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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story offers little overt material for analysis, for the plot is slight and lacks the conventional conflict and resolution of narrative. In fact, Lord Dunsany stated repeatedly that his material was the stuff of dreams and spontaneous storytelling, that he was not aware of promoting any themes, even by symbol or allegory, and that the only meanings in his stories were those that emerged subconsciously. That does not seem to leave much with which to work.

However, a little examination reveals subtle patterns. The gods are repeatedly alluded to, and the helmsman’s prayer stitches the story together. Peoples are distinguished and identified by their god or gods; yet these tribal, or at best, regional, gods are not in conflict with one another. Furthermore, there seems to be no rivalry among them: The helmsmen along the river pray indiscriminately to “whatever god may hear.” This is a continent of mutual toleration.

However, if the function of the gods is protection and there is no antagonism among them, from what, then, do the gods protect? The story itself gives some clues. Although there is little conventional plot, the structure reflects the action depicted: It is a journey interrupted with stops, and each stop provides a climax of a certain intensity. On the first day, the ship passes the preserved city of Mandaroon, where life is spent in sleep that the gods may not die; that afternoon brings the wordless choral dance of insects and butterflies in praise of the sun, in whom they find life for the moment, regardless of the future. That afternoon they come to Astahahn, where stately rites charm Time into immobility, for otherwise he will destroy the...

(The entire section is 434 words.)