Writers of Past Renown: Lord Dunsany

Dunsany stands dedicated to strange and lovely worlds of fantastic beauty. To the truly imaginative he is a talisman and a key unlocking rich store houses of dreams.” ~H.P. Lovecraft

Described as the fantasist’s fantasist, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, more commonly known as Lord Dunsany, was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, plays, poetry, and essays—all set in fantastical and weirdly ethereal settings. He was an actual Baron, and to be more precise, the 18th Baron of Dunsany. Whether it was due to his long-stringed name, Dunsany chose to write under his formal title and it turned out to be an effective and timeless strategy for brand recognition.

Considered one of the earliest and more significant authors of modern fantasy literature, Dunsany is famous for writing his stories in longhand using old-fashioned quill pens that he made himself. He published over 90 books in his lifetime, and they continue to sell even today with over 120 special editions published posthumously. Many of his work can be found on Project Gutenberg here.

The Gods of Pegana (1904), Dunsany’s first published collection of stories, is considered to have had a significant influence on the work of authors J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. le Guin and is even today a fan favorite, along with the classic fantasy tale, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, published in 1924. The novel inspired author Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and its subsequent movie adaptation. Dunsany was friends with W.B. Yeats who enjoyed his work and is apparently the only author ever to have had a collection edited by the famous poet.

These weren’t the only famous authors enamored by Dunsany’s tales. Arthur C. Clark praised his stories and allowed one of his essays to appear as an introduction to one of Dunsany’s collections that featured the recurring character Jorkens, a clubman who tells fantastic tales but always loses the evidence to prove the tales were true. 

Of ancient Irish stock, Dunsany attended Eton and the military academy at Sandhurst and followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by joining the famous Coldstream Guards. He served as a junior officer in Gibraltar and then in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. He later married Lady Beatrice Child-Villiers, daughter of the seventh Earl of Jersey, in 1904. They had one son, Randal Arthur Henry. In time, Dunsany gave the famous family castle in Ireland to his son, while he and his wife lived in England.

Lord Dunsany, Tales of Three Hemispheres. Owlswick Press, 1976.

During World War I, Dunsany served as captain of the Fifth Innis-killing Fusiliers, which he carried out with distinction in France. While battling Irish insurrectionists in 1916, Dunsany was shot in the head but the gods of Pegāna must have smiled on him for the bullet only lodged in his skull and he soon recovered. An avid horseman and hunter, Dunsany hosted the hounds of a local hunt for many years and hunted in parts of Africa, and was at one time the pistol-shooting champion of Ireland.

His writing only really took off after World War I, and it probably helped that he enjoyed the support of Yeats and other notable authors who encouraged him.

Dunsany claimed his stories came to him naturally and without effort and warned people not to read too deep into his prose meanings that weren’t there. He followed his imagination and did so without restraint. 

The Gods of Pegāna features a collection of short stories focussing on an invented pantheon of deities who dwell in the land of Pegāna in an imaginary cosmos—all with a well-developed history and unique geography. More collections followed. First came Time and the Gods which continued to chronicle Pegāna’s deities and the things that befell men and gods in other worlds from his dreams. Then came The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, followed by Tales of Three Hemispheres

The Sword of Welleran specifically influenced J. R. R. Tolkien, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ursula K. Le Guin. It collected 12 short stories–some linked to the gods who dwell in Pegāna while others explore various myths and lore, often blurring the lines between earth’s mythology and Dunsany’s own creations–and is even today a favorite with hardcore fans.

The Dreams of Mana-Yood-Sushai from The Gods of Pegana, by Lord Dunsany with illustration by Sidney H. Sime, 1905

Dunsany’s work influenced future great fantasy writers because of his ability to create entire worlds with their own mythologies, traditions, and cultures. Both Dunsany and Tolkien share a yearning for simpler times uncorrupted by the “greed and lack of imagination shown by the encroaching modern world.”

Although one could argue that fantasy as a formal genre did not exist when Dunsany wrote his short stories, he certainly kickstarted it. And like H. Rider Haggard and Clark Ashton Smith, Dunsany paid for the publication of his first collection. His work became popular quickly enough, and because he enjoyed the support of other authors of his time, he never again published stories with his own coin.

As mentioned, Dunsany was known for writing his stories using a quill pen and his general writing habits, too, were considered peculiar. Lady Beatrice, who usually saw his writing first and helped type them, said that, “He always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales.” Dunsany rarely rewrote anything, and his published stories are mostly first drafts.

Dunsany’s stories possess a dreamlike ambiance that he achieved by contrasting myth with realism in a richly described settings. His voice–often described as melodic, metaphoric, and poetic–is unique and memorable and like catnip to his hardcore fans. What might not be so well known is that Dunsany found inspiration in biblical text. More specifically, the language used in the Bible. The Bible inspired Dunsany, who mimicked its style and blunt truth-telling and is on record as calling it a collection of the greatest English in the history of the language. Even H.P. Lovecraft commented on the influence it had on Dunsany’s voice and style, saying, “Lord Dunsany, perhaps the greatest living prose artist, derived nearly all of his stylistic tendencies from the Scriptures…

Dunsany readily admitted it profoundly influenced him as a person and his writing. Evidence of this can be seen in stories like The Sword of Welleran and vividly The Gods of Pegāna. He also admitted to being influenced by older epics like Beowulf and how those heroes used language to describe their exploits.

Mung and the Beast of Mung from The Gods of Pegana, by Lord Dunsany with illustration by Sidney H. Sime, 1905.

Unlike the cynicism and philosophical pessimism that seems so prevalent in current fantasy stories, Dunsany’s work stands out for its irony and optimism. Some described his stories as “a sustained gentle irony,” not unlike the work of Rudyard Kipling or Ernest Bramah. The worlds he created were ethereal with pavements of glittering gold and happy endings. And yet, despite this, his stories reminded readers that man and god are fallible and thus mercy and forgiveness must guide our hearts and actions. A reminder, too, that honour is not pride and goes much deeper.  Something sorely needed in modernity.

Dunsany was appointed Byron Professor of English at Athens University in Greece in 1941, and was so popular that he was also offered a post as Professor of English in Istanbul. Unfortunately, due to the German invasion of Athens in 1941, he had to be evacuated, travelling along a meticulously planned escape route that was so wrought with complexity that he wrote a long poem about it. The poem was published under a similarly convoluted title: “A Journey, in 5 cantos: The Battle of Britain, The Battle of Greece, The Battle of the Mediterranean, Battles Long Ago, The Battle of the Atlantic” (Special edition, January 1944). 

Lord Dunsany died in 1957 of appendicitis in a hospital in Dublin at the age of 79.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Plunkett,_18th_Baron_of_Dunsany

https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lord-dunsany

https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/client/lord-dunsany

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/dunsany_lord

http://www.castaliahouse.com/lovecraft-on-lord-dunsany-and-the-king-james-bible/

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