Friday, September 19, 2014

An Old Fantasy Masterwork: Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

Time and the Gods, by Lord Dunsany

a review by Rich Horton

This probably doesn't really qualify as an old "Bestseller", nor certainly does Dunsany qualify as "forgotten", but these books (six are considered here) were certainly old, and though Dunsany is not forgotten he is perhaps less read these days than he deserves. This is a review first published in 2000 at SF Site, with slight revisions.

Lord Dunsany's full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany (of the Irish peerage). His niece was Lady Violet Powell, nee Pakenham, the wife of the great novelist Anthony Powell and the sister of the notorious Earl of Longford. Lady Violet's memoirs include a depiction of time spent in Lord Dunsany's somewhat old-fashioned Irish home.

Lord Dunsany is widely regarded as a seminal 20th-century writer of fantasy, the originator of many of the tropes we see in story after story, and a master stylist. However, he is not all that widely read any more (or so it seems to me). Speaking for myself, prior to receiving this collection for review (back in 2000), I had read only the odd story or three that I found reprinted in Weird Tales or some anthology. My copy of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy reprint of The King of Elfland's Daughter is still mouldering on a shelf in my basement, shockingly unread. Perhaps I could have been forgiven if I had thought that Dunsany might be more of an "originator" than a "keeper," or that his reputation as a "stylist" might be built on prose more ornate and flowery than is much appreciated these days.

Well, this new collection, the second in Millennium's much to be praised series of Fantasy Masterworks (a companion to their excellent SF Masterworks series), would seem to have been intended to reach readers like me, and to set Dunsany's record straight. And so it does: the best stories in this book are excellent, written in lovely prose that is indeed ornate, but to good effect, often rounded off with an ironic barb, stuffed with lush images, and suffused with the odour of "regret," which Michael Swanwick has called central to "Hard Fantasy." And the bulk of the stories here are excellent or just a step below.

That said, a few caveats are necessary regarding this particular edition. My main issue is with the presentation of the stories. For a major writer like Dunsany, dead these 43 years, I think a collection of this nature should include at least a small amount of critical/biographical/bibliographical apparatus. I'd have liked to see an introduction discussing the history of these stories, and discussing the rest of Dunsany's career. And I'd have liked to see a longer biographical treatment than the brief paragraph on the back cover. (I might also add that there were rather more typos than I like in the stories themselves.) I suppose, however, that we should be happy with any such large collection, and with such a reasonable price as well.

My second caveat is more in the nature of a warning. This book collects Dunsany's first six collections of fantasy stories: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, A Dreamer's Tales, The Book of Wonder, and The Last Book of Wonder. For some reason, The Gods of Pegana, Dunsany's first book (1905), is presented last. Time and the Gods, his second book (1906), is presented first. I chose to read the collection in order of writing, and frankly I almost bogged down in the first two books. The Gods of Pegana is a collection of closely linked fragments, dealing almost entirely with the title beings. As an imaginative creation, the book is interesting, but there is no plot, and the "gods" did not come to life for me. Time and the Gods consists of less closely linked stories, but it is still dealing with, essentially, faux "creation myths," and varieties of "Just So Stories." I remained mostly unconvinced. In addition, in these collections Dunsany seemed more prone to his style descending to what might be called "forsoothery," as with so many bad Dunsany imitators. There are a few high points, such as "The Cave of Kai," about a King who wishes to be remembered, "The Relenting of Sarnidac," about a dwarf who is mistaken for a god, and especially the last two stories. "The Dreams of a Prophet" is a brief piece, memorable mainly for a real stinger of a line. "The Journeys of the King" is the longest story in the entire (larger) collection: a moving account of a dying King and the prophets who tell him where he will go on his "last journey."

Thus, I would recommend leaving the two earlier collections until later, or perhaps only sampling them. Dunsany seemed to hit his stride with the remarkable stories in The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908). In these stories the focus is on humans. Also, they incorporate actual plots. There is still the ornate writing, but put to better effect. Furthermore, for all that it is ornate, it is wonderfully balanced. The rhythms, as well as the imagery and the alliteration, are seamless and beautiful. The gods and other odd beings are still present. "The Sword of Welleran" is one of the best, about a once war-like city, now guarded only by the statues of the heroes of its past. Another astounding story is "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save by Sacnoth," which would be memorable for its glorious title alone. The story itself is a veritable prototype of hundreds of followers in the genre: the land is troubled by an evil wizard who can only be vanquished by a miraculous weapon, the sword Sacnoth, so our hero literally wrests the sword from the spine of an alligator, then sets out on his quest to the "fortress unvanquishable."

The stories continue in similar modes through the rest of the six books included. As time goes on, Dunsany makes connections with Earth more explicit, and by the last couple of books much effort is spent mourning the departure of "Romance," pushed out by modern times, industry and suburbs and so on. (One amusing story, "A Tale of London," turns the tables somewhat, presenting a vision of a marvelous London from the viewpoint of a Sultan's hashish smoker.) Certainly these books were of their time -- just prior to the First World War.

The dominant fantasy landscape here is vaguely Oriental cum Arabic. Much is made of trackless deserts, wondrous cities with their Minarets and Sultans and robed inhabitants, the smoking of hashish, etc.  The dominant mood is regret for what is lost or about to be lost. And most of the stories end sadly. The hand of fate lies heavy on the characters herein. The most common length is very short: 1000 to 2000 words or so. But despite the outward sameness, and with the exception of the weaker earlier books, I was not bored with the stories, nor did I feel that Dunsany repeated himself. In fact, taken together the stories gain strength. The collections as a whole are almost stronger than their individual parts: a very rare thing for anthologies.

Perhaps a sample or two of Dunsany's prose would be in order. Here is the opening of "The Fall of Babbulkund":

    "I said: 'I will arise now and see Babbulkund, City of Marvel. She is of one age with the Earth, the stars are her sisters. Pharaohs of old time coming conquering from Araby first saw her, a solitary mountain in the desert, and cut the mountain into towers and terraces. They destroyed one of the hills of God, but they made Babbulkund. She is carven, not built, her palaces are one with her terraces, there is neither join nor cleft...'"

From "Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean":

    "Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the East there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind."

Though many of these stories are melancholy, Dunsany is not above dry humour, either the odd dig (on seeing a sheep smoke a pipe: "-- an incident that struck me as unlikely; but in the hills of Sneg I met an honest politician."); or stories with sharply ironic points, or pure entertainments, such as the stories about the pirate Shard, which are among the best collected here ("The Loot of Bombasharna" and "A Story of Land and Sea"). All in all this is as fine an extended collection of fiction as I've seen in a considerable period.

Besides the virtues of the stories themselves, they are significant influences on the fantasy and even the SF of our time. The most obvious derivative works are the many sword and sorcery tales which borrow, too often ineffectively, the quasi-Oriental settings, the quest plots, and broad echoes of Dunsany's prose style. But the influences run elsewhere: certainly Leigh Brackett's Martian landscapes owe something to Dunsany. And even a nominally "hard SF" writer like Arthur C. Clarke (quoted on the back cover calling Dunsany "One of the greatest writers of this century") shows in his romantic visions a distinct heritage from these fantasies.

I recommend this collection of exotic and colourful fantasies to readers interested in the originals from which much contemporary sword and sorcery derive, to those interested in a true master of English prose of the older style, and to those ready to immerse themselves in a melancholy and wholly different world view. Thoroughly involving.

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