Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Dunsany, Lord

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Working name of Irish writer Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878-1957), 18th Lord Dunsany, who wrote widely and much. Through his stories, plays and novels he was instrumental in creating the essential autonomous venues within which modern Fantasy could be told. Not only does any tale which Crosshatches between this world and Faerie (or any self-contained Otherworld) owe a Founder's Debt to LD, but the Secondary World created by J R R Tolkien – from which almost all Fantasylands have devolved – also took shape and flavour from LD's example. The style in which he told his tales – an ultimately sui generis mix of rhythms and vocabulary from the King James Bible and Celtic revival poets and tale-tellers (see Celtic Fantasy) like William Butler Yeats, plus the Fin-de-Siècle ambience of The Yellow Book (see Aubrey Beardsley; Decadence; Magazines; Oscar Wilde), plus the specific example of previous writers of fantasy like George MacDonald and William Morris – also proved highly influential, to less happy effect. The steely delicacy of LD's descriptions of the ineffable turned into the pulp Orientalism of writers from H P Lovecraft, A Merritt and Robert E Howard onwards: choked with "hushed" references to high-sounding godlings and topographies. This style continues to plague Genre Fantasy.

LD's work as a whole cannot be reduced to simple patterns of attack and withdrawal, but the model is sufficiently valid to permit its use in an attempt to sort the hundreds of short stories, the dozens of plays and the numerous novels. It can be argued that, in each of the modes he successively engaged upon, he began with work set in fantasy venues and written with considerable intensity, and then progressively tended to move his settings towards mundanity while, in parallel, his style tended to lose (or divest itself of) its more elaborate attributes. Moreover, he began each new mode with work less deeply involved in the fantastic than had been the initial works composed in the previous mode; and the work in each new mode progressively moved closer to the present time. LD's oeuvre, as a whole, can be seen as a recognition – and representation – of Thinning. Though there are chronological overlaps, it will be convenient to follow each mode separately.

Stories LD began to publish work of genre interest with the tales assembled as The Gods of Pegana (coll 1905) under the immediate inspiration of seeing The Darling of the Gods (1902), a florid melodrama about Japan by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Although the play is not itself supernatural, it clearly provided LD with a model from which to create a wholly autonomous Otherworld: Pegana, land of the Gods. The tales are poetic fragments, invocatory and scented, and do not deal with mortals. As with most of his early books, The Gods of Pegana was illustrated by S H Sime; elsewhere the normal author-artist relationship was sometimes reversed, a picture by Sime inspiring LD to compose the matching story. The tales assembled in Time and the Gods (coll 1906) illustrated by Sime are narratives featuring both gods and humans, often intertwined to ironic effect, as in "The Relenting of Sarnidac", in which a lame dwarf – lamenting the departure of the gods from the world – is mistaken for the one god who has relented and decided to remain. The various descriptions of the nature of the Universe offered to King Ebalon in "The Journey of the King" add up to a moving compendium of fantasy Heavens, Pantheons and Myths of Origin, all presented through imagery deeply evocative of the Time Abyss.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (coll 1908) illustrated by Sime includes LD's most complex and perhaps most sustained short stories. The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth (1910 chap), first published in this collection, almost singlehandedly created the Sword and Sorcery genre, though without any excesses of plot: a Land which has been cursed needs Healing; a Hero wrests the eponymous Sword from the body of the Dragon which has protected it, advances across a vertiginous Threshold and through guarded Portals into the labyrinthine Edifice where the evil Magus dwells, and defeats him; and thus the land is healed. All is told with absolute assurance; other writers, for almost a century, have expanded upon this inspiration.

Further volumes of stories show a slightening of effect, though A Dreamer's Tales (coll 1910) illustrated by Sime, The Book of Wonder (coll 1912) illustrated by Sime, Fifty-One Tales (coll 1915; vt The Food of Death 1974 US), Tales of Wonder (coll 1916; vt The Last Book of Wonder 1916 US) illustrated by Sime, Tales of War (coll 1918) and Tales of Three Hemispheres (coll 1919 UK) contain many fine works, though almost always with an Et in Arcadia Ego sense that old-seeming tales could no longer be articulated without the ironies of Fabulation.

LD's next stories were entirely different. The long sequence of Jorkens Club StoriesThe Travel Tales of Mr Joseph Jorkens (coll 1931 UK), Mr Jorkens Remembers Africa (coll 1934 UK; vt Jorkens Remembers Africa 1934 US), Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (coll 1940 UK), The Fourth Book of Jorkens (coll 1948 UK) and Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (coll 1954 UK) – are mostly Tall Tales, fantasy episodes set almost always in this world, and provide whimsy and Grand Guignol in a generally alluring mix. Further volumes of stories rehearsed, sometimes without much energy, the inspiration of earlier years; they include The Man Who Ate the Phoenix (coll 1948 UK) and The Little Tales of Smethers (coll 1952 UK); some previously uncollected work appears in The Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer and Other Fantasms (coll 1980 US) ed Darrell Schweitzer.

Plays LD wrote over 40 plays, and some earlier examples are of strong interest. Five Plays (coll 1914), the most impressive collection, includes King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (produced 1910), in which the discovery of a Sword revolutionizes an imaginary Eastern kingdom, and The Gods of the Mountain (produced 1912), in which impostors pretending to be Gods are – after the real gods have turned them to stone (see Bondage) – finally believed to be gods. Alexander (written 1912), which appears in Alexander and Three Small Plays (coll 1926 UK), traces the inexorable Thinning of the emperor's life after he dismisses Apollo from his service. Plays of Gods and Men (coll 1917) includes The Laughter of the Gods (produced 1919), in which a monarch calls the bluff of gods he no longer respects, forcing them into terrible acts, and A Night at an Inn (produced 1916), in which thieves who steal an idol are confronted by the god himself. Plays of Near and Far (coll 1922 UK) includes Fame and the Poet (produced 1919), in which an immortal being visits an insufficiently grateful human. If (1921 UK) features Time Travel into the past and the creation of an Alternate World. Plays of small fantasy interest appeared in Seven Modern Comedies (coll 1928 UK) and Plays for Earth and Air (coll 1937 UK). Lord Adrian (1933 UK) is sf.

Novels Again the overall pattern recurs. LD's first novels unequivocally set out to occupy what might be called the domain of fantasy; later volumes gradually reduced the temperature. That said, his first was relatively modest. The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922 UK; vt Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley 1922 US) conveys its young disinherited protagonist through a fantasized Spain, gifting him with a Sancho Panza companion (see Duos), good luck with magicians, and a castle. His second novel, however, is one of the seminal fantasies of the century. The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924 UK) is a Crosshatch in which – almost for the first time, and certainly for the first time with any conviction – the two poles (our world and Faerie) are of equal weight. Responding to the communal Wish of his people to "be ruled by a magic lord", the crown prince of Erl travels to Elfland in search of its King's daughter, and wins her through Magic; but when they return to Erl they discover that a decade has passed (see Time in Faerie). Erl finds the imposition of magic rule a mixed blessing (see Answered Prayers). The prince wanders through a bereft Borderland in search of his princess (who has returned to Elfland); and only when the King invokes a final Rune, which encompasses the Transformation of Erl into an aspect of Faerie, does the spiralling tale come to an ambiguous resolution. The King of Elfland's Daughter is thus the first significant Instauration Fantasy.

There are further impressive novels. The Charwoman's Shadow (1926 UK) is an exemplary Fairytale whose Hero wins a bride by recapturing her Shadow from a magician, all the while thinking she is an old charwoman. The Blessing of Pan (1927 UK) portrays English rural life under a sign of paganism, after the fashion of writers like T F Powys. The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933 UK) is set in an Ireland haunted by Tir-Nan-Og, but which remains out of sight. Rory and Bran (1936 UK) is narrated by the dog Bran (see Talking Animals), My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936 UK) is a set of interviews with a spaniel reincarnated as a clergyman (see Reincarnation), and The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (1950 UK) surreally recounts various adventures of the eponymous soldier, who suffers transmigration into various animals as a punishment for disbelief (see Learns Better).

LD was too copious a writer for his oeuvre to be grasped whole with any ease, and he had a liquid ability to generate insightful passages or entire works almost at will over a career which lasted more than half a century. He remains a father of Genre Fantasy, an imp ancestor of much that is good and much that is bad. He is much less read than he warrants. [JC]

other works: Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany (coll 1912) ed William Butler Yeats; Nowadays (1918 chap US), speech on poetry; Unhappy Far-Off Things (coll 1919 UK), associational; The Compromise of the King of the Golden Isles (1924 chap US), a play; The Old Folk of the Centuries (1930 UK), a play; If I Were Dictator: The Pronouncement of the Fraud Macaroni (1934 UK); Mr Faithful (1935 UK), a play; The Story of Mona Sheehy (1939 UK); Up in the Hills (1936 UK), associational; Guerrilla (1944 UK), associational; The Donnelly Lectures 1943 (1945 chap UK), literary talks; The Last Revolution (1951 UK), sf; His Fellow Men (1952 UK), associational; The Sword of Welleran and Other Tales of Enchantment (coll 1954 UK), a compilation which differs from the 1908 volume; three important compilations ed Lin Carter, being At the Edge of the World (coll 1970 US), Beyond the Fields We Know (coll 1972 US) and Over the Hills and Far Away (coll 1974 US); Gods, Men and Ghosts (coll 1972 US) ed E F Bleiler; various volumes of poetry.

further reading: Patches of Sunlight (1938) and While the Sirens Slept (1944), autobiographies; Lord Dunsany: A Biography (1972) by Mark Amory; Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany (1989) by Darrell Schweitzer; Lord Dunsany: A Bibliography (1993) by S T Joshi and Schweitzer.

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Lord Dunsany


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.