Lord Dunsany: In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales
edited by S.T. Joshi
A Review by Ursula K. Le Guin.
First published in The LA Times Book Review, 2004
When people ask me about “a book that changed my life,” one
of the several hundred honest answers I can give them is A Dreamer’s Tales.
(Then they look blank, which is too bad.) I was about twelve when I picked it
up, one of those nice little leather-bound books the Modern Library used to do,
and from the first sentence I was a goner.
Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands
whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the
east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and
spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the
sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain.
I described this moment also in the first essay in my first
book of essays, The Language of the Night, how I stood with the book in
my hands there in the living room, silent upon a peak in Darien.
I’d read all the children’s classics of fantasy, Alice
and The Wind in the Willows , and myths, legends, folk tales, a
cleaned-up-for-kids Arabian Nights, and so on — but this was different. It
was an adult writing for adults, and it wasn’t ancient or ethnological or
anonymous. There was a picture of the author, Lord Dunsany, a dapper fellow in
a British Army uniform, alert and quizzical. I fell in love with him at once (I
fell in love a lot at twelve). That didn’t go far, but the book itself took me
a long way. It opened up to me the whole range and realm of fantasy literature —
imagined countries, invented histories. I beheld that vast landscape not only
as a reader, but as a writer. I could not only go there with Dunsany, I could
go exploring on my own.
This great discovery may sound quaint, now that fantasy is a
familiar commercial genre. It wasn’t, then, nor was it often recognised as a
form of serious literature. What Dunsany did for me in 1942, J.R.R.Tolkien did
for everybody twenty years or so later. The shrieks of Edmund Wilson and the
shudders of academe couldn’t prevent Tolkien from putting a new country onto
the literary map — not a tiny Liechtenstein-Fairyland, but a large and powerful
region to be reckoned with, Middle Earth.
Fantasy is, of course, a very ancient form of literature; in
fact it used to occupy most of the map. Revitalized by Tolkien and others, then
re-formulized as a genre, fantasy has become a sort of modern capitalist nation,
supporting its publishers by the assembly-line production of trilogies. In
fact, magic has lost a good deal of its magic lately. This is a good moment to
republish and rediscover Lord Dunsany.
S.T.Joshi, a biographer of Dunsany and an expert in the
Weird, has given us an excellent introduction and notes, and an only slightly
disappointing selection from a long and varied output of stories — beginning in
the Celtic twilight of 1905 and ending with a few wry, dry tales written around
Even when I was in love with Dunsany, I found his first
book, The Gods of Pegana, pretty tough going. Yeats praised it, but the
high biblical diction hasn’t worn well. I wish Joshi had included less of that
and more of Dunsany’s best work, which was written — not coincidentally, I
think — between the Boer War and the end of the 1914-18 War. He saw action in
the first and served in the scond, as well as being wounded in the Dublin Riots
of 1916. We know now how elements of Tolkien’s huge invention took shape during
his war service, and why The Lord of the Rings is so relevant to the
central moral issues of its century. Middle Earth and the Inner Lands are not
bolt-holes, places to escape to from the trenches. They are not a denial but an
answer, not a refuge but a redoubt.
Among the fine stories from this period of A Dreamer’s
Tales and The Book of Wonder, Joshi inclueds “Idle Days on the Yann,”
arguably Dunsany’s masterpiece. I love it not only for its effortless invention
and beauty but because it so amiably refutes all the Creative Writing Program
dogma about “conflict” and “plot line” and “character.” It leaves out all that
stuff, setting you adrift on the river of pure story. No guts are wrenched, no
issues of Good and Evil are settled. It is as innocently, artfully beyond
question as a Mozart sonata.
Dunsany’s best stories remain unique; nobody has ever been
able to capture his visions or imitate his half-archaic half-straightforward
style, though ghastly attempts have been made. He had a wonderful ear, as well
as an accurate eye. I wish Joshi had included more of the wonder stories and
fewer of the later, more conventionally plotted tales, which are entertaining,
but often predictable. The old clubman Jorkens who tells many of them can be a
bit of a bore — though not in the marvelous “Walk to Lingham,” the best story
ever written about vegetable revenge.
Both fantasy and science fiction can free us from our
obsessive preoccupation with human beings and doings, by setting narrative in
the larger universe where mankind interacts both physically and psychically
with other species and creatures and beings — such as, in this case, trees. Such
“Darwinian” narrative opens out vistas of possibility, hints of responsibility
and reciprocity and kinship, which an exclusive humanism cannot give us.
Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring
self-absorption and make us look up and see — with terror or with relief — that
the world does not in fact belong to us at all.
People who are impatient with long sentences and verbs
ending in — eth may have trouble with Dunsany’s narrative. The bang-pow
violence and chop-and-whack prose of much contemporary fantasy doesn’t prepare
readers for a mannered but vivid, clear, and subtle style, and they may miss
the detached amusement, the cool wit that almost always underlies his gorgeous
fancies and flourishes. For example: the narrator, who is describing a palace
built over a precipice of amethyst, tells us, “At this moment a female slave
came out by a door of the palace and tossed a basket full of sapphires over the
Dunsany was Anglo-Irish, but surely in this he is entirely
Irish, this understanding that a proper king in a proper palace is not going to
keep old, used sapphires around. Out they go at sunrise, dumped into the
amethyst ravine in whose depths “the golden dragons still played in the
darkness” — a fine symbol of the prodigal spirit of this writer.
On the map of literature, I see Dunsany as a small, walled
city in a desert, with opal walls and spires of bronze, and strange little
streets, and a great gate made from a single tooth. The lord of the city is a
generous host. It is not on the beaten path, but it is worth visiting.
February 24, 2004