I have been meaning to read Lord Dunsany for ages, and finally decided to do so this past week. For those who might not know, Dunsany (an Irish-born baron whose given name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett) is one of the most important fantasy writers in all of English literature and who some have credited with giving birth to the modern fantasy genre, rather than Tolkien, on whom he was a significant influence. Other famous authors who were inspired by him, and all of whom are better known than him today, include H. P. Lovecraft, Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman, David Eddings, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others. Meanwhile, Dunsany, who wrote around 50 books–including novels, non-fiction, short stories, essays, and poems–and around 50 plays, spent a great deal of time after his death in 1957 mostly out of print.
I’ve had a copy of Dunsany’s most famous novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, staring at me from one of my bookshelves for years–and the very fact that there is a book called The King of Elfland’s Daughter written by somebody called Lord Dunsany has always delighted me beyond words; it’s like The Princess Bride by “S. Morgenstern” except real–but since I had only just finished tackling a fun but hefty and mentally taxing novel, S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, I wasn’t quite ready for anything as long-form as a novel, even a just-over-200-page one, and so instead, I reached for Wonder Tales, a collection of Dunsany short stories that is actually made up of two books, The Book of Wonder (1912) and Tales of Wonder (1916), and which, despite that, is a combined total of 158 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition. And given that those 158 pages are made up of 33 stories, you might imagine that they are all quite short.
In fact, the majority of them are somewhere between 2 1/2 to 4 pages, which might technically exceed the standard length of flash fiction but which isn’t so far off. This length was absolutely perfect for my current frame of mind. I’m not generally a huge fan of short stories, particularly in collections, because I often have trouble investing myself in characters and plots that I know are only going to run for 15-30 pages or so, only to then have to reinvest myself in a whole new concept, again and again, and when it comes to flash fiction, I often find them too short and insubstantial. Dunsany, however, is a master of the form. Somehow, as if by magic, he manages to conjure up entire fantasy worlds and landscapes, full of the strangest, most beautiful, sometimes eerily evocative atmospheres and cosmologies, in a mere few handfuls of paragraphs.
These stories feel lived-in. Whether any given one is of a more epic or intimate nature, Dunsany creates a whole world each time in a way that feels simultaneously matter-of-fact and dreamily ethereal. At least in these stories, there are very few instances of literal overlap between the various mythologies that he spins so seemingly effortlessly. Each is a complete mini-saga. There are times I found myself reaching the final page or last few paragraphs of one of these stories having no clue how he could possibly wrap it up satisfyingly in the amount of space left, and yet he dazzled me every single time with either a clever twist or a jawdroppingly economical conclusion pulled off with greater artistry than some doorstopper fantasy novels and series.
And another thing about Dunsany: he’s also often very funny. There’s a very dry, British sort of wit to his writing that pops up even in some stories that are, on the surface, straight or even a bit spooky, along with the most wonderful imagery. In one of my favorite examples that I think shows a perfect blend of Dunsany’s proto-Lovecraftian horror elements with his own fantastical adventure and whimsy, “Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men” features three thieves, called Slith, Slippy, and Slorg, attempting to steal a golden box filled with poems of inestimable beauty from an ineffable, eldritch guardian who lives near the edge of the world. Along the way, they pass a “mipt,” a creature that is
half fairy and half gnome, giving shrill, contented shrieks on the edge of the world. And they edged away unseen, for they said that the inquisitiveness of the mipt had become fabulous, and that, harmless as he was, he had a bad way with secrets; yet they probably loathed the way that he nuzzled dead white bones, and would not admit their loathing, for it does not become adventurers to care who eats their bones.
Whimsical, funny, and deeply unsettling all at once. Then, they pass the actual crack in the world, which is fastened together by an iron clamp that one of the men remains stationed near, so that he can threaten to unfasten it, should things go pear-shaped, a humorous and vaguely alarming image that blends the mystical and the mundane and reminds me of something out of Baron Munchausen, such as when the baron sails a ship up into the clouds and eventually to the moon. And then, the story grows progressively darker again, when the thieves meet their ultimate fate.
That, by the way, is a recurring theme of these stories: feisty mortal thief or thieves attempt to steal something from an ancient, fae creature, or a minor god, and meet a horrible end. In each of these instances, Dunsany creates a specter of ageless, alien indifference similar to the sort most associated today with Lovecraft. He does the same with a lot of his worldbuilding. He seems to be writing of worlds that were old when Time itself was young, and performing the illusion so flawlessly, one could easily forget he was making them up as he went along (Dunsany apparently rarely rewrote beyond a first draft, which is amazing, given the quality of the writing.). From “How One Came, as Was Foretold, to the City of Never”:
Even so he came, as foretold, to the City of Never perched upon Toldenarba, and saw late twilight on those pinnacles that know no other light. All the domes were of copper, but the spires on their summits were gold. Little steps of onyx ran all this way and that. With cobbled agates were its streets a glory. Through small square panes of rose-quartz the citizens looked from their houses. To them as they looked abroad the World far-off seemed happy. Clad though that city was in one robe always, in twilight, yet was its beauty worthy of even so lovely a wonder: city and twilight were both peerless but for each other. Built of a stone unknown in the world we tread were its bastions, quarried we known not where, but called by the gnomes abyx, it so flashed back to the twilight its glories, colour for colour, that none can say of them where their boundary is, and which the eternal twilight, and which the City of Never; they are the twin-born children, the fairest daughters of Wonder. Time had been there, but not to the domes that were made of copper, the rest he had left untouched, even he, the destroyer of cities, by what bribe I know not averted. Nevertheless they often wept in Never for change and passing away, mourning catastrophes in other worlds, and they built temples sometimes to ruined stars that had fallen flaming down from the Milky Way, giving them worship still when by us long since forgotten. Other temples they have—who knows to what divinities?
His writing seems to exist at the boundary between fantasy and horror, awake and dreaming. He also foreshadows modern-day urban fantasy in the numerous stories in which a then-modern-day Londoner manages to either see beyond or slip past the veil separating realities between our world and any one of countless Dreamlands. His protagonists tend to be dissatisfied with the smoggy, fetid post-Victorian London, longing to escape the city and find a world of wonder and awe, many of which are extremely similar to the one described in the above quotation.
In “Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance,” an everyday girl is swept away from London to a fairyland by a dragon who might hold her captive but has at least rescued her from mundanity. In “The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shapp,” an ordinary office drone begins to imagine and possibly to experience in waking dreams an existence in a far better world, where he is ruler of all he surveys. In “The City on Mallington Moor,” a man escapes the city for the country, only to find himself discovering another enchanted, elvish city on the moors. And, in one of my favorite stories in either book, “How Ali Came to the Black Country,” a mystic from Persia arrives to save London from the “devil, Steam”. As Ali proclaims, “When we have cast this devil into the sea there will come back again the woods and ferns and all the beautiful things that the world hath, the little leaping hares shall be seen at play, there shall be music on the hills again, and at twilight ease and quiet and after the twilight stars.”
In moments like this, you sense Dunsany’s own longing for those places of the imagination that seem both very far-away and only just out of reach at the same time. Which is also, in many ways, the impulse that probably drives most fantasy writers who came after him, as well. But he was there first. Now, if only more people today knew that!
I enjoyed these two short story collections so much, I’m going right on to The King of Elfland’s Daughter next and also procured a bunch of other Dunsany e-books, and I plan on continuing to blog about my journey as I go along. Hope you’re there for the ride!