Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Study of Fantasy: Lord Dunsany Opens New Horizons

I continue to work my way through the modern fantasy genre chronologically but also slowly. My last post in this series was about William Morris and his novel The Wood Beyond the World. Before that was George MacDonald and Phantastes. I wasn't able to give either of those books very high praise as a reader, though I can see how they were very influential in creating fantasy as a new genre, separate from the traditional fairy story. The next book on my list was The Well at the World's end, William Morris' epic, but given how little I enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World and the fact that The Well is ridiculously long, I decided to skip it.

That brings me to Lord Dunsany, who started publishing an entirely new kind of fantasy story in the early 1900s. I was excited to test out Lord Dunsany since I had read that he was a major influence on my favorite author, J. R. R. Tolkien. I began with "The Gods of Pegana", published in 1905, which is not really a fantasy novel. It is, rather, a collection of very short stories or, more accurately, vignettes. Each one describes a god of Pegana, his characteristics, his sphere of influence, his role in the history of Pegana.

First is Mana-Yood-Sushai (Isn't that a deliciously exotic name?) who created the gods and then fell asleep. A recurring motif of the stories is that all of the lesser gods can run around and have fun in Pegana while Mana-Yood-Sushai is asleep, but one day he will wake and then he will destroy everything that has been made, including the gods, and remake them. Men are not allowed to pray to Mana-Yood-Sushai.

Mana-Yood-Sushai, illustration from the original publication by Sidney Sime

Another particularly interesting figure is Skarl the Drummer whose ceaseless drumming keeps Mana-Yood-Sushai from waking.

Some say that the Worlds and the Suns are but the echoes of the drumming of Skarl, and others say that they be dreams that arise in the mind of MANA because of the drumming of Skarl, as one may dream whose rest is troubled by sound of song, but none knoweth, for who hath heard the voice of Mana-Yood-Sushai, or who hath seen his drummer?
~The Gods of Pegana

 Slid, whose soul is the sea, is the subject of the short "The Sayings of Slid" which I particularly liked.

And the People of Earth said: "There is a melody upon the Earth as though ten thousand streams all sang together for their homes that they had forsaken in the hills."

And Slid said: "I am the Lord of gliding waters and of foaming waters and of still. I am the Lord of all the waters in the world and all that long streams garner in the hills; but the soul of Slid is in the Sea. Thither goes all that glides upon Earth, and the end of all the rivers is the Sea."

~The Gods of Pegana

Slid by Sidney Sime

 His story is told more fully in the short "The Coming of the Sea" which is found in the book Time and the Gods.

I read Time and the Gods after reading The Gods of Pegana because I enjoyed Pegana so much. The first half of Time and the Gods was much like the previous volume. More short stories and vignettes about various gods, though this time also about the people who worship them. The second part is the story of a King who is preparing to make a journey and calls various priests and prophets of different gods to tell him what the end of his journey will be. It quickly becomes apparent that this journey is a metaphor for death, and the king wants to know what will happen to him after he dies. Alas, all of the priests and prophets give conflicting answers (and there are some fantastic images there) and ultimately the king decides to just eat, drink and be merry and then he dies.

The most striking thing about Dunsany is that he is creating a fantasy setting wholly different from the familiar Anglo fairy tale settings. He claimed both the myths of the Greeks and the Bible as inspirations, but these two books of stories are decidedly more exotic in flavor than either. The names in particular give a strong feeling of otherness. They are at once strange and marvelous. Names like "Sardathrion", "Limpang-Tung", "Alhireth-Hotep the Prophet" and "Dorozhand, Whose Eyes
Regard the End". Though admittedly, he does miss the mark sometimes as with "Triboogie, the Lord of Dusk".

 But Dunsany's imagination was amazing. In only these two books you have so much. There are the games of the gods, one of which was creating men. Men trying desperately to find the gods, only to be rebuffed at every turn, or finding certain gods only to find later on that there were other, more great gods further on. The rise and fall of cities and empires. And, of course, the search for meaning beyond death. But Dunsany doesn't draw any conclusions from these little explorations. He leaves you to draw your own.

Ultimately, I have to say that I was thoroughly enchanted by these two books. They swept me right off to distant places that only exist at the World's Edge. They fired up my own imagination more than any contemporary book I've read for a long time. At some point I want to delve into some of his other writings such as The Book of Wonder, The Sword of Welleran and The King of Elfland's Daughter.

I highly recommend Lord Dunsany to anyone who has an interest in fantastic worlds. You can find much of his writing free at Project Gutenberg.


  1. I'll have to look for it as I've not read any of his work.


    Dorozhand Who Regards the End sounds so cool. And I did chuckle at Triboogie. I guess in the 1900s, that didn't have the same ring it does today ;)

    What an amazing imagination Lord Dunsany had :)

  3. Oooh... I'm gonna have to look into those!

  4. I tried the King of Elfland's daughter. I really did. Not enough coffee in the world. I gave you an award BTW. go here: http://magickless.blogspot.com/2012/01/kreativity.html to see what it is about.

  5. Really glad you enjoyed this. I read King of Elfland's Daughter years ago. I'll look for these. Project Gutenberg is a great place. I use it often.

  6. Alex and Andrew, I hope you will enjoy Dunsany as well.

    Miss Cole, I think we can probably assume that "boogie" didn't have the connotations it has now back in 1905.

    T.B.- Thank you for the award. I'm still going to give The King of Elfland's Daughter a try. It can't be as dry as William Morris.

    Stuart, I have to admit that I went a little crazy getting free classics on my Kindle when I got it and have been avoiding the new. There are such forgotten treasures on Project Gutenberg.

  7. Ohh... I *love* it when I find new stories that I've NEVER heard of before. These sound very interesting--thanks for sharing it with us!

  8. What an undertaking! That current one sounds really interesting...

  9. Those stories sound fascinating. I think it's great that you are reading early fantasy.

  10. I find Dunsany enchanting too - I think that's a very apt word to use about his works. Haven't read the two you have, but I'll add those to the wishlist!


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