I’ve been reading famous-in-his-time-although-largely-unknown-today fantasy writer Lord Dunsany (who was a major influence on Tolkien and Lovecraft, among others) for the past three weeks, beginning with two of his most acclaimed short story collections, The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder, and continuing with his masterpiece, the novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter. After being so enamored with those books, considered some of his best work, I felt that the best way to proceed with my Dunsany reading would be to rewind back to the beginning of his career and go mainly in order from this point forwards.
This week, I read his first three books, all short story collections, the first two of which contain stories all set in the same shared fantasy universe, and the third of which contains some that link to the previous books and others that start striking out in a new direction, more typical of his later work that I’ve read so far. They are, in order, The Gods of Pegāna (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), and The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908), which is also how I would rank them in ascending order of quality.
The two Pegāna collections are fascinating for numerous reasons, first and foremost because of how Dunsany creates a large, consistent pantheon of gods, which clearly sets the stages for later, even more elaborately conceived mythologies by writers such as, again, Tolkien and Lovecraft. Reading these books today, it is nearly impossible for The Silmarillion to not spring immediately to mind. Much like Tolkien’s Middle Earth “prequel,” it stylistically reads more like a fantasy twist on the King James Bible than a 20th century novel or book of short stories. However, despite having similarly, deliberately archaic, grandiose language, it isn’t as complexly worked out as Tolkien’s work would later be, and whereas Silmarillion is my favorite Tolkien, I had trouble maintaining interest throughout the Pegāna books, despite them being very slim. This is largely because most of their entries aren’t stories so much as (often very) short pieces describing each god, not unlike a bestiary of imagined deities.
Furthermore, there are also a large number of drawn-out prophecies in each book, spoken by various seers in this imagined world. And while these prophecies are chockful of some absolutely gorgeous descriptive passages, loaded with surreal, wondrous, and bizarre dream imagery, they have a tendency to go plotlessly on and on and on. And on. And on. Particularly in the case of “The Journey of the King,” an 11-chapter novella-of-sorts that closes off Time and the Gods. And, unlike Dunsany’s later, ingenious short stories, they don’t usually end up getting anywhere other than having created some fantastic (and fantastical) atmosphere.
That isn’t to say that the first two books are a wash. For someone simply interested in Dunsany’s work, it’s fascinating to see his development as a writer. These early stories seem to be attempting a pastiche of classic mythological works and display little if any of the distinctive humour of his later writing. In fact, from what I’ve learned from a bit of Google research, Dunsany’s later humour was at least partially an attempt to poke a little fun at the “pomposity” (for lack of a better word) of his own earlier writing. But it’s very informative to actually experience that earlier writing, much of which is beautiful, albeit not as polished or masterful as his later work.
Furthermore, some of the themes that run throughout his Wonder Tales and The King of Elfland’s Daughter can be spotted here, albeit in a more relatively primitive form. His fascination with the passage of time is a major aspect of these stories (it even appears in the title of the second book). Much like in Norse mythology, the fact that this world and all of its gods will one day end is something that is known from the very beginning, and reiterated throughout, practically in every story at one point or another. And particularly in the second book, there are some interesting confrontations in which mortal characters face up against Time itself, hoping to conquer it.
Now, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories is much closer to the Dunsany that I came to know and love in the first three books of his that I read. The fantasy is more unrestrainedly imaginative, the wit is sharper, the stories tend to have much punchier endings, often with a clever twist, and his trademark balance between the fantastical, the eerie, and the humorous is really starting to make itself known here.
My favourite story in this set is “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth,” the title of which alone hints at all of these things, calling to mind elements of high fantasy with just a dash of undercutting humour. When I first glanced at the table of contents, this is the story I was most interested in reading, whilst I was also slightly worried about whether it could live up to its title. Okay, maybe not really. It is Dunsany, after all. And it is, indeed, an absolute delight, for numerous reasons: for starters, its ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek rendering of the typical “Chosen-One”-of-sorts-goes-off-to-vanquish-a-Dark-Lord narrative but with numerous twists.