Jun 10 2009 2:24pm

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.

Kage Baker
1. kagebaker
I gotta disagree on one point only: "Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley" and "The Charwoman's Shadow" are wonderful novels, fantasy but much less mannered and consciously archaic than "The King of Elfland's Daughter".

With everything else I agree utterly. I'll read anything by Dunsany. One of the things about him that has always charmed me is that he was apparently a huntin', fishin', shootin' kind of peer, the sort who rode to hounds and went on big game safaris, the very last person you'd imagine with a skull full of jewels of weird beauty.
Samantha Brandt
2. Talia
I'd never heard of him before until one of his stories, 'Chu-bu and Sheemish,' was read on podcastle a week or two back. It's fantastic, peculiar and well worth a listen:
Clifton Royston
3. CliftonR
Jo: If you can find a copy of his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman, perhaps in a university library, it is well worth reading. (I was thinking it hadn't been republished since 1933, but apparently it was republished both in HB and PB in the '70s, so it should be a bit easier to find.)

It's what you might perhaps call real world fantasy, from the Ireland he grew up in, with peat bogs, rebels, and witches, and yet there's not a bit of fantasy element in it for those who'd prefer not to find it as such.
4. DemetriosX
I think _King of Elfland's Daughter_ is absolutely my least favorite Dunsany (accent on the penultimate syllable and rhymes with zany) work. The reason it is so difficult to fit him into the space we call fantasy today is that that space has been permanently warped by Tolkein. In the 70s, fantasy was shaped and hammered to fit into the round hole of Tolkeinesque high fantasy. (I blame the DelReys, but let's not go there.) Up until then adult fantasy was a many splendored thing. Dunsany, Cabell, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, deCamp & Pratt, Peake, and even Fritz Leiber. Most, if not all of them, would be hard pressed to get a publishing contract today, because their work lacks quests and swords and companies.

For those who don't know Dunsany but are familiar with Lovecraft, think of his Dreamland stories (_Cats of Ulthar_ and so). Those come the closest, though they are really only pale imitations. Good pale imitations, but pale nonetheless.
Hugh Arai
5. HArai
DemetriosX@4: I admit I'm not very familiar with most of those authors but "quests and swords" seemed to be very much apart of Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" stories that I've read. I'd be surprised if he couldn't get those published today.
6. hummingrose
"The Dreams of a Prophet" has been one of my favorite short shorts for years; three paragraphs long, and it's perfect.
7. Ross Smith
I wouldn't say "He really isn’t like anyone else at all". The name that immediately springs to mind is Clark Ashton Smith.
Elio García
8. Egarcia
I forget when it is that I first came across Dunsany, but I did more or less immediately buy the Fantasy Masterworks collection of Time and the Gods published in the U.K. His prose remains as remarkable now as it must have been when it spilled from his pen.

Jo quoted from one of my favorite stories, "The Sword of Welleran", but another that's really stuck with me is the majestic "The Fall of Babbulkund", a series of descriptions of the most remarkable city in the world, and its downfall.
9. JamesEnge
Thanks for this--even reading a little Dunsany is a mood-lifter for me, so this was a lot of fun.

Two details:

1.) I think that last quote is actually from "The Hoard of the Gibbelins."

2.) I don't see how Dunsany is not writing fantasy. The imaginary-world novels of William Morris were already being described as fantasy in the 19thC., so the literary category pre-existed Dunsany.
Chuk Goodin
10. Chuk
I can't really read Dunsany's weird stuff. Too weird...seems somehow dry to me, like maybe I could sort of see what's going on if I were to put in a lot of effort, but that the effort wouldn't be worth it.
I liked "Two Bottles of Relish" well enough, though.
Clark Myers
11. ClarkEMyers
"There’s a whole strand of fantasy—the Leiber/Moorcock/Gaiman strand—that’s a direct descendant of his"

To say nothing of James Branch Cabell?

A good many episodes in David Drake's Isles - Atlantis - fantasy have Dunsany's serial numbers left on in homage and for the reader's amusement.
William S. Higgins
12. higgins
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.

He influenced a lot of writers. Zelazny, I'm sure. And Arthur C. Clarke, who loved his stuff, corresponded with him, and even visited him once in his ancestral castle.

I read a collection of Lord Dunsany's short stories, and when I hit "Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn," I was irritated. It seemed like a huge Shaggy-Dog Story.

At a party some months later, Fred Robinson had another Dunsany collection he was reading. I vented my spleen about how annoying "Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn" is. I described my annoyance colorfully enough to arouse everyone's curiosity.

So (since the story was in Fred's book) I wound up reading it aloud, to demonstrate how dreadful it is.

Funny thing: when I'd finished, its shagginess didn't seem quite so bad.

"Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn" has grown on me. It now strikes me as a story about storytelling itself. I am becoming fond of it.

I hope that to this day, on the proper occasion, among the proper audience, one of the five deputed elder Milkmen may still be telling the tale.

And a great hush falls in the Hall of the Ancient Company, and something about the shape of the roof and the rafters makes the tale resonant all down the hall so that the youngest hears it far away from the fire and knows, and dreams of the day when perhaps he will tell himself why the milkman shudders when he perceives the dawn.
13. DBratman
I dearly love Dunsany's early short stories; they are among the marvels of the fantasy world. (And while I grasp the argument that they are not "fantasy", that only applies if you define "fantasy" as the tract-housing developments that have grown up in the last three decades. To me, "fantasy" - the works that make me want to read the stuff - are all the colorful old houses that predate the developers. And of those houses, Dunsany's is one of the most appealing.)

Though I'd read some before, the Dunsany story that really pulled me in was "The Kith of the Elf-Folk", which I'd found in one of the Fantastic Imagination anthologies. It is both deeply beautiful and deeply ironic.

Stories like "The Sword of Welleran" and "The Fortress Unvanquishable" are clearly the ancestors of sword-and-sorcery. But it would be worth studying why I love these Dunsany stories but find most sword-and-sorcery, including Leiber, uninteresting.
Tim Nolan
14. Dr_Fidelius
There's another nice appreciation of Dunsany over at Eric Walker's Great SF & Fantasy site, including a bibliography.

I second the advice on reading only one or two stories at a time. Really this applies to all the best short stories but - as Jo said - this is prose to get drunk on.

I'm interested by the comparison to Cordwainer Smith. I love both writers, but it never occurred to me that it could be for the same reasons.

@ higgins

"Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn" made me grin, but then I have a soft spot for shaggy dog stories. I like reading it to people just to annoy them. Yes, I am a hit at parties.

If any Tor readers are in London with a mound of disposable cash there's a lovely illustrated volume of Dunsany stories in Cecil Court. It has "Why the Milkman..." in it.
15. selidor
I learned of Dunsany only a few years ago, and was delighted on moving to a new city to find the university library well stocked with ten or thirteen different works in early-century editions, according to their catalogue. Unfortunately, on going to the shelves, not one of the early volumes was to be found.
About three months before, news reports had come out of how organised book thieves had viciously attacked the library. Many libraries in New Zealand, both public and university, had been targeted over the previous several years, but they hadn't realised until then. Turned out that these thieves had removed all of the beautiful Dunsany volumes, including a rare illustrated folio of his plays. The librarians were shocked, as they hadn't thought Literature had been affected (it was mostly Pasifika and Botany).
Definitely the most upsetting experience I've ever had in a library.

If anyone ever comes across such books, might be worth checking back with the NZ Police - I doubt the books would still be in New Zealand.
16. DemetriosX
HArai @5 As an unknown author, Leiber might be able to get Fafhrd and the Mouser published today, though probably first as short stories that developed a following, and it would have been a lot harder 10 or 20 years ago. To me, they subvert the modern standard of fantasy more than anything else. They have quests, but they are often petty or only for the aggrandizement of the egos of their mentors or their own egos. They have swords, but ANY sword Fafhrd wields is Greywand and ANY sword Mouser wields is Scalpel. Leiber also published a large number of other fantasies, both short stories and novels, that don't fit the current pattern at all.

I highly recommend most of those authors I listed, if you can find them. Cabell's not really my cup of tea and Mervyn Peake seems to be an acquired taste, but you never know if you don't try.
Liza .
17. aedifica
Wow. I must read the stories you quoted here! I've heard of Dunsany, of course, but I haven't gotten around to reading anything of his yet (and I probably would have started with The King of Elfland's Daughter, and possibly been disappointed). Methinks I'll be picking up his stories a bit sooner than I would have.
Tony Zbaraschuk
18. tonyz
The Pegana stories are the things that still hold me attracted. There's a stark and in some ways nihilistic vision behind it all (consider the chant of the priests of Mung), but the prose is beautiful -- indeed, almost poetry. I think Dunsany is like, in some ways, the most mannered stories of Jack Vance: one reads him for the style and the descriptive quality and the voice, not so much for the stories (though some of them are very good, such as "The Sword of Welleran").
Ken Walton
19. carandol
I suppose it's not surprising that Lord Dunsany was friends with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory; they share something in the rhythm of their prose and the misty otherworldliness of the Celtic Revival.
Terry Lago
20. dulac3
I'm one of those people who actually preferred Dunsany's novels to his short stories (though I am admittedly not a huge fan of short stories in the first place). I'd agree that he is not the strongest on character development, but to me the novels read like highly mannered, baroque romances and so I guess I don't expect the character development I'd expect from a modern novel. The short stories are generally beautiful, but seem to me like little more than word paintings (esp. the ones that are only a few paragraphs in length). The novels give him a bit more scope to actually build something more substantial without losing that ethereal and otherworldly character that is so strong in his works. He is indeed very strong in the juxtaposition of the prosaic with the fantastic and I think the novels only allow this effect to be more prolonged and emphasized.

That being said I would certainly like to go back to his shorter tales (or sketches really) and see if they are more to my taste these days.
21. Jim Henry III
I agree with Kage Baker that The Charwoman's Shadow and The Chronicles of Rodrigues are better than The King of Elfland's Daughter. The only other of his novels I've read, The Blessing of Pan, was fairly disappointing.

I don't think anyone here has mentioned his Jorkens stories, which were recently reprinted in three volumes by Night Shade Books. They aren't as good on average as his earlier fantasies, but they're still wonderful, with few exceptions.

I'll second the recommendations, too, for almost all the other authors mentioned in this thread -- Clark Ashton Smith, William Morris, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, James Branch Cabell, Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance -- but Dunsany is easily the best of them all.
Carl Rigney
22. cdr
I was delighted when Night Shade Books published a 3 volume set of Lord Dunsany's Jorkens club tales, and fell upon it with great glee. The first volume may be out of print again now, alas.

I'm very glad to hear that much of his fantasy is now back in print; thanks for the links!
Beth Friedman
23. carbonel
The first Dunsany story I ever read was "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles," in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology intended for teens (which I was at the time). The story always stuck in my memory because of the depth of the world that was implied by the few words of the story.
Liza .
24. aedifica
Jo, could you tell me which book "The Shop in Go By Street" is in? I have book-buying money and I'd like to get that book! I assumed the Internet would tell me which book it's in, but surprisingly enough it only gives three hits: this post and two pages relating to someone's roleplaying game.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
Aedifica: It's in the Gollancz collection Time and the Gods, and it's in the Carter (ed) At the Edge of the World and those are the two places where I have it. It's worth knowing that it's a sequel to the story "Idle Days on the Yann".
John Armstrong
27. JohnnyYen
Carbonel - I also was introduced to Dunsany by a Hitchock anthology for young readers, A.H.'s Ghostly gallery, still a great book for anyone from about nine or ten years up.

This one aslo introduced me to Robert Arthur, who had two or three really nice stories in it; turns out Arthur was the ghost-editor of the series.

I really can't recommend this one highly enough. Great fun
John Armstrong
28. JohnnyYen
here's the contents -

Miss Emmeline Takes Off - Walter Brooks
The Valley of the Beast - Algernon Blackwood
The Haunted Trailer - Robert Arthur
The Upper Berth - F. Marion Crawford
The Wonderful Day - Robert Arthur
The Truth About Pyecraft - H.G. Wells
Housing Problem - Henry Kuttner
In a Dim Room - Lord Dunsany
Obstinate Uncle Otis - Robert Arthur
The Waxwork - A.M. Burrage
The Isle of Voices - Robert Louis Stevenson
29. Martinus
#23: "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" was written by Idris Seabright, not Dunsany.
"How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles" was written by Dunsany.
(I have a photocopy of the Ms. for an unpublished Nuth story by Dunsany. :) )
30. snowmane
You can get alot of Lord Dunsany short stories (read aloud) for free on Librivox. Just last night I loaded up my mp3 player with Sword of Welleran, Book of Wonder, Dreamers Tales, Tales of 3 Hemispheres, and Time and the Gods to listen to all night long. I especially like the River Yann stories.

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