Licensed to sell weasels and jade earrings: The short stories of Lord Dunsany

The first time I ever heard of Lord Dunsany was when my friend Jez read his story “Idle Days on the Yann” at one of my story parties. Although I’d never read it before, hearing it was like hearing something I’d read as a child, or before I was born, and the process of discovery was like a process of rediscovery. I’ve never felt that with any other writer—they were always new when they were new, but not Dunsany. And when I do re-read him, it’s recursive. In Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle” he talks about going into distances that continue to hold their charm as distance and never become mere surroundings, and that’s the best description of reading Dunsany I can think of.

Dunsany wrote in the early part of the twentieth century. When I tried to find more Dunsany in the early nineties he was about as out of print as it is possible for anything to be. His short stories had been reissued in Ballantine editions by Lin Carter in the seventies, and I eventually managed to get hold of these secondhand in one of those little bookshops that you just know wouldn’t be there if you ever went back to it. Fortunately, this situation has improved, and right now tons of Dunsany is available. Time and the Gods is an excellent big collection, and Wonder Tales and In the Land of Time are also in print. Besides these, there are a number of e-editions, and lots of his early stories are available free on Project Gutenberg.

So right now it’s easy to get hold of Dunsany. But why would you want to?

Lord Dunsany wasn’t writing fantasy, because what he was writing was defining the space in which fantasy could later happen. He was influential on Lovecraft and Tolkien. There’s a whole strand of fantasy—the Leiber/Moorcock/Gaiman strand—that’s a direct descendant of his. But though he has always had a small enthusiastic fanbase, it was possible for me to miss him entirely until the early nineties, and for lots of other people to miss him for even longer. I think this may be because he didn’t write many novels, and the novels he did write aren’t his best work. His acknowledged masterpiece novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, is probably best described as good but odd. He isn’t at his best writing characters, which gets peculiar at novel length. What he could do, what he did better than anyone, was to take poetic images and airy tissues of imagination and weight them down at the corners with perfect details to craft a net to catch dreams in. It’s not surprising he couldn’t make this work for whole novels, when as far as I know, nobody else has ever quite made it work in prose. If it is prose. It’s some of the most poetic prose ever written, quite enough to get anyone drunk on words.

Take this for example:

He opened a little, old, dark door in the wall through which I went, and he wheezed and shut the door. The back of the shop was of incredible age.I saw in antique characters upon a mouldering board, “Licensed to sell weasels and jade earrings.” The sun was setting now and shone on little golden spires that gleamed along the roof which had long ago been thatched and with a wonderful straw. I saw that the whole of Go-by Street had the same strange appearance when looked at from behind. The pavement was the same as the pavement of which I was weary and of which so many thousand miles lay the other side of those houses, but the street was of most pure untrampled grass with such marvellous flowers in it that they lured downward from great heights the flocks of butterflies as they traveled by, going I know not whence. The other side of the street there was pavement again but no houses of any kind, and what there was in place of them I did not stop to see, for I turned to my right and walked along the back of Go-by Street till I came to the open fields and the gardens of the cottages that I sought. Huge flowers went up out of these gardens like slow rockets and burst into purple blooms and stood there huge and radiant on six-foot stalks and softly sang strange songs. Others came up beside them and bloomed and began singing too. A very old witch came out of her cottage by the back door and into the garden in which I stood.

—”The Shop in Go By Street”

It’s the weasels and the jade earrings that make it real and fantastical at once. It’s whimsy, but it isn’t ever empty whimsy. Or here again:

In a wood older than record, a foster brother of the hills, stood the village of Allathurion; and there was peace between the people of that village and all the folk who walked in the dark ways of the wood, whether they were human or of the tribes of the beasts or of the race of the fairies and the elves and the little sacred spirits of trees and streams. Moreover, the village people had peace among themselves and between them and their lord, Lorendiac. In front of the village was a wide and grassy space, and beyond this the great wood again, but at the back the trees came right up to the houses, which, with their great beams and wooden framework and thatched roofs, green with moss, seemed almost to be a part of the forest.

—”The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth!”

Sacnoth is a magic sword. It’s the moss on the roofs and the tribes of the beasts that anchor this, and all of it looks forward to the actual fantasy it prefigures. And here,

The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again.

—”The Sword of Welleran”

It’s the “well-known” and the prosaic different cellars—I think you have to read a whole story to fully appreciate what he was doing, but these paragraphs are enough to give you a taste of the style and the form.

He really isn’t like anyone else at all—the closest in my opinion is Cordwainer Smith, who was writing SF, but who did the same sort of thing with assumptions and details and a long perspective.

Dunsany was a contemporary of Wells, but when we read Wells now we can see what he was writing was actual science fiction, like the science fiction we write now. You can’t do that with Dunsany and fantasy, but in a way that makes him even more interesting. He isn’t a father of fantasy but a grandfather. I tend to read, or even re-read, one Dunsany story at a time, but the images in them stick with me forever, which is how I know I didn’t really read them as a child, because I couldn’t have possibly forgotten them.

Give him a try, you’ll be glad you did.


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