IN THE YEAR 1239, Manuel the high count of Poictesme disappeared from his realm, never to return. Since his only son was a child of two, rule passed to his wife, the young Countess Niafer. For the next 19 years she governed Poictesme, partly according to her own ideas, partly to suit her principal adviser, a Christian saint and missionary known as Holy Holmendis.

One result of Count Manuel's disappearance was the breakup of the military order of which he had been the founder and leader: the Fellowship of the Silver Stallion. The members, besides himself, had been the nine barons of Poictesme, who included such notable warriors as Kerin of Nointel, Donander of ,Evre, and that great magician Miramon Lluagor. One by one most of these barons also left Poictesme, some to follow other leaders in other wars, some in search of Count Manuel, one to abandon knightly adventures and become a scholar. By 1260, all but two had gone.

Is this some obscure scrap of European history? No, it's the imagined background for a very curious novel. James Branch Cabell is one of the long line of sword-and-sorcery writers that runs from Sir Thomas Malory down to yesterday's pulp fantasist, and he is like no other on the list. An extreme romantic, he is simultaneously an extreme skeptic. A writer elegant and learned far beyond the American norm, he is also fond of smut. A lover of courtly good manners, he nevertheless delights in truly breathtaking irreverence.

The Silver Stallion is cast in the form of medieval chronicle. The book opens at Count Manuel's castle soon after his disappearance. His nine barons have gathered publicly for the formal disbanding of the order, and privately to discuss what to do with the rest of their lives, now that the young countess and St. Holmendis have set about reforming Poictesme into dull piety. Mostly they decide to avoid the new regime by becoming knights errant. Cabell then follows them one by one on their adventures.

Lord Gonfal of Naimes is the first to leave. He journeys south, to the land of Inis Dahut, where a quest has been cried for the hand of dark-haired Queen Morvyth, and he joins that quest. In the best fairy-tale style, the suitor who is to win her must fare forth, do battle with evil, and return in a year with some splendid prize to be his bridal gift. Best prize gets queen.

Eight candidates appear: seven youthful princes, and Lord Gonfal, who seems to be in his late thirties. There is a fine scene as the eight draw their swords and swear fealty to the quest. At that moment the tale veers off to become Cabellian. As the eight resheathe their shining blades, one clumsy fellow drops his, and it pierces his own left foot. That fellow is Lord Gonfal, who is thus compelled to stay in Inis Dahut and recuperate, while the seven princes go a-questing.

By the time they return, each with a noble treasure, Gonfal and the queen are old friends. So close have they become that she is reluctant to pick the winning treasure and marry the hero who brought it. These princelings no longer interest her. She says openly that she rather wishes the various dragons and giants had killed them, rather than vice-versa.

There was never a chance. "Each of these men is the shrewd, small and ill-favoured third son of a king," Gonfal tells her. "It is the law that such unprepossessing midgets should prosper, and override every sort of evil, in the Isles of Wonder and all other extra-mundane lands."

"But is it fair, my friend," the queen persists, "is it even respectful, to the august and venerable powers of iniquity, that these whippersnappers--?"

The upshot is that she decides none of the treasures they brought is worthy, and renews the quest for a second year. Gonfal's foot has long since healed, and he is to go, too. Once again eight swords are drawn for a solemn vow. But just as the eight champions, bearing their bright blades, are ascending the steps of the altar of Pyg,e-Upsizugos to be blessed by the high priest, one slips on the polished stone steps. It's Gonfal again. His sword flies out of his hand. Quickly he catches it--and, lo, the keen edge has cut through the bone and tendon of his right hand. Once again he is compelled to tarry at court. Next year . . . but you'll have to read Cabell for that.

The next to leave is Lord Coth, the stubbornest and most bull-necked of the nine barons. He journeys west, searching for his liege lord. After many adventures he comes to a far empire called Porutsa. There, just outside the capital city, he comes on a vast black statue in a field of wild green peppers. Obviously it's the local deity, and judging by the numbers of human bones lying about, this is his place of sacrifice.

As a matter of mere civility, Coth kneels and offers homage to the statue. To his considerable surprise, it is promptly accepted. The god appears in person, huge and naked. His name is Yaotl. Within minutes he is giving blessings to his new worshipper (Coth is to be the next emperor of Porutsa), and also putting commandments on him. Among these are the command to refrain from public nudity--this is a privilege of divinity--and to respect the sacred green peppers. Yaotl then departs.

Coth hates being told what to do. He instantly strips off his clothes, gathers all the peppers he can carry, and heads into town. There he is arrested and taken before the current emperor for questioning. "Who are you, and what is your business in Porutsa?" the emperor asks.

Coth is much too busy disobeying Yaotl's commandments to explain his real mission. "I am an outlander called Coth of the Rocks, a dealer in green peppers, and I came hither to sell my green peppers," he says coolly. Naturally all this infuriates Yaotl (though it enchants the emperor's daughter, who has never seen a pink, naked outlander before). In the end, Coth suffers a still stranger fate than Gonfal's.

But my favorite of the adventures is that which happens to Donander of ,Evre. As Coth was the stubbornest of Count Manuel's barons, Donander is the stupidest. He is an exceptionally good soldier, but not quick of thought. When Donander leaves Poictesme, he joins a Christian army which is crusading against the pagan Norsemen. When Red Palnatoki, the Norse champion, issues a challenge, it is Donander who comes clanking out in full armor to meet him. Their swordplay is astounding, and ceases only when the heroes have mortally wounded each other. Then the tale becomes Cabellian.

The fight has been witnessed not only by the two armies, but by two divine messengers. One is the angel Ithuriel, the other a sort of male valkyrie named Kjalar. They are present to gather up those who die fighting bravely and to take them, respectively, to heaven and to Valhalla. They have been doing this sort of thing almost daily for centuries, and are old friends. Chatting away as the fight goes on, they get careless. Each takes the wrong soul, so that Palnatoki winds up in heaven and Donander in Valhalla. It would be hard to say which is funnier, Palnatoki's subsequent involvement with the Great Whore of Babylon (the only woman in heaven he finds even faintly interesting), or Donander's inability to grasp just where and what he is. He continues to worship at a small Christian shrine he has set up, eons after he has become a Norse god himself.

Cabell is not everyone's dish of tea. The sexual innuendo that seemed so daring in 1926 is not going to give nearly so many little delightful shocks and thrills now. His vast impudence is going to amuse younger readers more than older ones--it amused me more when I was twenty than it does now. (I was more interested in seeing authority figures successfully mocked in those days.) His smooth and elaborate style will not impress Hemingway purists; it may even annoy them.

But there truly is tea in the cup: a smoky and sophisticated Lapsang souchong. People who delight in polish and poise and wit, who like to see an absolute master of invention, will like The Silver Stallion.

A Note on Availability: Like most of Cabell's work, The Silver Stallion is out of print. But there were so many printings in the 1920s and '30s, as well as a paperback edition in the 1960s, that the book is still often found in second-hand bookstores. You can usually pick up a hardcover copy for about $10, the paperback for much less.