Lord Dunsany Short Fiction Analysis
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 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...
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