Monday, February 12, 2024

Review: Fifty-One Tales, by Lord Dunsany

Review: Fifty-One Tales, by Lord Dunsany

by Rich Horton

(This is my 1000th post at this blog!)

In Boston this past weekend I visited the Brattle Book Store, an antiquarian store a bit over a mile from the hotel. (It has an outdoor space for discounted books that was used for a scene in the film The Holdovers -- I didn't recognize it offhand but when Alexander Jablokov told me that it was obvious.) It's a very nice bookstore, three stories high, a huge selection. I came away with two things: an issue of Harper's from 1902, and this very slim book by Lord Dunsany.

I've written about Dunsany before -- so, very briefly: Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was born in London in 1878 but lived most of his life in his castle in Ireland -- his baronage was part of the Irish Peerage. He died in 1957. He wrote some 90 books, but is largely remembered for several books of fantasy short stories published between 1905 and 1916, for his novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, and for several books of "bar stories" told by one Joseph Jorkens. The early fantasy work has been tremendously influential, and a key strain of sword and sorcery is essentially Dunsanyesque, though one hears much less about his influence than the later influences of Tolkien, Howard, and Lovecraft. I believe Leigh Brackett in particular was working in a Dunsanyesque vein in her planetary romances. Dunsany was accomplished in many fields, in particular a brilliant player of chess. He was friends with Yeats, AE, Padraic Colum, and other prominent Irish writers. His niece Violet Pakenham, a writer herself, was the wife of the great novelist Anthony Powell and the brother of the notorious seventh Earl of Longford.

Fifty-One Tales was published in 1915 by the firm Elkin Mathews. My copy is part of the Third Edition, or "Third Thousand", no date given but I believe 1919. The frontispiece is a photograph of Dunsany in uniform (he served in the Army in the Second Boer War and the First World War, and in the English Home Guard in the Second World War) -- and the page is signed "Dunsany" -- probably a reproduction. In literary style it is of a piece with the fantasy stories he was writing at this time, but these pieces are much much shorter (and many of those stories were quite short.) They range from under 100 words to perhaps 750 words. They are largely melancholy, though occasionally rather droll, and most of them concern the scourge of modernity, the value of sincere art, the passing of humanity, and death. 

I found the book quite enjoyable, though it must be said his grumpiness and prejudice about any aspect of 20th century industry got pretty tiresome. The writing is beautiful if his style works for you, as it does for me: it is old-fashioned and ornate, and very well constructed. (I should note that his style evolved over time, and the Jorkens stories, for example, are told in a less mannered mode.) The mood is deeply melancholy for the most part, though modulated by considerable irony.

It might be best not to read too many stories at one go, though I did read it fairly quickly. Favorites include a short sequence about encounters with Death: "The Guest", about a despairing man eating a meal with a nonexistent guest (of whom he says "there is plenty for you to do in London"; "Death and Odysseus"; and "Death and the Orange". I would add to that set "Charon", in which the ferryman, after years of idleness finally conducts one more shade across the Styx, who tells him "I am the last". "A Moral Little Tale" casts a cynical eye on the censoriousness of a Puritan. "The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde" shows what happens when a strident politician and a demi-mondaine arrive at the gates of Heaven at the same time.  "How the Enemy Came to Thlünräna" tells of the defeat of the title city of wizards. "The Dream of King Karna-Vutra" is a meditation on the King's desire for his long dead wife. And "The True History of the Hare and the Tortoise" tells not just of the race between those two but of the mordant latter day result of that race.

These stories are minor Dunsany, and uneven, but at their best they do evoke a melancholy sense of deep time and of the impermanence of humanity and its works. The writing is effective, and sometimes lovely. I'd read, say, A Dreamer's Tales first -- but this is a nice work. 

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your 1,000th post! That's an impressive achievement.