Lord Dunsany

by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett

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Lord Dunsany Short Fiction Analysis

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By Lord Dunsany’s own admission, much of his writing aims at recording and sustaining moods that are dreamy, lyrical, nostalgic, anti-industrial, and, at times, wry; he preferred the outlandish products of the imagination to records of the actual as matter for art. The way in which Dunsany expresses these moods is especially important to the effect that his works produce. Modeled in part on the style of the King James Bible, his prose is rhythmic and musical. It is laden with mythically stylized names and is occasionally sentimental, but this tendency toward the saccharine is offset by the dashes of mild comic irony with which his tales are spiced. Such irony, along with the occasional use of modern details, tempers the remote and exotic quality of the experiences recounted in the stories.

To provide a groundwork for his fictional moods, Dunsany developed what is often called a “mythology.” To some extent, this label is inaccurate because Dunsany did not evolve an organized theology. Yet central to much of his work is the sense that the world is ruled by various gods of Dunsany’s own devising, that these gods control the works of humans but may themselves be controlled by the chief of destroyers, Time. Hence, his nostalgia is informed strongly by a sense of doom or fate, and his tales often have downbeat or elegiac conclusions. These conclusions, however, delight Dunsany’s fans because they often include an unexpected twist of action or theme. Dunsany will turn some aspect of fairy tale or mythic convention back on itself; as Lin Carter suggests, he will reject the happy ending and give the reader instead one that comes nearer to the disappointments that time creates in actual experience. Perhaps the source of this technique is the advice that Yeats is reported to have given Dunsany when the latter began writing drama, that Dunsany always seek in a play to work toward surprise.

“The Sword of Welleran”

Most of Dunsany’s themes and characteristics are well represented in a story that the writer himself included in his 1954 selection of his favorite stories, “The Sword of Welleran.” Like many of Dunsany’s narrators, the teller of this tale is a temporary visitor to the lands of fantasy. He tells the reader about his dream of a transcendently beautiful city called Merimna, a city in the midst of a plain and opposed by enemy peoples who are kept at bay only because of their fear of the heroes of Merimna: Welleran, Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and Irain. These heroes died more than a century before the events narrated in the story, but their statues reign over the city and fool the tribes that want to invade Merimna for her treasure. It is worth noting that, while Dunsany fills in the background to the adventure that he plans to narrate, the style and tone and pacing of the first few pages engage the reader with the story’s nostalgic urgency. Like all works of fable and myth, the land of Merimna is complete in its own motivations and deeds, however highly romanticized. Hence, the reader is prepared for the strange events that befall a child named Rold, who becomes fascinated by the legend of Welleran’s greatness.

The king of one of the Cyresian tribes suspects that the heroes of Merimna are dead, and he sends two spies to determine whether his suspicion is correct. When they discover that Rollory and the rest are only statues, the spies return to their king, who collaborates with three other monarchs to attack Merimna. As the enemies wait, the night before battle, Dunsany...

(This entire section contains 2030 words.)

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describes the fall of evening with typically slow-paced lyricism. Fortunately, in Paradise the souls of Merimna’s heroes are aware of the danger to their city, so they enter the dreams of the sleeping inhabitants of Merimna to stir them to defense. In particular, Welleran causes Rold to take up his ancient sword and join the people gathered on the plain before the city. As a group, they wake, fight, and eventually massacre their enemies in the night battle.

To this point the story is a straightforward and conventional fantasy tale, but in the final page Dunsany establishes a contrast between the emotional demands of the human condition and the fairy tale justification for slaughter. When the people of Merimna see in daylight “the hideous things that the sword of Welleran had done,” they share the mood of Rold, who laments over the slain enemies. Dunsany notes, “Thus wept the people of Merimna in the hour of their great victory, for men have strange moods.” They mourn, too, because Welleran is dead, unaware that their dead heroes have engineered the saving of their city. Then Dunsany counters their dismay and points out their nonheroic insignificance when he ends the story with the image of the souls of Merimna’s five heroes traveling back to Paradise. Hence, one of Dunsany’s recurrent points is suggested: that there is much about supernatural reality that the people of the present, even of a dream present, do not know.

Finally, it should be noted that the elegiac ending well supports the allegorical dimension of the story. At the outset, Dunsany tells us that Merimna “was a marvel of spires and figures of bronze, and marble fountains, and trophies of fabulous wars, and broad streets given over wholly to the Beautiful.” In addition to the statues of ancient heroes, Welleran boasts figures of Fame, of Victory, and of Fear. These monuments protect Merimna until the tribal spies discover that they are merely made of bronze; however, Merimna’s miraculous victory is a victory for Beauty and for the heroic attributes objectified by the statues. Thus, Dunsany does not suggest that such qualities are wholly dead in Merimna’s present, but he does locate them as vital realities in the heroic past, recoverable mostly through dream and through the beauty of art. In fact, together these qualities make up a portrait of what Dunsany sees as the beautiful, a world in which great conflicts stir human beings to actions beyond their ordinary capacities and in which triumph is possible. Dunsany presents those aspects of modern life that are drearily unimaginative and out of touch with the fact that human beings have transcendent souls.

A story that presents similar thematic preoccupations but takes place in a modern, realistic setting is “The Kith of the Elf-folk.” The story begins in late autumn in the marshlands of East Anglia, where one of the Wild Things—immortal but soulless beings who, although possessing pointed ears and the ability to leap very high, “are somewhat human in appearance, only all brown of skin and barely two feet high”—happens to wander to a great cathedral. There, during a service, the Wild Thing becomes enchanted by the music, colors, and images. Wanting to understand religion, art, and beauty, it grows sorrowful over its lack of a soul, despite the warning of the Oldest of the Wild Things that even though a soul would give the Wild Thing such understanding, with a soul comes death and knowledge of “the meaning of sorrow.” Out of “grey mist,” music, memories, and the like, the Wild Things create a soul for their sorrowing friend, who accepts it and instantly becomes a young, lovely, but naked woman standing on the edge of the marsh. At first, after she has found shelter and food in the house of a farmer and his wife, the Wild Thing enjoys her experience of beauty; she feels wonder and becomes aware of the reality of Paradise. Soon, however, she begins a series of comic conflicts with modern civilization. When she tells the Dean of the cathedral that she would like to be named “Song of the Rushes,” he insists that she accept the name of Mary Jane Rush. When, during a service, she tells the cathedral’s young curate that she loves him, she is sent to work in a factory in the Midlands. When, mourning for the beauty of the marshes in the drab city, she tries to give her soul to one of the poor, she is told, “All the poor have souls. It is all they have.”

Finally, however, even in the industrial, urban civilization that Dunsany abhors, Mary Jane’s luck begins to turn. When it is discovered that she has a beautiful singing voice, she is sent to London and trained for the opera stage, and she is re-Christened Signorina Maria Russiano. Noticing that during a performance one woman in her audience remains unmoved by the yearning in her voice, Mary Jane is able to convince the woman to accept the troublesome soul. Happily freed of its human body, the Wild Thing returns to the marshes.

Although the story is charming in its plot and its blend of satire and lyricism that Dunsany uses to poke fun at the wealthy, the conventional, and the industrial, the story also provides the reader with a parable about the relationship of art and nature, of beauty and humanity. The story argues that to know fully the beauty of nature, one must be human, but being human means possessing a soul that also binds one to the experience of sorrow, to the knowledge of one’s separation from God, and to the longings that are the motivation for art. Human beings are also fond of wealth and of conventional behavior, however, and these trappings of civilization always threaten to drown beauty, art, and soul.

“Idle Days on the Yann”

It is notable that the same contrasts between the dreamy or supernaturally beautiful and ordinary, sometimes mean, reality shape many of Dunsany’s tales, including the well-known “Idle Days on the Yann.” In this tale, the narrator goes into the land of fantasy to travel down the Yann River as far as its entrance into the sea. He tells stories about the cities he passes, about the captain and crew of the ship on which he travels, and about the beautiful scenery along the Yann. At the end, he parts from the captain and notes, “Long we regarded one another, knowing that we should meet no more, for my fancy is weakening as the years slip by, and I go ever more seldom into the Lands of Dream.” The principal attractions of this story are the evocation of a consistent mood, the lyrical language, and the invention of detail—especially of names—that mark Dunsany’s style. Overall, the story celebrates the power of the imagination to create a coherent world which, ironically, the reader is forced to recognize as a fantasy.

“What Jorkens Has to Put Up With”

In addition to such fantastic stories, Dunsay wrote stories in other styles, including a series of books that centers on the tales of a group called the Billiards Club. This club includes in its membership the former great adventurer and current great whiskey-lover, Mr. Joseph Jorkens. Jorkens’s incredible stories are openly disbelieved only by another member of the club, a lawyer named Terbut. Their conflict in “What Jorkens Has to Put Up With” may be taken as representative. As the story opens, a member of the club tells of their discussion one day about the relative virtues of ivory and bonzoline billiard balls. When, along the way, Jorkens is asked if he has ever seen a unicorn, he insists that he did in fact see one, even though under the unusual circumstances of having contracted malaria and of having consumed a considerable amount of vermouth for breakfast on the day that he sighted this supposedly mythical beast. He asserts that he struck the unicorn’s horn with his rifle butt and knocked the horn off and suggests further that a toasting fork that he presented to the club was carved from the same horn. Ungraciously, Terbut suggests that the fork is made of bonzoline. Light, comic, and stripped of the lyricism of Dunsany’s wonder tales, the Jorkens stories are of interest partly because they too embody Dunsay’s biases against the modern sensibility that values drab realities over the adventurous spirit and its imaginative truths.

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