The Trail of Dreams: Lord Dunsany

What inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories? You could list his childhood fascination with the Arabian Nights; his adult fascination with neo-Arabian fantasies like William Beckford’s Vathek; the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs; or even the occasional fantasy stories of Edgar Allen Poe, such as his 1844 poem Dream-Land. But by Lovecraft’s own admission, the author who influenced him the most — not just in the Dreamlands but even his later works, like “At the Mountains of Madness” where the Antarctic vistas are constantly described as “Dunsanian” — was Lord Dunsany, aka Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany.

I got thinking about Dunsany when I found a copy of “King of Dreams,” a memoir of Dunsany in his later years by Hazel Littlefield. Unfortunately, this book was boring and basically seemed like Littlefield trying to cash in on her correspondence with Dunsany, but it led me to Mark Amory’s much-superior biography of Dunsany, which I found in the library while looking for ST Joshi’s out-of-print and expensive “Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination.” As Joshi and T.E.D. Klein pointed out, Dunsany, an aristocrat from an extremely old and wealthy family, lived the sort of life that Lovecraft might have dreamed of living. Born in 1878 in England, he was raised between England and the green hills of his family lands in Ireland, in a castle that looks like this. His immediate family was not large; he had only one brother, with whom he did not get along. He became happily married in his twenties, and they had one son, who in turn had one son, the painter Edward Plunkett. Mark Amory’s biography of Dunsany was written with the cooperation of the family, since Amory was a college friend of Edward’s, and as a result it doesn’t have all the dirt and speculations that biographies of Lovecraft do. But it has lots of interesting details, and it tells the story of how Dunsany went from having to pay for the publication of his first book, “The Gods of Pegana”, to becoming one of the most acclaimed authors in the English-speaking world by the early 1920s.

Like most Lovecraft fans, I discovered Dunsany through Lovecraft, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found. Dunsany’s work isn’t as horror-focused as Lovecraft, and his pseudo-Biblical writing style and often allegorical tales of Gods, Time and Death were a different level of fantasy from Lovecraft’s dream-stories, which even at their most ornate, are always basically about some material real-world thing like a war with frog-people or cats eating someone. As I dug deeper, past Dunsany’s more aery and philosophical work in his early collections “The Gods of Pegana” and “Time and the Gods,” I discovered that Dunsany actually could write some real horror stories when he wanted to, as well as more visceral fantasy stories of monsters and dragons and adventurers. But even in his most down-to-earth stories, Dunsany had a knack for evoking a feeling of weirdness, of wry humor, of exotic solemnity like you’re reading a story found on an ancient papyrus or a buried clay tablet. (He even self-parodied this style, in later stories like “Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn.”) Most modern writers of fantasy write about elves and wizards with flat realism and scientific exactitude, but Dunsany was writing invented mythology, creating worlds and gods and names out of nothing, then throwing them back into nothing again.

Of course, they weren’t really out of nothing. Dunsany was inspired by Greek mythology, as well as by the Bible, which he appreciated not as religion but as literature. (Amory recounts an apocryphal tale of 19th-century Irish atheism: “George Moore had been a middle-aged man when he broke in on Lord Howard de Walden crying ‘Howard, Howard, I’ve found the most wonderful book. Have you ever read THE BIBLE???'”) Dunsany’s early fiction was also very much in the style of 19th century Orientalism, sating a Western appetite for tales of the exotic lands of the East, of which Bible Lands were a part. What Dunsany was smart enough to realize is that these stories don’t really need to be based on any facts, so instead of setting his tales in China like Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung stories, or more recently, Barry Hughart’s stories of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (“tales of an Ancient China that never was”), he preferred to set his tales in completely imaginary lands like Pegana and Arizim and Utnar Vehi. The great-great-grandfather of fantasy literature, William Morris, had written his his bland stories as an intentional recreation of Medieval European tropes: but Dunsany and writers like him gave their readers the experience, not merely of the Old and Heroic, but of the Exotic. For Morris, like Medieval balladeers singing about King Arthur or Greek bards writing about the Trojan War, the past was THEIR Past, a sort of nationalistic time of glory when giants walked the earth. (Yawn.) For Dunsany, who knew a bit more about science and archaeology, the past was the Other, a strange, dim world of once-glorious alien cultures now reduced to a few broken idols (“Chu-bu and Sheemish”, “The Men of Zarnith”) or bits of rubble (“In Zaccarath”). Dunsany wasn’t explicitly racist like Lovecraft (perhaps because he was rich; Lovecraft’s racism seems inextricably linked with his poverty and his fears of dispossession, of losing his imagined racial inheritance), but like many period authors, he blurred the Past and the East; in Dunsany, as you travel farther away from London, farther into the East’s opulence and cruelty, it’s like traveling back in time.

In my opinion, Dunsany’s best work is the short story collections “A Dreamer’s Tales,” “The Book of Wonder” and “The Sword of Welleran”, and the novel “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” (his favorite of his own books, and the only one to be adapted into an electric folk rock album narrated by Christopher Lee). But others might disagree; Mark Amory felt that his later, more realistic novels, such as “The Curse of the Wise Woman,” were his best works, and the only Dunsany film so far, Alan Sharp’s excellent but slow-moving 2008 film “Dean Spanley,” is based loosely on one of his later works. (On the other hand, Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” is sort of a tribute to early-period Dunsany and “Elfland” in particular.) Dunsany went through many different phases, from his early short stories of pure mythological fantasy to his later novels set mostly in Ireland. (Perhaps it’s not merely a coincidence that, after Dunsany traveled to Africa and the Middle East in his 30s and 40s, the “Oriental” element in his fiction faded rather than increasing.) Lovecraft preferred his earlier work, for obvious reasons. Dunsany’s early work is serious, earnest fantasy — it never takes us out of the dream state — but as time goes on he develops a taste for sarcastic authorial intrusions and obvious nonsense, such as stories that go nowhere or tease us with a reveal that never comes. Even the names become sillier: Zaccarath, Allathurion and Perdondaris change to Tong Tong Tarrup, Plash-Goo and Neepy Shang. Basically, his dream stories become parodies of themselves: look at the difference between “Idle Days on the Yann” and its two sequel stories, “A Shop in Go-By Street” and “The Avenger of Perdondaris.” Eventually, Dunsany moved on to a new phase and stopped writing ‘dream’ stories altogether. From that point onward, he would write chiefly about the Irish countryside, and how great dogs were, and Jorkens, a British raconteur who drank whisky and told tall tales.

Dunsany was a political conservative, and even in his lifetime he was criticized for being against women’s suffrage, Irish independence, etc. He also had little taste for modern literature or poetry; he never read “Ulysses” and, according to Hazel Littlefield, he spent a lot of time in his later years complaining about free verse and Dylan Thomas and other modern foolishness. Dunsany’s work romanticizes preindustrial society, childhood memories (“The Long Porter’s Tale”) and occasionally the homeland (“The Sword of Welleran”); for these reasons Michael Moorcock really rips him apart in his famous essay Epic Pooh, claiming that he’s conservative and boring, an example of the bad kind of fantasy: the “prose of the nursery-room.” But, like C.S. Lewis, who once wrote “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” I don’t think Dunsany would have ever denied that his tales are basically children’s stories for adults. And while Dunsany’s work wasn’t leftist by any means, and he wasn’t really interested in assaulting taboos (in later life he was offended by the beat poets’ treatment of religious subjects), his many parables on nature show an incipient environmentalism, and his work has a clearly atheistic message on the whole. His early play The Glittering Gate offended at least one contemporary reviewer; in this almost Samuel Beckett-like short piece, two thieves wait outside the Gate of Heaven trying to get inside, only to discover at the end that Heaven doesn’t exist.

Dunsany also has a taste for horror. He wrote a few actual horror stories — such as “The Exiles Club” — but even in his dreamier fantasies Dunsany, a lifelong prankster and sayer of outrageous things, delighted in the kind of shocking asides designed to upset polite conversation in drawing rooms. In “The Chronicles of Rodriguez” the bell-pull at the gate of a wicked palace is connected to a hook in the guts of a prisoner, which when pulls, causes the man to scream. In “The Hashish Man” we see a sailor being tortured: “They had torn long strips from him, but had not detached them, and they were torturing the ends of them far away from the sailor.” Throughout his work there are Unspeakable Fates and Unnameable Things aplenty (from “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”: “Something so huge that it seemed unfair to man that it should move so softly stalked splendidly by them, and only so barely did they escape its notice that one word ran and echoed through their three imaginations — “If — if — if.””) Simply put, Dunsany had a flair for creating striking images of wonder and horror in a few words, something Lovecraft wasn’t nearly as good at.

Lovecraft discovered Dunsany in 1919 and basically turned instantly into a crazed fanboy, although he always preferred Dunsany’s early, exotic work to his later dogs-in-Ireland stuff. Lovecraft was fortunate enough to get to see Dunsany face-to-face while Dunsany was on an American book tour, although he didn’t talk to him; in S.T. Joshi’s words, Dunsany was unaware that “the lanky, lantern-jawed gentleman in the front row would become his greatest disciple and a significant force in the preservation of his own work.” While he was alive, Dunsany was a bestselling author and a contemporary and friend of William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw; but after his death, his literary star faded faster, and much of his early work was out of print until Lin Carter reprinted it — with a glowing quote from Lovecraft on the back cover — in his 1970 Ballantine Fantasy series. I sometimes wonder how the Dunsany estate feels that so much attention to Dunsany today comes by way of Lovecraft, who wasn’t 1/100th as popular as Dunsany during their shared lifetimes; someone — I think it was Darrell Schweitzer — told me at one of the NecronomiCONs that the agent in charge of the Dunsany literary estate in the ’90s hadn’t even heard of Lovecraft until Schweitzer told them about him. (I’m sure they’ve heard of him by now, though.) Interestingly, Dunsany actually lived long enough to read Lovecraft’s fiction; he was introduced to it by Arthur C. Clarke, and there’s references to it in Clarke and Dunsany’s correspondence. Unfortunately, I don’t own this rare, out-of-print collection, so all I remember from an old review of it is that Dunsany said “I see this Lovecraft fellow borrowed my style… (but) I don’t begrudge him it….”

Perhaps one of the reasons Dunsany isn’t as popular today as Lovecraft or Howard is that he never created a coherent mythology from one story to another. (The closest is “The Gods of Pegana,” which is almost like a novel or a faux religious text, since all the stories involve the same gods.) Lovecraft and his contemporary writers in Weird Tales were enthralled with the idea of creating consistent worlds with connections from one story to another, whether out of personal obsessive-compulsiveness (in Lovecraft’s case) or perhaps the desire to create a franchise universe, like the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and L.Frank Baum. Dunsany never did this; each of his stories is its own separate world. At best there’s a few tiny threads the completist can pick out: “Idle Days on the Yann” has its sequels, and some of the same place-names reappear in “Bethmoora”, “The Probable Adventures of the Three Literary Men” and “The Hashish Man,” in which we hear that the emperor Thuba Mleen has a curtain “engraved with all the names of God in Yannish.” So is Yann not just the name of a river but of a language? “The Hashish Man” also involves the idea, borrowed by Lovecraft in “Celephais,” that these fantastical realms exist somewhere outside human perception, and one can visit them via dreams or drugs — or is the person who talks to the narrator of “The Hashish Man” claiming to have dreamed of Bethmoora merely a madman? In any case, it’s one of Dunsany’s best stories, and a major influence on the development of the Dreamlands. (According to Amory, Aleister Crowley also liked “The Hashish Man.” Crowley sent Dunsany a fan letter, teasing him with “I see you only know hashish by hearsay, not by experience… You have not confused time and space as the true eater does” and also including a gift of some “erotic magazines.” Dunsany was apparently amused and, in a typical display of reserved humor, sent Crowley a thank-you note saying the strongest drug he took was tea.)

I think one of the differences between Dunsany and Lovecraft’s writing is simply that writing came easier to Dunsany than to Lovecraft. Dunsany could write an entire play between lunch and dinner; Lovecraft re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote. Dunsany’s early literary career was a stellar rise, and Dunsany knew it — he often referred to himself as a “genius” — whereas Lovecraft’s career was marked with depression, self-deprecation, rejection, poverty. Dunsany traveled around the world, was a guest of Indian Maharajahs, briefly tried his luck as a politician, fought in two wars (the Boer War and WWI), narrowly avoided being bombed in a refugee freighter in the Mediterranean in WWII, and was shot in the face (it was just a flesh wound) during Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Ireland. In contrast, Lovecraft did almost nothing, and yet Lovecraft’s writing seems more personal than Dunsany’s, one gets more of a sense of his personality and the neuroses that underpinned his brief life. Yet even if Dunsany doesn’t bare his own hopes and fears in his fiction as much as Lovecraft does (Alan Sharp had to pretty much make up all the emotional hooks and characters himself to turn “Dean Spanley” into a movie), his work still has emotion — “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” is one of the saddest stories imaginable, “Poltarness: Beholder of Ocean” is a close runner-up, and “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” is an epic love story. Without Dunsany’s work — his flair for language, his love of the exotic, his invented Gods, his obsession with time and the transience of humanity — HP Lovecraft’s fiction might have turned out very differently. He enriched the fantasy world with his stories of Bethmoora and Gnoles and Gibbelins, and at his best, his writing shines in a way Lovecraft’s never did.

Discussion (4)¬

  1. Esn says:

    Again, thanks a lot Jason! This was a really interesting read.

    I must ask though, why are putting up these essays suddenly now? Is it part of some sort of project?

  2. Jason says:

    No, I just wanted to write about some authors that I like. Pretty soon I’ll also be putting up some new sketches!

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