and he committed the same follies. He is content now to be Jurgen the pawnbroker. Koshchei agrees to return Jurgen to his former life, but he asks for the centaur’s shirt in return. Jurgen gladly gives up the shirt. Koshchei walks with him from the heath into town. As they walk, Jurgen notices that the moon is sinking in the east. Time is turning backward. It is as if the past year never was. He approaches his house and sees through the window that the table is set for supper. Inside, Dame Lisa sits sewing and looking quite as if nothing ever happened.