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.
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.
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.
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."