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 1950

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 edge.”

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.

Spiral

Penguin Classics
February 24, 2004
ISBN 978-0142437766


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