Other Literary Forms

ph_0111207186-Dunsany.jpg Lord Dunsany Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Lord Dunsany did not limit himself to a particular literary format; his prolific output consisted of novels, short stories, poems, translations, extensive periodical publication, and a wide range of literary and social criticism presented as lectures. Although his drama is historically significant, he is best remembered for his short tales and stories, which are still available in various reprints and anthologies. In these works, his fertile imagination best combined with a natural style to produce an appropriate single effect. Dunsany made little attempt to develop character or to probe the nuances of an individual mind. Instead, he created self-contained mythological worlds that depend on plot and highly stylized language to move the action to its inevitable conclusion. Dunsany’s novels suffer from an excess of invention without a firm grounding in reality or psychological depth; as a remarkable curiosity of verbal ingenuity and fantasy, however, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) remains a classic. The critical reception of his poetry has been kind, but his work in this genre has never been considered anything but minor. Distinguished by an enviable range of interest in all aspects of art, Dunsany believed that the task of the artist is to create or reveal beauty; for him, the beauty evoked by the written word could be expressed in any form.

Achievements

Lord Dunsany’s first play, The Glittering Gate, was commissioned by William Butler Yeats for production at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1909. Having read Dunsany’s earlier tales, Yeats thought him a genius and wished to include his work as part of the Irish Renaissance. Although public response to the play did not equal the furor provoked by John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (pr. 1907), Dunsany’s delineation of the capriciousness of the gods and the emptiness of Heaven on the other side of the gate nevertheless raised a minor disturbance which seemed to ensure Dunsany a place in the group.

Yeats, however, was interested in developing a literature that was purely Irish in tone and subject matter, and his desire to include Dunsany as part of this movement seems to have been based on a misperception of Dunsany’s point of view. While Dunsany may have been technically Irish, his was not the mystical outlook of Yeats or James Stephens but rather the sensibility of a certain type of Englishman, in the same strain as Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan, or J. R. R. Tolkien, a direct inheritor of the Romantic tradition of Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his youth, Dunsany’s imagination was fueled more by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Greek writers of the Golden Age than by Irish legends. His closest affinity to Ireland came through his appreciation of the lush beauty...

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Other Literary Forms

Lord Dunsany published more than fifty volumes of work, one-fourth of which are volumes of short stories and brief fictional pieces. He is best known for his plays, some of which were produced at the Abbey Theatre, of which The Glittering Gate (1909) is today possibly the most famous, even if only by title. Other well-known plays include King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (1911) and The Gods of the Mountain (1911); all were later published in Five Plays (1914). Dunsany also authored novels, three autobiographical works, six volumes of poetry, a translation of Horace’s odes, and essays. In recent years, selected novels and stories have been reprinted or reedited for publication.

Achievements

Few authors have written as many volumes as did Lord Dunsany, but in his own era he had little influence. His settings and themes, coming out of his unique imagination, were not specifically Irish and thus his relationship with his compatriots William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge was tangential at best. His plays, even those produced at the Abbey Theatre, have not survived his own times. His several volumes of autobiography are well written but not revealing of the inner man; My Ireland (1937) only obliquely comments on the divisive political issues paramount during his times, not surprising given his pro-British bias. His early stories and some of his novels, however, such as The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), have had considerable influence on a later generation of writers. H. P. Lovecraft found Dunsany to be his major inspiration, and Dunsany was also possibly a formative source for other fantasy and science-fiction writers, such as James Branch Cabell, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague De Camp, and Fletcher Pratt. In a broader sense, there is a direct line from William Morris through Dunsany to J. R. R. Tolkien in the creation of other, preindustrial worlds.

Bibliography

Amory, Mark. Biography of Lord Dunsany. London: Collins, 1972. This work is the standard modern biographical study of Dunsany. The author also successfully incorporates a discussion of Dunsany’s major writings in his summary of the Irish writer’s life.

Bierstadt, Edward Hale. Dunsany the Dramatist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1917. This work, written relatively early in Dunsany’s career, is primarily a study of some of his first plays. By implication, however, it also adds to the understanding of his short stories.

Bleiler, E. F. Introduction to Gods, Men, and Ghosts, by Lord Dunsany. New York: Dover, 1972. In his introduction to a collection of Dunsany’s short stories, Bleiler claims that Dunsany, shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, created a new universe, out of his imagination. Admitting that much of Dunsany’s work had not passed the test of time, he argues that in his best stories he created something unique in his exquisite use of language to convey a dreamlike state of fantasy.

Cahalan, James M. The Irish Novel: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1988. The author analyzes the history of the novel in Ireland from its earliest manifestations down to the latter part of the twentieth century. In a chapter titled “Fantasia: Irish Fabulists, 1920-1955,” he discusses Dunsany...

(The entire section is 548 words.)