“The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man.”
- The Hoard of the Gibbelins
Irish literature has a long if sometimes uneven tradition of the fantastic. From the biting satire of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, through C.S Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy to modern practitioners of the form such as Ian McDonald (the award-winning King of Morning, Queen of Day) and Paul Kearney (The Ten Thousand).
Often regarded by the Literary Establishment as juvenile, escapist or, worst of all, populist, science fiction and fantasy are (at least in their modern incarnation) relatively young literary forms, roughly the same age as cinema. If Edwin S. Porter's 1903 The Great Train Robbery can be considered as one of the first narrative films and H.G Wells' The Time Machine (1895) as one of the first significant speculative novels in English, then less than a decade separates the birth of cinema and the birth of science fiction. Yet few, if any, critics would dismiss the entirety of cinema as an art form.
Like cinema, speculative/ imaginative fiction has its pioneers, those writers whose work broke new ground and provided a path for those who followed.
In this respect, Edward John Moreton Dax Plunkett (1878 - 1957), 18th Baron of Dunsany, can rightly be considered one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy fiction. Writing as Lord Dunsany, his work encompassed novels, plays, poetry and hundreds of short stories, the majority of which were fantastical in nature.
A contemporary of W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory, his literary influence can still be felt in modern speculative fiction and he has been described by The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction as being 'instrumental in creating the essential autonomous venues within which modern fantasy could be told'. In other words, Lord Dunsany was one of the first writers to set his work in realms that were wholly of his own imagination, and while the notion of imaginary countries had a long literary or mythical provenance – Thomas More's Utopia (1516) being a prime example of the former and Atlantis an example of the latter – few writers took it upon themselves to create whole worlds.
Some of the most important writers emerging from the U.S 'pulp' era such as H.P Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard – the two giants of American popular fiction – cited Lord Dunsany as an influence, as later did J.R.R Tolkein and Arthur C. Clarke (in particular his Tales From the White Hart sequence). In more contemporary fantasy literature, Neil Gaiman has acknowledged Dunsany in his work, probably best seen in the 2007 novel Stardust, which utilizes Dunsany's motif of abutting the real world with the worlds of his imagination.
This conjunction of the mundane and the fantastic can be seen in a number of Dunsany's short stories such as 'The Wonderful Window' where the titular glass provides a glimpse into an unnamed, doomed world, 'The Coronation of Mister Shap' where, by increments, Shap's fantasy world overcomes his staid, London-bound life or 'The Kith of the Elf-folk' where a young Wild Thing longs to be human. It can also be glimpsed in stories such as 'The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller' – one of Dunsany's overtly fantasy tales – where at the climax of the story the Merchant's daughter abandons a purely imaginary realm 'and called her home the English Riviera'.
It is seen, too, in his most celebrated novel 'The King of Elfland's Daughter' (1924) where real and fairy worlds intermingle and interchange until one is virtually indistinguishable from the other. But Dunsany was also skilled at creating imaginary worlds from whole cloth, worlds that flash as brightly now as when they were first imagined.
'The Sword of Welleran', a powerful anti-war story, imagines a once-powerful but now moribund city state saved from destruction by the returned spirits of its greatest heroes, 'The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth' prefigures of the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock with its central quest narrative, and 'Carcassonne', a story of conquest denied, chronicles the fate of a world-be Alexander and his ultimate downfall. Dunsany would return to such imaginary landscapes again and again, particularly in the first two decades of his writing career, rarely creating the same world twice and peopling them with strange gods, flawed heroes and broken dreams.
Dunsany's literary career began with the publication of 'The Gods of Pegana' in 1903, and he continued to write and publish his iconoclastic work to great acclaim for the next fifty years. His first play 'The Glittering Gate' was written for the Abbey Theatre at the request of W.B Yeats (who described him as 'a man of genius') and at one point five of his plays were being performed on the New York stage - both on and off Broadway - at the same time. Part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, his fiction belongs to a tradition of the fantastic which includes not only Jonathan Swift but also Charles Maturin (Memoth the Wanderer), Sheridan Le Fanu (In A Glass Darkly) Bram Stoker (Dracula), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), M.P Shiel (The Purple Cloud) and C.S Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).
Like most of those writers, his work cannot be considered particularly 'Irish' in either tone or subject matter (a factor which contributed to his estrangement from Yeats in the early 1930's when Yeats formed the Irish Academy of Letters) yet it was deeply influenced by, among other things, the Kiltartanese work of Lady Gregory, in particular Cuchulain of Muirthemne and Gods and Fighting Men – both of which stand as milestones of the Irish Fantastic, giving as they do fresh literary life to the myths of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fianna and the Ulster Cycle. Equally, Dunsany took inspiration from the rhythms and language of the King James Bible (particularly in his early collections) as well as the aesthetics of the fin de siècle, and it is this heady mixture which comes to the fore again and again in Dunsany's work.
A soldier, hunter, chess champion and animal rights activist amongst other things Lord Dunsany was ‘Man of many parts and distinguished in them all’ (D.J. Morgan's obituary in the British Chess Magazine December 1957), but is perhaps as a writer that he was at his most remarkable:
I have never seen a city in the world so beautiful as Merimna seemed to me when first I dreamed of it. It was a marvel of spires and figures of bronze, and marble fountains, and trophies of fabulous wars, and broad streets given over wholly to the Beautiful. Right through the centre of the city there went an avenue fifty strides in width, and along each side of it stood likenesses in bronze of the Kings of all the countries that the people of Merimna had ever known. At the end of that avenue was a colossal chariot with three bronze horses driven by the winged figure of Fame, and behind her in the chariot the huge form of Welleran, Merimna's ancient hero, standing with extended sword.
- The Sword of Welleran
Now, on the night that I tell of, a little Wild Thing had gone drifting over the waste, till it came right up to the walls of the cathedral and danced upon the images of the coloured saints as they lay in the water among the reflection of the stars. And as it leaped in its fantastic dance, it saw through the painted windows to where the people prayed, and heard the organ roaring over the marshes. The sound of the organ roared over the marshes, but the song and prayers of the people streamed up from the cathedral's highest tower like thin gold chains, and reached to Paradise, and up and down them went the angels from Paradise to the people, and from the people to Paradise again.
- The Kith of the Elf Folk
When Thangobrind the jeweller heard the ominous cough, he turned at once upon that narrow way. A thief was he, of very high repute, being patronized by the lofty and elect, for he stole nothing smaller than the Moomoo's egg, and in all his life stole only four kinds of stone—the ruby, the diamond, the emerald, and the sapphire; and, as jewellers go, his honesty was great. Now there was a Merchant Prince who had come to Thangobrind and had offered his daughter's soul for the diamond that is larger than the human head and was to be found on the lap of the spider-idol, Hlo-hlo, in his temple of Moung-ga-ling; for he had heard that Thangobrind was a thief to be trusted.
- Distressing Tale of Thangbrind the Jeweller
Travellers had seen it sometimes like a clear dream, with the sun glittering on its citadel upon a far-off hilltop, and then the clouds had come or a sudden mist; no one had seen it long or come quite close to it; though once there were some men that came very near, and the smoke from the houses blew into their faces, a sudden gust--no more, and these declared that someone was burning cedarwood there. Men had dreamed that there is a witch there, walking alone through the cold courts and corridors of marmorean palaces, fearfully beautiful and still for all her fourscore centuries, singing the second oldest song, which was taught her by the sea, shedding tears for loneliness from eyes that would madden armies, yet will she not call her dragons home--Carcassonne is terribly guarded.
Never a man to rest on his laurels his fiction encompassed many different forms. The humourous Jorkens stories – told in the Club Style by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators Mr Joseph Jorkens - enjoyed wide popularity in their day, appearing on radio as well as in numerous newspapers and magazines. His 1918 collection, 'Tales of War', arose directly from his military experiences during both the Boer War and the Great War and contains many stark and startling images mingled with a hope for the future so commonplace amongst the combatants:
They are very strange, these little oases of death that remain unmoved and green with their trees still growing, in the midst of a desolation as far as the eye can see, in which cities and villages and trees and hedges and farms and fields and churches are all gone, and where hugely broods a desert. It is as though Death, stalking up and down through France for four years, sparing nothing, had recognized for his own his little gardens, and had spared only them.
– The Oases of Death
Some day Spring will come back; some day she will shine all April in Picardy again, for Nature is never driven utterly forth, but comes back with her seasons to cover up even the vilest things.
- The Nightmare Countries
Equally, though, Dunsany's work contains a streak of wicked gallows humour as can be seen in stories such as 'The Hoard of the Gibbelins', 'How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles', 'Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller' and 'The Fall of Babbulkund' where neither vice, virtue or cunning is enough to save the protagonists from their ultimate grisly fates.
There is, of course, a caveat for modern readers when it comes to Dunsany – and not only to him but many writers of the late Victorian and early Edwardian era – most of his stories value imagery and tone over plot and character, endings are often abrupt and his gilded language, coupled with a fiery imagination, can be a challenge to readers more attuned to the stripped down prose of, say, Ernest Hemingway or, conversely, the inner monologues of James Joyce or Virginia Woolfe. Initially, at least, Dunsany was writing at a time when the fabric of literature had begun to change. Prior to 1900, the fantastic and the mundane had intermingled freely – for example, in the gothic landscapes of the Brontes, 'The Turn of the Screw' by Henry James, 'The History of Mr Polly' by H.G Wells and the ghost stories of writers such as Charles Dickens – but with the arrival of such movements as Naturalism, Modernism and, ironically, the birth of science fiction as an identifiable genre, literature became (and to a large extend, remains) much more codified in its production and consumption. The dogged pursuit of the 'Real' in contemporary writing has confined many otherwise remarkable authors within the unscalable walls of genre to the detriment of both literature and readership.
Although neither the first or the last great Irish fantasist and to a large extent something of a forgotten man of Irish – and indeed, speculative – writing, Dunsany's work remains unique and at its best displays what Rudyard Kipling described in a letter to the author as “a real proper imagination, which is a scarce article indeed.”
Lord Dunsany – a partial bibliography
The Gods of Pegana (1905)
Time and the Gods (1905)
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1906)
A Dreamer's Tales (1910)
Tales of War (1918)
The Man Who Ate The Phoenix (1949)
Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley (1922)
The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924)
NB: Many of Dunsany's works, now in the Public Domain, are available online, particularly at Project Gutenberg a free and valuable resource for Public Domain works: www.projectgutenberg.org