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Five years ago

In the Land of Time and other Fantasy Tales

Lord Dunsany is one of those names that hover over the fantasy genre, in more ethereal heights than Tolkien or Lovecraft, and not even visible from the murky depths of Goodkind or Jordan. It is my impression that he is not read as much as he perhaps should be.

Penguin Classics has an (as usual) very good annotated collection of his short fiction, edited by S.T. Joshi. It is this one I am taking as my starting point for this review, although I know Dunsany can be approached in all manner of ways other than that. That being said, Penguin editions are all very safe and unthreatening, so there is that (although the annotation in this one is a little disappointing in its sparsity and fact-centeredness).

But to begin.

Now, first a word of warning. People kept telling me Dunsany was one of the great influences on Tolkien, and sometimes it sounded like he had pretty much had every idea Tolkien was later to have. I suspect that if you approach Dunsany from that angle, certainly in this collection, you will be surprised. He does not remind me so much of Tolkien as he does of Borges and Lovecraft. Certainly not in the obvious way. Allow me to explain.

Dunsany wrote The Gods of Pegana in 1905 and Time and the Gods in 1906, and these, with the innovation of a fictional mythology, is frequently brought up when Tolkien and Dunsany are discussed. But whereas the idea of a pantheon is common, the execution of it is widely different. Tolkien draws on Norse, Germanic and Finnish myth; Dunsany feels southern, maybe even African but more often Greek, Egyptian and Arabic, with sprinklings of the Biblical. And while H.P. Lovecraft (whose Elder Gods owe much to Dunsany's) thought Dunsany's early work was his best, I beg to differ.

But I digress. I was explaining the similarity between Tolkien and Dunsany. It happens in the language, not in the gods, or the occasional splashes of sword and sorcey (which to me feels more like Spenser than Tolkien -- perhaps Dunsany is the link between the two), not even the one walking tree (which in Dunsany is truly sinister and recalls the scary otherness that Lovecraft does so well). Sometimes (for Dunsany's writing styles vary almost as much as his topics). They have the same poetic fondness for rhythm and sounds as a mode of conveying place and action, the archaic turns of phrase and the delight in language that does not simply serve plot but exists for its own sake.

Now to begin (for real).

It is impossible to give one characteristic for the whole of the collection, mainly because of Dunsany's changing styles, but that is part of what makes it a fascinating read. They may not be all his best stories, but they sketch a development over almost 50 years that is quite astonishing. And all the while the same keeps popping up: the end of humanity and dreams.

The best of the end-scenarios is by far the one that deals only with a city: ``The Fall of Babbulkund''. Its appeal lies mainly in the rhythm of the telling, which is almost hypnotic, and the picture it paints of the unattainable. The others are nagging in their repetition of the same old scenario. Although that may just be me. He is wonderfully fascinated by the rejected, the lost and the cast-away, though; and I suppose that is related. One of his best stories is ``Blagdaross'', I think. And not only because I know Walter Benjamin would have loved it to bits (perhaps he did).

The stories of dreams are by far his most pleasant, and I must say I went from liking Dunsany to loving him (despite his unhealthy fascination with jungles, the appeal of which I will never understand, even in fiction) when he began recounting the stories as dreams (rather than myth). I suspect that is when Lovecraft stopped loving him, as Dunsany embraced irony with full force and became comic and downright weird at times. In a lovely way. He is fascinated with dreams from the beginning however (the gods keep dreaming in The Gods of Pagana, a theme which is still very much a live in another of my favourite stories, ``The Shop in `Go-by-street''':

``All those'', he said, ``that are not worshipped now are asleep''. ... ``But they teach us of new gods'' -- I said to him, ``are they not new?'' ``They hear the old ones stirring in their sleep being about to wake, because dawn is breaking and the priests crow. These are the happy prophets: unhappy are they that hear some old god speak while sleeps, being still deep in his slumber, and prophesy and prophesy and no dawn comes. They are those that men stone saying `Prophesy where this stone shall hit you, and this'.'')

And with the dreams, he feels free to introduce the random, the unexplained oddity that is left to stand unexplained, as a reference, at least how I read it, to the impossibility of containing all. But these stories also become rather pointed and clear in their message somtimes, and I suppose that is what Lovecraft objected to. This tendency is even worse in the section Joshi has named ``Prose Poems''. I have always loved Baudelaire's prose poems, so I was rather disappointed by these. But at least I have now officially got the message that nature is good, technology is bad and it would all be better if humanity would just lie down and die. Some of them are better than the others (``Carcassone'', which also has the one really interesting annotation, was very good), but I prefer the dreams.

The stories from The Book of Wonder and The Last Book of Wonder are perhaps those I think of the most when I say he reminds me of Borges. They have the strange ideas and the odd turns that makes Borges what he is. If I can raise an objection, however (without that undermining my endorsement), the charm of Dunsany's stories lies in the quirks and shapes they have underway while his endings are sometimes a little too contrived or flat or even moralising. But sometimes they really work, and when they do it is glorious.

His Jorkens stories are often brought up as the height of his writing, but they did not appeal to me in the way the dream stories did, even if Jorkens himself was interesting enough. I noticed, however, how they all revolved around meeting with either the (apparently) entirely other and then produced a link to make it familiar, or developed the familiar (say, a tree and a country avenue) to make it entirely other and sinister and threatening. I'd say ``Walk to Lingham'' was the best of it, although all science fiction fans (or indeed physicists, aeronautics people and most others) should read ``Our Distant Cousins''.

And then towards the end it changed dramatically again. A murder mystery (which was either fairly obvious, or I am very smart), a boring story with a Moral, a funny story with a ``Moral'' and a wonderful story about the ``Pirate of the Round Pond'' which ended the collection beautifully.

To conclude, which I suppose I should do at some point, I should not have taken on the task of reviewing the whole collection: the temptation to review each individual story is too strong, and in my attempt to avoid that I cannot help but be too vague. You should read the book, however. The wonderful thing about a collection is that you are free to pick and choose what you read, and while I will maintain that reading it from beginning to end gave a very interesting feeling of vertigo as the landscape changed around me, others might prefer a more random approach.


Tor,  29.07.10 19:07

I usually think of myself as someone who reads fantasy, but when I actually think about it, all I've really read is Wheel of Time, Tolkien, Discworld if you count that, and a few random others. I certainly had never heard of this guy until I saw you reading him. It sounds interesting, though, so I think I'll read it. After I finish Prisoner of Azkaban, maybe?
Camilla,  29.07.10 19:09

You can read a story a night until you've reread Harry Potter, and then you can alternate with Sherlock Holmes. I realise I am beginning to sound like a dietician, but it cannot be helped.