In The Land of Dreams: Lord Dunsany’s At the Edge of the World
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
I didn’t read any of Dunsany’s stories until long after I had encountered several of his direct literary descendants. I discovered H.P. Lovecraft on the Stapleton Library shelves, Clark Ashton Smith on the foxed pages of old anthologies, and Jack Vance in dad’s boxes of books in the attic. I didn’t know their style had been presaged by Dunsany’s stories of mysteriously abandoned cities, phantasmagorical river journeys, and strange, forgotten gods. I knew some of Lovecraft’s earlier stories, especially his short novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), were called “Dunsanian,” but it is only in more recent times I’ve read Dunsany’s own words.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), veteran of the Boer War and WWI, at one time had four well-received plays performed on Broadway simultaneously. Associated with the Irish Literary Revival, he was a patron of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was friendly with William Butler Yeats, George William Russell and other movement luminaries. He was a well-known and respected author, known primarily to a small coterie of devotees of the fantastic and for the stories and novels that comprise a lesser part of his collected works.
Dunsany published his first collection, The Gods of Pegāna, in 1905. He would complete several other collections of his short fantasy works before turning his attention toward drama and novels. Later, he would devote much of his time to a lengthy series of “club stories” featuring the raconteur, Jorkens.
After his death in 1957, his work slowly faded from popular memory. It was only with Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy series that Dunsany was restored to the public’s eye. Many of his works were reprinted for the first time in fifty years.
I bring up all this about the ephemeralness of Dunsany’s writing success because so much of his fantasy stories seem to be about impermanence and our constant effort to re-attain things lost to fading memories and time. It was something that seems to have bothered him greatly and he clung fiercely to the accolades of his younger days.
At the Edge of the World (1970) is the first of three collections of Dunsany’s stories Carter edited. It includes stories from various original collections of his stories. Carter provides much information, most straight from Dunsany’s memoirs, about the origins of most of the stories. They range from the mythic accounts of gods and men, to the travels of an unnamed dreamer through the lands along the mighty River Yann, to a few outright sword-and-sorcery adventures.
For me, the heart of the collection are the three linked stories beginning with “Idle Days on the Yann” (1910). In it, the narrator ventures to the land of dreams in order to travel down the great River Yann aboard the ship Bird of the River and find the Gate of Yann leading to the sea beyond. It’s a story filled with wondrous imagery, ranging from the sublime to the disturbing (It’s also one referenced in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel.”)
And from the market-place I came to a silver temple and then to a palace of onyx, and there were many wonders in Perdóndaris, and I would have stayed and seen them all, but as I came to the outer wall of the city I suddenly saw in it a huge ivory gate. For a while I paused and admired it, then I came nearer and perceived the dreadful truth. The gate was carved out of one solid piece!
I fled at once through the gateway and down to the ship, and even as I ran I thought that I heard far off on the hills behind me the tramp of the fearful beast by whom that mass of ivory was shed, who was perhaps even then looking for his other tusk. When I was on the ship again I felt safer, and I said nothing to the sailors of what I had seen.
Two years later, the same narrator, longing for reunion with his friends on the Bird of the River, makes his way to the region of the Yann via “A Shop in Go-By Street” (1912). Based upon a real shop Dunsany frequented with his father as a child, it is the archetype of the place where all manner of things may be purchased:
Now when you enter this man’s shop you do not go straight to the point but you ask him to sell you something, and if it is anything with which he can supply you he hands it you and wishes you good-morning. It is his way. And many have been deceived by asking for some unlikely thing, such as the oyster-shell from which was taken one of those single pearls that made the gates of Heaven in Revelations, and finding that the old man had it in stock.
Discovering time passes more swiftly in the dream world and all his friends are long dead and the past is as distant as the other side of creation, the narrator visits the dream lands for a final visit in “The Avenger of Perdóndaris” (1912). Here he meets the most beautiful woman imaginable, but in the end willingly returns to “the fields we know.”
Of the adventure stories, “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1908) is deservedly called one of the first tales of swords-and-sorcery. “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweler, and of the Doom That Befell Him” exists on a continuum with the cynical and delightful horrors of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.
At times languid, at times haunting, and at other times hallucinatory, Dunsany’s style may not suit every modern reader’s taste, but it is most assuredly their loss. Each story conjures up exquisitely the texture and tone of the sorts of dreams that linger on long after daylight has banished sleep.
Header image is “Moonlit River Landscape with a Monumental Gateway” by Sebastian Pether (1790–1844).