(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Lord Dunsany 1878-1957

(Full name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett) Anglo-Irish short story writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and autobiographer.

For additional discussion of Dunsany's life and works, see TCLC, Volume 2.

Remembered primarily for his early works, including the short story collections The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and A Dreamer's Tales (1910), Dunsany is considered one of the most significant early twentieth-century contributors to modern fantasy literature. In numerous dramas and works of fiction he examined such subjects as the nature of time and human existence and formulated an individual mythology that influenced such later supernatural fiction writers as H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber.

Biographical Information

Dunsany was born in London and spent his early childhood in Kent. He was educated at Cheam School, Eton College, and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and served in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. In 1899 Dunsany succeeded his father to become the eighteenth Baron Dunsany and took up residence in his ancestral home in County Meath, Ireland. There he enjoyed a leisured life characterized by such pursuits as hunting, riding, and playing chess. A prolific author, Dunsany wrote quickly and often completed a story in a single afternoon. At the request of W. B. Yeats, Dunsany wrote his first drama, The Glittering Gate, which was produced at the Abbey Theater in 1909. During World War I, Dunsany returned to military service with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Following his discharge he visited the United States, where his works enjoyed great popularity, and he returned to writing, completing a volume of stories inspired by his battle experiences. During the Second World War, Dunsany lectured in literature at the University of Athens, Greece, until the region was evacuated to escape approaching hostile forces. He published two volumes of memoirs in the mid-1940s and continued writing into the 950s. Dunsany died in 1957.

Major Works

Dunsany is chiefly remembered for his early fantasy works in fiction and drama that feature an invented theogeny and imaginary geography. First introduced in his short story collection The Gods of Pegāna in 1905, Dunsany's created mythology features exotic settings and a host of deities and royal personages. An atheist, Dunsany nevertheless utilized religious subjects and themes in many of his fantasy works. The Glittering Gate, for example, comments on life after death as two criminals break into Heaven only to discover a vast emptiness. Aspects of time and destiny are considered in such works as If(1921), one of Dunsany's most popular dramas, in which a man is allowed through magic to board a train that he had missed ten years earlier. Events on the train substantially alter the man's life, yet when the spell is broken, he finds that only one day has passed, and his life is unchanged. A Night at an Inn (1916), a work that anticipates the modern horror genre, dramatizes the story of thieves who are pursued by a supernatural entity after stealing the ruby eye of a stone idol. In other works Dunsany utilized satire to examine the relationship of humanity to nature and to present his anti-industrial views. In addition to the themes and mythology developed in Dunsany's works, his prose style is also the subject of critical commentary and has been described as melodic, utilizing poetic language, metaphor, and repetition reminiscent of the King James Bible.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Dunsany achieved his greatest renown in the United States, where he was known as "America's favorite peer" and once had five plays running simultaneously in New York. He first came to prominence through his association with the Abbey Theater and such writers as Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory, yet Dunsany shared few literary characteristics with the Celtic Revival. Critics have noted that, unlike other Irish writers of the period, Dunsany did not depend on Celtic myths and legends as the sources for fantastic elements in his works. Wholly original, Dunsany's mythology is credited with influencing subsequent writers of supernatural fiction including H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu mythos is believed to have been inspired in part by Dunsany's works. While Dunsany's career spanned nearly five decades, his early works continue to dominate critical discussion of his writings, and S. T. Joshi has suggested that this view of his output is too narrow. According to Joshi, "Let us marvel at [Dunsany's] seemingly effortless mastery of so many different forms (short story, novel, play, even essay and lecture), his unfailingly sound narrative sense, and the amazing consistency he maintained over a breathtakingly prolific output.… Dunsany claimed aesthetic independence from his time and culture, [and] became a sharp and unrelenting critic of the industrialism and plebeianism that were shattering the beauty both of literature and of the world … yet retained a surprising popularity … through the whole of his career."

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Gods of Pegāna (short stories) 1905

Time and the Gods (short stories) 1906

The Sword of Welleran, and Other Stories (short stories) 1908

*The Glittering Gate (drama) 1909

A Dreamer's Tales (short stories) 1910

The Book of Wonder (short stories) 1912

Five Plays (drama) 1914

Fifty-One Tales (short stories) 1915

The Last Book of Wonder (short stories) 1916

A Night at an Inn (drama) 1916

Plays of Gods and Men (drama) 1917

Tales of War (short stories) 1918

Tales of Three Hemispheres (short stories) 1919

If (drama) 1921

The Chronicles of Rodriguez (novel) 1922

Plays of Near and Far (drama) 1922

The King of Elfland's Daughter (novel) 1924

Alexander, and Three Small Plays (drama) 1925

The Charwoman's Shadow (novel) 1926

The Blessing of Pan (novel) 1927

Fifty Poems (poetry) 1929

The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (short stories) 1931

Lord Adrian (drama) 1933

My Talks with Dean Spanley (novel) 1936

Rory and Bran (novel) 1936

My Ireland (essay) 1937

Plays for Earth and Air (drama) 1937

Mirage Water (poetry) 1938

Patches of Sunlight (autobiography) 1938

The Story of Mona Sheehy (novel) 1939

War Poems (poetry) 1941

While the Sirens Slept (autobiography) 1944

The Sirens Wake (autobiography) 1945

The Man Who Ate the Phoenix (short stories) 1949

The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (novel) 1950

*The Glittering Gate was first produced in 1909, but not published until 1914, when it was included in Five Plays.

Katharine Tynan (essay date 1915)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beauty and Wisdom," in The Bookman, London, Vol. XLVIII, July, 1915, p. 116.

[An early member of the Celtic Revival, Tynan was a highly regarded Irish poet, novelist, journalist, and critic. In the following essay, she favorably reviews Fifty-One Tales.]

There is one curious contradiction in our national attitude towards the nobility—and it may be a simple kind of poetry and love of the picturesque which is at the root of "loving a lord"—and that is that a titled author's books have no more chance of selling than anyone's else; in fact, if anything, they have less chance. Readers generally seem to regard a title of nobility on a title-page with suspicion. They think a lord very delightful in his place, but they distrust him as a man of letters.

I think Lord Dunsany's reputation as an author has suffered because of his title. It may even have affected men of letters adversely. They regard with suspicion the entrance of the gilded into their trade. One comes to the title with a prejudice; but, having read Lord Dunsany, one is compelled to admit that here is a man of letters and a poet born; that the art he works at is the art to which he is born; and that, if he were silent, something very beautiful and worth while would be lost to the world.

Now I concede that in his most fantastical fantasies Lord Dunsany is not every man's meat. Indeed, he is far from it. Take "The Gods of Pegāna," for instance. One can imagine the youth of Stevenson's story being shut up on a wet Sunday in a country inn with "The Gods of Pegāna" for sole mental provender. "Golly! What a book!" he would have said.

But the delightful thing about these Fifty-One Tales is that a simple person, not being a wilful Philistine, can understand at least the meaning of some; while to anyone who appreciates the marvels of language, the beautiful and sonorous diction must be a lasting delight. These Tales are each a very little vessel—some are quite...

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Ludwig Lewisohn (essay date 1923)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dunsany," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXVII, No. 3029, July 25, 1923, p. 95.

[A German-born American novelist and critic, Lewisohn served as the drama critic for The Nation during the early 920s and later edited the Zionist magazine New Palestine. In the following essay, he praises the dramas collected in Plays of Gods and Men and Plays of Near and Far.]

It was in 1915 that Stuart Walker's Portmanteau Theater gave the first performances of plays by Lord Dunsany in New York. One remembers especially The Gods of the Mountain and The Sword of King Argimenes. One remembers, across all the intervening years and their many...

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AE [pseudonym of George Russell] (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Maker of Mythologies," in The Living Age, Vol. 329, No. 4273, May 29, 1926, pp. 464-66.

[Through his work and his charismatic personality, AE was highly influential among the writers of the Irish Renaissance, a generation which sought to reduce the influence of English culture and create a national literature in Ireland. He was central to the rise of the Irish National Theater, and, with W B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory, was one of the founders of the Abbey Theater. In the following essay, which originally appeared in Irish Statesman, AE praises Dunsany's imagination and prose style in A Dreamer's Tales, The King of Elfland's Daughter, and The...

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Cornelius Weygandt (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dramas of Dunsany," in Tuesdays at Ten: A Garnering from the Tales of Thirty Years on Poets, Dramatists and Essayists, 1928. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1967, pp. 13-42.

[In the following excerpt, Weygandt surveys Dunsany's dramas.]

Dunsany has given us a drama new to our literature. It is exotic, aloof, aristocratical, of a beauty so strange and full of wonder that we doubt it sometimes, and question is it beauty, or only a form of the grotesque. His earlier plays are most of them decorations in the Asiatic manner, suggesting now China, and now India, and now the oldest Persian lands. It would seem he had seen, in some previous life perhaps,...

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Elizabeth Bowen (essay date 1937)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Ireland," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XIII, No. 331, June 26, 1937, pp. 1050, 1052.

[Bowen was an Anglo-Irish fiction writer and critic. In the following essay, she reviews My Ireland.]

Lord Dunsany, perhaps a little disorientated by the largeness of his publisher's invitation, halts and hovers rather over his opening chapters, then drops into his swing and writes an engaging book. High-handed, whimsical, bland, touchy, reactionary, and impossible to pin down to any point, here he has it all his own way—and what a way it is. My Ireland has, throughout, a sort of contrary soundness. It is written to please himself and, please God,...

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S. T. Joshi (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lord Dunsany: The Career of a Fantaisiste," in his The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 42-86.

[An American editor and critic, Joshi is the leading figure in H. P. Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. In the following excerpt, he traces prominent themes, concepts, and imagery in Dunsany's works.]

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Amory, Mark. Lord Dunsany: A Biography. London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1972, 288 p.

Surveys Dunsany's life and career.

Bierstadt, Edward Hale. Dunsany the Dramatist. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1919, 244 p.

Overview of Dunsany's career; includes the reminiscences of his friends and colleagues, his letters and speeches, and his own reflections.


Chislett, William, Jr. "New Gods for Old" and "Lord Dunsany: Amateur and Artist." In his Moderns and Near Moderns, pp. 171-80; pp. 181-88. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967.


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