Fantasy in the Time of Lord Dunsany
by Brian Murphy
“I never hunt for an idea. It must come to me and I must be struck by the wonder of it. I go beyond reality in so much of my writing because I’ve always preferred the big thing. Why shoot at a rabbit when you have a chance to shoot at a tiger?”
–Lord Dunsany, from Lord Dunsany, King of Dreams.
When Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (July 1878-October 1957) set pen to paper, he was wrestling tigers and dragons from the air and committing them to paper. None before or since have done it quite like the man known as Lord Dunsany. He was sui generis, writing in an age where there was no fantasy genre as we know it today.
Dunsany was influenced by the bible and Greek mythology, old fairy tales, and to a lesser degree by a few peers including Rudyard Kipling and William Morris. But crucially, not a body of fantasy literature. Coupled with his one-of-a-kind elevated writing style, Dunsany’s early fantasy material feels ethereal and wondrous, as fresh as when it was written more than 100 years ago.
There was no established body of fantastic literature in Dunsany’s era, certainly no recognizable publisher-defined genre. That would not happen until a dozen years after his death, with the publication of the Lin Carter edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, or BAFS (1969-74). In his comprehensive study of fantasy The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, author Jamie Williamson credits the BAFS for establishing a fantasy canon and laying the foundations for the modern fantasy genre. Pre-BAFS, the likes of Dunsany were published alongside the likes of Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway, their works indistinguishable on a shelf, bearing none of the hallmarks of fantasy we know today.
Post-BAFS, in the wake of Tolkien boom and the Lancer/Robert E. Howard boom of the mid-1960s, fantasy was forever changed, codified and branded and labeled as such. But prior there was Dunsany, and a handful of others including the likes of Morris, E.R. Eddison, H. Rider Haggard, George MacDonald, Sara Coleridge, and James Branch Cabell. Crossover influence, if any, was scarcely discernable. The result was an uncommon freedom of expression. Without the two towers of Tolkien and Howard dominating the landscape, and no rules of the genre to follow, writers were freer to dream. And in in the case of Dunsany, those dreams were big, bold, and beautiful.
Dunsany believed in the spirit of a story and catching dreams. The stuff of The Gods of Pegāna (1905), and his early material has an air of the unreal, doubly so as he wrote much of his work from a room in the turret of the ancestral Dunsany castle. And yet he was very real, acquainted with the reality of violence on a level few fantasy authors can equal. A former member of the Coldstream Guards, Dunsany fought in the Second Boer War, was wounded during the Easter Rising of 1916, and watched Nazi aircraft bomb his home Shoreham, England, a rifle tucked under his arm as he scanned the skies for parachutes. In his best short stories, “The Sword of Welleran,” for example, or “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth,” he was able to couple the feel of faerie with a martial heroism to create tales of startling beauty peopled by full color men of valor.
In his award-winning study J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey makes the case that a group of “traumatized authors,” which includes Tolkien as well as the likes of George Orwell, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and others, wrote fantasy as a mechanism to cope with the horrors of the 20th century, including its destructive world wars. Although Shippey does not include him, Dunsany also understood the havoc wreaked by conflict, and it made its way into his fiction. From “The Sword of Welleran”:
But in the dawn Merimna’s men came back, and the sun arising to give new life to the world, shone instead upon the hideous things that the sword of Welleran had done. And Rold said: ‘O sword, sword! How horrible thou art! Thou art a terrible thing to have come among men. How many eyes shall look upon gardens no more because of thee? How many fields must go empty that might have been fair with cottages, white cottages with children all about them? How many valleys must go desolate that might have nursed warm hamlets, because thou hast slain long since the men that might have built them? I hear the wind crying against thee, thou sword! It comes from the empty valleys. It comes over the bare fields. There are children’s voices in it. They were never born. Death brings an end to crying for those that had life once, but these must cry for ever. O sword! sword! why did the gods send thee among men?’ And the tears of Rold fell down upon the proud sword but could not wash it clean.
Dunsany is perhaps best known as the author of the dreamy The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), a novel that practically breathes the horns of Elfland. But he could get gritty, too. Karl Edward Wagner claimed that Dunsany pioneered the mercenary, anti-heroic sensibility of sword-and-sorcery with his “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller,” featuring a morally ambiguous master jeweler/thief on a mission entirely to further his own wealth and satisfy his lusts.
And yet he never stopped dreaming. Late in life, having turned from fantasy to his Jorkens stories and plays, he told biographer Hazel Littlefield in August 1952 “Technique cannot make a work of art; the raw material for all works of art is some sound human emotion. Technique is a thing you feel, not a thing you talk about; if your feelings take the form of dramatic technique, you are a playwright; if they don’t, you never can be one, even though you understand the rules.”
Dunsany was a household name in the first half of the 20th century when as many as five of his plays were held at once in New York, and newspapers and photographers breathlessly captured his first ever trip to California. He influenced dozens of subsequent authors to a greater or lesser degree, including H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, Tolkien, Manly Wade Wellman and Michael Moorcock.
Many have attempted to ape his style. H.P. Lovecraft had a distinct Dunsany phase he later looked back on with some embarrassment; Lin Carter without any shame copied Dunsany with the likes of “The Whelming of Oom” in The Young Magicians (1969). Neither succeeded, wholly, because they attempted to mimic his style, without access to the same one-of-a-kind imagination.
Unfortunately, Dunsany has fallen from his once lofty perch, still known by his one-of-a-kind name but without a vocal fanbase championing his works. But if there is anything we can take from his life and work it’s that we could all use a little more wonder in our fantasy.
We cannot return to a time before fantasy became an industry, of codified worlds and by-the-numbers magic systems. But we still have Dunsany, and through his words experience true wonder.