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The books by Lord Dunsany must be the foundation of any good library of fantasy and science fiction. His many works—most in our fields—are various: poetry, plays, short stories, and novels; but I will here consider only the novels and short stories.
The tales are all masterpieces (literally), but without doubt their greatest virtue lies in the language Dunsany uses in telling them. As we would expect of a master, he uses many voices, as appropriate to his material. I suppose that I can do no better than to display for you some samples, but you should grasp two points before tasting those samples: first, that I made no effort to locate especially fine passages—I merely opened a book of each kind of Dunsany’s work and almost at random selected a representative bit; and second, that no short passage from the work of a master language user can possibly convey the cumulative effect of a bookful of such prose.
In his earliest work, an extended series of very short tales in which he creates—possibly for the first time in literature—a completely invented world, with its own gods and histories, he uses language reminiscent of the King James Bible:
“One day the King turned to the women that danced and said to them: ‘Dance no more’, and those that bore the wine in jewelled cups he sent away. The palace of King Ebalon was emptied of sound of song and there rose the voices of heralds crying in the streets to find the prophets of the land.”
Later, when Dunsany turned to making tales of the land of dreams—tales often soft and pleasant like the dreams had of a nap on a warm afternoon, but sometimes bleak and ominous—he used a lighter but still sonorous tone:
“And now the sun had set, and all the colours of the world and heaven had held a festival with him, and slipped one by one away before the imminent approach of night. The parrots had all flown home to the jungle on either bank, the monkeys in rows in safety on high branches of the trees were silent and asleep, the fireflies in the deeps of the forest were going up and down, and the great stars came gleaming out to look on the face of Yann.”
When he spun out little parables—for so we may call them—he used irony, sometimes gentle, sometimes not:
“When the advertiser saw the cathedral spires over the downs in the distance, he looked at them and wept.
‘If only’, he said, ‘this were an advertisement of Beefo, so nice, so nutritious, try it in your soup, ladies like it.”
(That is the entire text of Dunsany’s story aptly titled “What We Have Come To”.)
When he told the longer tales, the novels of a never-never Spain and of characters not unlike Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, he used a lighter, warmer, laughing-with-not-at tone:
“Now there be few things indeed which la Garda resent more than meagre hospitality in the matter of drink, and with all their wits striving to cope with this vicious defect in Rodriguez, as they rightly or wrongly regarded it, how should they have any to spare for obvious precautions?”
Or, taking to a longer tale of matters serious and deep, he again found a style to match his material:
“And then she sighed for a moment for those fields, for she had heard how life beautifully passes there, and how there are always in those fields young generations, and she thought of the changing seasons and children and age, of which elfin minstrels had sung when they told of Earth.”
It is often said that Dunsany’s especial genius was in making names. That is assuredly one of his strengths—King Ebalon, the River Yann—but we must not over-emphasize Dunsany the name-coiner, lest we eventually come to think of him as merely a clever fellow with a trick; he is a master of the English language, no less.
Dunsany seemed most at home with the short story—indeed (as you have seen), with the very short story (the 51 tales collected as The Food of Death take up 130 pages, and that in unusually large type with a lot of white space). His three novels in our fields (Don Rodriguez and The Charwoman’s Shadow—collectively referred to as The Shadow Valley Chronicles—and The King of Elfland’s Daughter) remain, however, books of wondrous delight; it was not that he was uncomfortable with or unable to manage longer works, but rather that his remarkably full, busy life dictated runs of shorter works.
Dunsany’s power of language is so dominating that it would be easy to forget that even with less mellifluous telling his tales would still be worthy reading. The tales uniformly are gentle in tone, stately in progress. They reflect an author with a keen sense of the humor and irony in life—with the proverbial twinkle in his eye—and with a keen appreciation of the ultimate futility of most human longings. But that sensed futility does not, in Dunsany’s work, translate to despair: it generates the attitude that as we humans are all in the same sinking boat of mortality we were best to accept our lots graciously and, correspondingly, to behave graciously. That ineluctable mortality also inspires Dunsany’s deep thirst for beauties and joys beyond what our world can truly offer, to quench which he makes worlds in which such beauties and joys can be found. The thirst, and the attempted quenching, are common to all artists of any meaningful caliber; it is the extravagant success of Dunsany’s attempts that distinguishes him.
Gentle, stately, gracious, sensitive to beauty, joyful—such are Dunsany’s tales. (The frequent air of melancholy amidst such beauty recalls to me a line from C. S. Lewis: Eternal sorrows eternally consoled.) One not yet having read any Dunsany might, from the seeming languor of pace and richness of language, form the impression that his tales are spun sugar, cotton candy with no substance; that would be a sorely wrong impression. The tales are better compared to jewels, polished, glowing, but hard and keen enough to cut deeply.
Dunsany’s worlds, as suggested by the earlier samples, are various: some, but by no means all or even many, are of the medieval sort so dominant today; many seem Biblical, others Eastern; some are thoroughly contemporary. Dunsany was learned and able and needed no clichés as crutches to support his tales. (In reality, there were no cliché settings then—imitators of Dunsany made some of those settings cliché by endlessly emulating him, albeit with less ability.)
(Dunsany also wrote a set of six books—the sixth only recently assembled from previously uncollected stories—in the classic English “club tales” tradition—well, almost in that tradition, for the narrator of those tales was no Colonel Mustard but a free-loading Baron Munchhausen, Mr. Joseph Jorkens [all but the fourth Jorkens book have been rarities, hard to find and dear indeed to purchase, but there is now a uniform set of the full six out—see the list below]. Many of Jorkens’ tales are simply wry exotica with punch endings, but several are, while still wry, true fantasies—though it is never clear whether we readers are to take them as veritable or as tall tales. Jorkens’ fellow club members—most of them, but there’s a skeptic in every crowd—value them enough to be constantly buying Jorkens another whiskey to get him to start or continue a tale.)
The best way to start out with Dunsany is to take on any collection of his short stories you can conveniently find. The earlier collections are all original; the later ones—some compiled by Dunsany, most by others—are cherry-picked assortments from the earlier works, which is harmless save that you will find a lot of content overlap among those later collections. You really can’t go wrong with anything by Dunsany (unless you pick up, just on the author’s name, one of his few non-fantasy works—they’re probably fine work too, but, by definition, not in our fields).
As you can see below, Lord Dunsany was a prolific writer of short stories, and one whose works have been collected and re-collected many times in numerous overlapping (and often confusingly like-titled) collections. It is difficult for the Dunsany fancier to sort out which collections are essential and which would largely duplicate works already owned. I have put in some time and effort to make a Dunsany bibliography (with an especial focus, of course, on his speculative-fiction work). There have been published bibliographies, notably that by Joshi and Schewitzer, but they are expensive, scarce, and tend to be out of date (which is not in any way to deny their importance and usefulness). Here, the whole shebang is made available in a good number of different views: books by stories, stories by books, unique works, and so on. I think it the most comprehensive and useful Dunsany bibliography freely available on the web, and I hope you will find it useful (just click on the link in this paragraph).
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For an author who can well be considered the premier in his main field, there is remarkably little besides small or individual-book focussed pieces. The fuller current resources are:
Other, briefer current pages include:
Some nice now defunct but archived pages include:
(Although not strictly relevant to the purposes of this site, of interest is this catalogue of Dunsany’s plays on Broadway; he sometimes had several running at one time.)
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Pleasantly, there are several:
(And don’t forget that this site itself has a rather extensive Dunsany bibliography.)
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