Reading Lord Dunsany #3: Pegana and More

And then there’s the manner in which the title itself plays with reader expectation. Sacnoth sounds like some sort of Lovecraftian beastie god, but what it actually is might surprise you, while at the same time it is connected to a “crocodile-dragon”. Meanwhile, Dunsany’s propensity for using religious imagery in a completely secular/non-judgmental or metaphorical manner appears here in an interesting way, for, you see the bad guy, Gaznak, is actually a wizard working for Satan. Except the good guy isn’t fighting him with the power of Heaven, Christ, or any sort of thing one might expect from the sort of story in which someone fights Satan, but instead with good old Pagan magic.

The description of the Fortress Unvanquishable itself is also redolent with Dunsanian enchantment. The Fortress itself is literally composed of dreams:

…the marvel of that place was the dreams of Gaznak; for beyond the wide court slept a dark abyss, and into the abyss there poured a white cascade of marble stairways, and widened out below into terraces and balconies with fair white statues on them, and descended again in a wide stairway, and came to lower terraces in the dark, where swart uncertain shapes went to and fro. And these were the dreams of Gaznak, and issued from his mind, and, becoming gleaming marble, passed over the edges of the abyss as the musicians played. And all the while out of the mind of Gaznak, lulled by that strange music, went spires and pinnacles beautiful and slender, ever ascending skywards. And the marble dreams moved slow in time to the music. When the bells tolled and the musicians played their dirge, ugly gargoyles came out suddenly all over the spires and pinnacles, and great shadows passed swiftly down the steps and terraces, and there was hurried whispering in the abyss.

Other favourites of mine in The Sword of Welleran are the title story, in which the spirits of ancient heroic warriors awaken to defend a new threat to their beloved city by slipping into the dreams of various town citizens and basically magically possessing them or at least compelling them to action through these dreams; “The Highwaymen,” another ghostly story in which a group of cutthroat criminals help bring peace to the restless soul of an executed comrade of theirs; “The Ghosts,” yet another ghostly and drily comic tale about two brothers arguing over the existence of ghosts; and the haunting, lovely, and funny, “The Kith of the Elf-Folk,” in which a tiny elven creature, or Wild Thing, becomes so enraptured by the sounds of music and prayer emanating from a church that it considers trading its eternal life for a soul so it can explore religion and the world of men–a soul that, being created by magic, cannot get it into heaven after death, meaning the Wild Thing would cease to exist at that point rather than live forever, unless she wants to give it up, which would require convincing a human without a soul to accept it in her stead.

And while I was almost expecting something deeply tragic, along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s heartbreaking fairy tales, in which good creatures often senselessly sacrifice themselves for greater purposes, because the set-up is very reminiscent of some of those–particularly “The Nightingale and the Rose”–again, I should have remembered this is Dunsany, and, no, something entirely different, completely surprising, and rapturously beautiful happens, weaving together magic, dream logic, and a dash of satire.

As with The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a lot of the satirical elements are centered on the religious characters, and in this case particularly, their piety and even their hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Dunsany seems to have a beef with people who, in the name of worship, rather than reveling in the wonders of the natural world, attempt to reduce them to something far more banal, mundane, and easily understandable. It’s fascinating to see a fantasy story from 1908 which is so boldly critical of this sort of mindset–and it is criticizing the mindset, not challenging the very existence of God, for, as in Elfland’s Daughter, both Heaven and Fae realms unequivocally exist–and which seems to favour the Pagan world to Christianity.

Next up: the short story collection, A Dreamer’s Tales, and a collection of five Dunsany plays appropriately called Five Plays.

All Lord Dunsany Posts

Author: Robert Berg

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