Lord Dunsany: Fantasy and Terror - The Titans - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Lord Dunsany: Fantasy and Terror
The Titans
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

It may seem an anomaly to treat the work of Lord Dunsany in this book, but his work came at a critical juncture in the history of supernatural fiction. By the end of his long career, it could be said that Dunsany had effected the definitive separation of pure fantasy from supernatural horror, so that the former was carried on by such of his successors as Mervyn Peake and J. R. R. Tolkien; the latter’s The Lord of the Rings (1954—55) emerged before Dunsany’s passing and was clearly influenced by his early work. And yet, Dunsany remains integral to the tradition of the supernatural in literature as well, and not only for his decisive influence on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, his most notable disciple; his own work possesses a richness of texture that makes it inexhaustibly rewarding.

The notion that Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, who became the eighteenth Baron Dunsany (pronounced Dun-SAY-ny) upon his father’s death in 1899, would become a central figure in twentieth-century fantasy would have struck the author himself as little short of fantastic. Certainly there was little in his background or early upbringing to suggest that Dunsany would be anything other than an average scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. His birth in London on July 24, 1878, is not insignificant, for it highlighted the fact that Dunsany would remain Anglo-Irish to the end of his days, with perhaps a slightly greater emphasis on the first element of that compound. A devoted Unionist who loathed the Nationalists who wished to tear Ireland away from Great Britain (in later years he would speak bitterly of the “Disunited Kingdom”), Dunsany regularly alternated his living quarters from Dunsany Castle in County Meath to his home at Dunsall Priory, Shoreham, Kent. During his early education, at Eton and Sandhurst, he showed no particular literary bent; and his first published work, a mediocre poem in the Pall Mall Magazine for September 1897, did little to indicate that Dunsany would, in the course of a fifty-year career, produce dozens of novels and plays and hundreds of short stories and poems, and would receive accolades from both sides of the Atlantic and from critics ranging from Rebecca West and Graham Greene to H. L. Mencken and William Rose Benét.

But then, in 1904, Dunsany took it into his mind to write The Gods of Pegana. Because he had no literary reputation, he was forced to subsidise its publication by Elkin Mathews the next year; but never again would Dunsany have to pay for the issuance of any of his work. This very slim volume, scarcely 20,000 words in length, created a sensation among both readers and critics—especially after a favourable review by the poet Edward Thomas in the London Daily Chronicle—and could well be said to have introduced something quite new in literature. What Dunsany had done was to create an entire cosmogony, complete with a pantheon of ethereal but balefully powerful gods—a cosmogony, however, whose aim was not the fashioning of an ersatz religion that made any claim to metaphysical truth, but rather the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s immortal dictum, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things” (preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray). For Dunsany, who was probably an atheist, the creator god Mana-Yood-Sushai was not a replacement for either the jealous god of the Old Testament or the loving god of the New, but a symbol for the transience and ephemerality of all creation: it is not through any conscious act that Mana brought the worlds into existence; those worlds are, instead, merely the dreams that arise in his mind, ruled over by “small gods” who, nevertheless, exercise awesome power over their little realms. One day Skarl, whose continual drumming keeps Mana asleep and dreaming, will cease to pound his drum, and Mana will wake, and the worlds will vanish like bubbles in the air… .

What could possibly have led Dunsany to fashion such an extraordinary universe of pure imagination? The literary influences operating on his work are difficult to specify, especially since Dunsany, although the author of three substantial autobiographies, is himself rather cagey in speaking of his literary antecedents. It has long been recognised that both the archaic cast and the stately cadences of Dunsany’s prose style derive from his thorough familiarity with the language of the King James Bible. But the multiplicity of gods in Dunsany’s pantheon, as well as their creation in a spirit of tenuous beauty rather than cosmic truth, may also suggest the influence of Graeco-Roman mythology, and Dunsany himself admits as much. His inability to master Greek in youth

left me with a curious longing for the mighty lore of the Greeks, of which I had had glimpses like a child seeing wonderful flowers through the shut gates of a garden; and it may have been the retirement of the Greek gods from my vision after I left Eton that eventually drove me to satisfy some such longing by making gods unto myself, as I did in my first two books. (Patches of Sunlight 30)

But a philosophical influence can also be conjectured. Dunsany read Nietzsche in 1904, just around the time he wrote The Gods of Pegana, and we can detect the presence of the German iconoclast in numerous conceptions and perhaps even in its ponderous phraseology, so similar to the prose-poetic rhythms of Thus Spake Zarathustra. In effect, Dunsany was seeking to fuse the naïveté and spirit of wonder that had led primitive humanity to invent its gods with a very modern sensibility that recognised the insignificance of mankind amidst those incalculable vortices of space and time that modern science had uncovered.

Dunsany went on to produce, over the next decade and a half, perhaps the most remarkable body of fantasy literature that the twentieth century can claim: the story collections Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919), and two collections of plays, Five Plays (1914) and Plays of Gods and Men (1917). These volumes are, however, far from constituting a uniform or monolithic body of work. It is true that Time and the Gods is an avowed sequel to The Gods of Pegana, elaborating upon the Pegana mythology and emphasising the transience of the gods themselves in the face of the unrelenting scythe of Time; and several tales in other volumes—notably “The Sword of Welleran” and “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”—could be said to have initiated the subgenre of sword and sorcery, in which heroic battles in fantastic lands are the focus. But in a substantial proportion of other tales the “real” world begins to encroach insidiously upon the realm of pure imagination, and it is this dynamic fusion of reality and fantasy that frequently engenders some of the most evocative and and poignant moments in Dunsany’s early work.

And yet, that “real” world was never absent from Dunsany’s imagination, if we are to take him at his own word. In noting how, at an early age, he saw a hare in the garden of Sir Joseph Prestwich, Dunsany goes on to remark in his first autobiography, Patches of Sunlight (1938):

If ever I have written of Pan, out in the evening, as though I had really seen him, it is mostly a memory of that hare. If I thought that I was a gifted individual whose inspirations came sheer from outside earth and transcended common things, I should not write this book; but I believe that the wildest flights of the fancies of any of us have their homes with Mother Earth. (9)

A little later he writes more generally:

The source of all imagination is here in our fields, and Creation is beautiful enough for the furthest flights of the poets. What is called realism only falls far behind these flights because it is too meticulously concerned with the detail of material; mere inventories of rocks are not poetry; but all the memories of crags and hills and meadows and woods and sky that lie in a sensitive spirit are materials for poetry, only waiting to be taken out, and to be laid before the eyes of such as care to perceive them. (20—21)

Many of Dunsany’s devotees, who have cherished his early work precisely because of its otherworldly remoteness, will be startled by these passages; but these words will gain still more relevance when we consider the long course of Dunsany’s later writing.

The most remarkable feature of Dunsany’s early tales and plays is their prose style; but the essence of that style has frequently been misconstrued. Dunsany’s style is not nearly as dense or adjective-laden as of other writers of poetic prose—John Lyly, Sir Thomas Browne, William Morris, Oscar Wilde (especially in his fairy tales), Arthur Symons, Clark Ashton Smith, and others. Instead, Dunsany’s most powerful effects are engendered by a daring use of symbol, metaphor, and simile. In “In the Land of Time,” an army quixotically seeks to beard Time in his lair, but Time hurls a handful of years at them—“and the knees of the army stiffened, and the beards grew and turned grey” (In the Land of Time 66). In this sense much of Dunsany’s work aligns itself with the tradition of the fable, especially in its use of a transparent moral and its paring away of all extraneous narrative features (including, in many cases, character or landscape description) that do not bear upon the tale’s outcome. An important feature of Dunsany’s style is his singularly felicitous invention of imaginary names—names not devised at random, but carefully coined to create dim echoes of Greek, Arabic, Asian or other mythologies, and so to convey implications of antiquity, holiness, and exotic beauty.

Although the books of Dunsany’s first fifteen years as a writer established his fame throughout the English-speaking world—especially after his tales began appearing in the London Saturday Review and in H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set—one can also detect a certain shift in Dunsany’s own attitude toward his work. This shift becomes most evident in The Book of Wonder. The stories in this volume—inspired by paintings by Sidney H. Sime, whose imaginative illustrations to Dunsany’s early books were in no small part responsible for their popularity—reveal a wry, owlish humour that constitutes a virtual parody of the “gods and men” scenarios that had enraptured his early readers. In story after story, characters of dubious honesty receive a fitting comeuppance at the hands of the gods. It is a matter of taste whether one likes this development in Dunsany’s manner. One of those who did not was H. P. Lovecraft, whose appreciation for Dunsany’s work generally bordered upon the idolatrous. In a letter he commented astutely:

As he gained in age and sophistication, he lost in freshness and simplicity. He was ashamed to be uncritically naive, and began to step aside from his tales and visibly smile at them even as they unfolded. Instead of remaining what the true fantaisiste must be—a child in a child’s world of dream—he became anxious to show that he was really an adult good-naturedly pretending to be a child in a child’s world. This hardening-up began to show, I think, in The Book of Wonder. (Selected Letters 5.354)

It is also possible that the outbreak of World War I had something to do with this evolution. The preface to The Last Book of Wonder suggests that Dunsany—who had already seen action in the Boer War at the turn of the century and had enlisted in the Coldstream Guards—did not expect to survive the conflict. He did indeed have a close brush with death, but it occurred during the Dublin riots of 1916, when his car was ambushed and he was hit in the face by a rebel’s bullet. In the end Dunsany did not get sent overseas, but his visits to some of the battlefields in France were recorded in the poignant and lugubrious volume Unhappy Far-Off Things (1919).

After the war, a change seemed to be in order. Following Tales of Three Hemispheres Dunsany wrote almost no short stories for the next five or six years. A spectacularly successful American lecture tour in 1919—20 cemented his reputation—a reputation, incidentally, that now rested largely on his plays. His early dramas had been staged in both Ireland and England to great success, and in 1916 a Dunsany craze swept the United States, as each one of the Five Plays was simultaneously produced in a different off-Broadway theatre in New York. The Gods of the Mountain remained Dunsany’s most popular play, and it may well be his greatest; in its depiction of seven beggars who boldly strive to pass themselves off as the green jade gods on the top of a mountain, it comes close to capturing the gravity of Greek tragedy, but not without a certain Nietzschean awareness of the passing of the divine from human affairs. If (1921), his only full-length play, is an exhilarating meditation on time and chance. Later volumes—Plays of Near and Far (1922), Alexander and Three Small Plays (1925), and Seven Modern Comedies (1928)—also contain outstanding work.

But Dunsany himself felt the need to strike out in new directions. He abandoned the short story for a time and turned to novel writing. After producing a charming but insubstantial picaresque tale, The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), he wrote the gorgeous otherworldly fantasy, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), in a splendid return to his early manner. Both The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926) and The Blessing of Pan (1927) have their distinctive charms; the latter in particular is a lost jewel of fantastic literature in its simultaneous depiction of the triumph of nature over modern civilisation and the triumph of paganism over Christianity. These novels constitute, in their greater emphasis on character portrayal and the complexities arising out of a sustained narrative, a development from his early fantasy work.

One particular concern that began to develop around this time was what might be termed the conflict of humanity and nature. Even his early, otherworldly fantasies could be said to have as their focus the need for humanity’s reunification with the natural world; but with the passing of the years Dunsany felt he had to convey the message more forcefully. Mankind in the twentieth century was heading in the wrong direction—a direction that might, in the end, lead to its destruction, or what is worse, its merited overthrow by the rest of the natural world. Industrialisation and commerce (with its accompanying prevalence of advertising, one of Dunsany’s bêtes noires) were threatening to rob the world of its stores of wonder and fantasy, and both the animal and the plant kingdom were within their rights to throw off the shackles that subjugated them to a race that no longer merited its superiority.

One of the chief ways Dunsany conveyed this topos was by the use of a nonhuman perspective. At its most innocuous, this means the attempt to capture the world as viewed through the eyes and minds of an animal; hence we have the delightful short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936), in which a clergyman, when sufficiently plied with wine, speaks of his firm belief that in a past life he was a dog. Years later this novel was writ large in another lost classic of fantasy, The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (1950), in which a bluff, no-nonsense British officer, having offended an Indian swami in his club, finds his spirit lodged in a bewildering succession of nonhuman bodies—a fox, an eel, a cat, a mountain goat, even a jinn. The wondrous felicity with which Dunsany seems to capture the exact sentiments of the animals in question makes this work a delight in spite of its seemingly random structure.

A sharper edge, however, is found in many other of Dunsany’s works of this kind. In the play The Old Folk of the Centuries (1930) a butterfly who is magically turned into a little boy quickly finds the life of a human being far too constricting for comfort, and he finds a convenient witch to transform him back into a butterfly. Another play, Lord Adrian (written in 1922—23 but not published until 1933), comes close to misanthropy. Here an elderly nobleman is injected with the glands from an ape and, rejuvenated, produces an offspring, Lord Adrian; but Adrian’s partial animal ancestry leads him to plan an overthrow of the human race, since “I regard the domination of all life by man as the greatest evil that ever befell the earth” (Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer 336). Even the otherwise mild-mannered Colonel Polders, like Gulliver, gradually gains a “distiaste for the human race” (13) after repeated deadly encounters with humans. Perhaps the greatest of all instances of this misanthropy occurs in a short play, The Use of Man (in Plays for Earth and Air, 1937). Here the spirit of a not very bright young man is summoned to a council of the spirits of animals somewhere in space, and he has an extraordinarily difficult time justifying the “use” of the human race in the natural scheme of things. He finds that no animal, aside from the slavishly devoted dog, will stand up for his species: the crow doesn’t like man’s guns; the bear resents the fact that he is locked up in zoos; the mouse hates man’s traps. At the very last a single animal comes to man’s rescue: the mosquito finds a “use” in man—he is its food.

From the very earliest of his works, Dunsany occasionally took pleasure in envisioning the eventual extirpation of the human race. Several of the exquisite prose poems in Fifty-one Tales have this as their focus, although in many cases it seems part and parcel of the “cosmic” perspective that Dunsany had adopted at this juncture. In later works it is industrialism that will bring a fitting doom to our race, ridding the world of a dangerous menace and leaving the earth free for the animals to resume their sway. The potent one-act play The Evil Kettle (in Alexander and Three Small Plays) may be Dunsany’s most effective embodiment of this idea. Here the well-known anecdote of the young James Watt looking at a steaming teakettle and envisioning therefrom the awesome power of steam is given a nightmarish twist: at night the Devil comes to Watt and forces him to glimpse a hideous vision of the future with its “dark, Satanic mills” and the earth’s natural beauty corrupted by mechanisation. But the Devil casts a spell over him and makes him forget what he has just seen, and we are left with a haunting sense of historic inevitability. Dunsany’s later treatments of this theme—notably his late novel The Last Revolution (1951), which depicts machines revolting from humanity’s control—are, regrettably, much inferior to this concentrated bit of venom.

One of the subtlest of Dunsany’s treatments of the man-versus-nature theme occurs in what is probably his finest novel, The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). This work is his first novel set entirely in Ireland. Although some of his early stories had appeared in such Irish periodicals as the Shanachie and the Irish Homestead, Dunsany himself frequently admitted that he preferred to invent his myths out of whole cloth rather than to adapt existing ones. And yet, he could hardly be unaware that a literary revival was going on in Ireland at exactly the time he began writing. His early plays had been produced at the Abbey Theatre, and he himself was enthusiastic about the plays of J. M. Synge and others. He was well acquainted with James Stephens, W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and other prominent figures in Irish literature. Yeats assembled a slim volume, Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany, for publication by the Cuala Press in 1912, in the introduction to which he expressed the following pensive regret:

When I was first moved by Lord Dunsany’s work I thought that he would more help this change [i.e., the Irish literary revival] if he could bring his imagination into the old Irish legendary world instead of those magic lands of his with their vague Eastern air; but even as I urged him I knew that he could not, without losing his rich beauty of careless suggestion, and the persons and images that for ancestry have all those romantic ideas that are somewhere in the background of all our minds. He could not have made Slieve-na-Mon nor Slieve Fua incredible and phantastic enough, because that prolonged study of a past age, necessary before he could separate them from modern association, would have changed the spontaneity of his mood to something learned, premeditated, and scientific. (Prefaces and Introductions 140)

This is remarkably perspicacious, and it turned out to have been prophetic: Yeats seems to have sensed that Dunsany would have to renounce his devotion to otherworldly fantasy before he could treat the real world of Ireland in his fiction. There is a gradual decline of the purely fantastic element throughout the entiire course of his work, to the point that such later novels as Up in the Hills (1935), Rory and Bran (1936), Guerrilla (1944), and His Fellow Men (1952) have nothing fantastic or supernatural in them, although they nonetheless retain that ethereal delicacy that remained Dunsany’s keynote.

The Curse of the Wise Woman is a poignant novel that explores the numerous conflicts in Irish life—Catholic and Protestant, city and country, progress and tradition, political stability and violence—in a scenario in which the supernatural is reduced to the vanishing point, and may not come into play at all: a “wise woman” (witch), enraged at the threatened destruction of a bog by a development company, seems to summon up the power of nature and bring about a ferocious storm that wipes out the company’s machines and saves the bog. Dunsany wisely neglects to clarify whether the wise woman actually summoned the storm of whether the storm came by a lucky accident.

The Story of Mona Sheehy (1939) is another superb Irish novel, touchingly describing the fate of a young woman who thinks she is a child of the fairies and finds herself working unhappily in a factory far from the fields and bogs she loves. It is perhaps the chief example of what might be called Dunsany’s late renunciation of fantasy. At the very outset we know clearly that Mona is not a child of the fairies but the offspring of an illicit sexual encounter between Lady Gurtrim and an Irish labourer; but the strength of Mona’s belief creates a kind of ersatz fantasy atmosphere as distinctive as it is compelling. Other tales written around this time—including numerous short skits written for Punch in the 1940s—are much less flattering to Irish self-esteem, and may have had some role in what appears to be a deliberate avoidance of Dunsany’s work on the part of Irish writers and critics. The culmination is reached in “Helping the Fairies” (Strand Magazine, May—June 1947), in which an Englishman casually cuts down a thorn tree that the local residents believe was sacred to the fairies; when no disaster falls upon the Englishman’s head, the locals take matters into their own hands and kill him.

How did a writer so well known in his time, and so showered with critical acclaim, lapse so far into obscurity? A number of factors having nothing to do with the merit, or lack of it, of Dunsany’s work conspired against him. First, fantasy has always been relatively restricted in its appeal, and in the course of the twentieth century it gradually dropped out of mainstream fiction and became a narrow “genre” somewhere between science fiction and horror fiction, and incurring the critical disdain that those literary modes suffered. Second, Dunsany’s ambiguous involvement with his Irish literary compatriots—to say nothing of his Unionist sympathies at a time when most leading Irish writers were Nationalists—caused his work to be either scorned or deliberately ignored by those who should have been acknowledging it as a distinctive contribution to the national literature. And third, Dunsany, like so many writers, wrote too much. Although to my mind he maintained a remarkably high consistency over a lifetime’s work, he had the misfortune to write what many regarded as his best work quite early in his career—those tales of bejeweled fantasy that we designate by the adjective “Dunsanian”—so that even his devotees, such as H. P. Lovecraft, found his later work not entirely to their taste and failed to champion it.

But Dunsany’s presence as an influence upon contemporary literature is not entirely insignificant. His plays may have fallen out of fashion, but they were appreciated by no less a figure than Pirandello; as late as 1950 Brooks Atkinson, reviewing a New York revival of The Gods of the Mountain, was noting that Dunsany’s dramatic work was by no means deserving of the oblivion that had overtaken it. The sword-and-sorcery tradition he had initiated was developed by Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And Lovecraft’s worshipful discussion of Dunsany in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” did much to inspire interest in his work among later devotees of Lovecraft, so that such editors as Lin Carter and Darrell Schweitzer strove to bring some of the best of it back into print.

Dunsany was, however, not one to confuse popularity with merit. To the end of his life he remained convinced of the high calling of the genuine artist, and he knew that artists must sometimes toll in obscurity, and in the face of prevailing public opinion. In the early essay “Nowadays” (1918) he speaks of the poet’s function:

It is to see at a glance the glory of the world, to see beauty in all its forms and manifestations, to feel ugliness like a pain, to resent the wrongs of others as bitterly as one’s own, to know mankind as others know single men, to know Nature as botanists know a flower, to be thought a fool, to hear at moments the clear voice of God. (Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer 138)

By these criteria, Dunsany, although doing his best work in prose, was a poet indeed.