Mon
Nov 18 2013 4:00pm
Advanced Readings in D&D: Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany The King of Elfland's DaughterIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Lord Dunsany is up this week, and while you may have come for the fairytales or the precursor to Lovecraft, we think you’ll enjoy the creepy playwright and mythmaker even more.

Mordicai Knode: Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany. Can we talk about this guy for a second? I mean, before we even get into his fantasy and fairytale writing, before we go into his work as Lord Dunsany, I want to just mention a few facts about this guy. Like, he lived in the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland? Or that he was a national pistol shooting champion? He wrote chess puzzles for the newspaper, played José Raúl Capablanca to a draw, and invented a system of chess where one side plays normally and the other side has 32 pawns?

I haven’t read all of Dunsany’s work, but the impression I’ve got from him is that he’s sort of a bridge between Lewis Carroll and H.P. Lovecraft? Anyhow, from the bit I’ve read of him, that is what I pick up. The Gods of Pegana’s introduction has a bit in it that goes like this: “There are in Pegana Mung and Sish and Kib, and the maker of all small gods, who is MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. Moreover, we have a faith in Roon and Slid.” If you threw the words “jabberwocky” or “shoggoth” in there, it wouldn’t look out of place. Heck, MANA-YOOD-SHUSHAI even has a drummer, Skarl, like Azathoth has creepy flute players.

Tim Callahan: Hmmm...I don’t know about the Lewis Carroll connection—are you thinking that because of the wordplay? But, yeah, the precursor to Lovecraft, definitely. There’s a looming dread. And things seem like they won’t end well, even if there’s a pastoral idealism in play that Lovecraft blatantly rejected when it was his turn to play around with these kinds of terrible worlds.

What I find coolest about him is his ties to W. B. Yeats, aka the greatest poet ever, and the unabashed attempts to craft a new mythology. I mean, Yeats dipped into the mythological, and some of his best poems smash the Irish faerie stories into the Modernism of historical Ireland, but Dunsany is just like, “nope, I’m gonna build something new. I’m starting from scratch. I’m going mythic from the start.” (Note: Dunsany probably never said anything of the sort, but he could have. In my bad Dunsany fanfic. Which is a buddy dramedy featuring Dunsany and Yeats on a road trip to Tipperary.)

I know this is “Advanced Readings in D&D,” but in another series of rereads for Tor, I tackled some Neil Gaiman comics, and that’s what my mind goes back to. Lord Dunsany may have some proto-Lovecraft elements, but Neil Gaiman is Dunsany Jr. It’s an inescapable influence for Gaiman, even at the prose level. I don’t think Lovecraft was as effective a prose stylist as Dunsany. Not even close, really. Lovecraft has too much pseudo-Poe in him. Dunsany can pull off the heightened language, something that reads like a beautiful, strange translation of an ancient text. He’s pretty good at that sort of thing.

But if we want to bring it back to Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons—and we really should—check this out: in The Gods of Pegana, Dunsany writes a section called “Of the Game of the Gods” and the “game” involves playing with men and beasts. As in, playing with them from the skies above, like pieces on a gameboard, like that scene from Clash of the Titans that everyone cool remembers. Dunsany doesn’t describe any dice-rolling, but he’s describing a fundamental component of Dungeons and Dragons itself: pitting little tiny men against little tiny (but proportionally bigger) monsters! That’s built right into his mythology. Like a pro.

MK: Yeah, Carroll because of the word play; not just playing with words but the hows of playing with words. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say it sounds like they are drawing from the same glossolalia word-bank.

For me, the best Dunsany stuff is the stuff that starts with...well, the birth of the gods? You say it is built into the mythology, but that is practically his mainstay—building mythologies. “Oh, this is a story about a bunch of gods I just made up, and the personification of Time as a murderer and wolf at the door. So basically, go on and grapple with mortality for a second before I get on with it.”

It reminds me of the first few parts of the Silmarillion, I guess. Or even more than the Silmarillion, the more apocryphal stuff like the Book of Lost Tales. Chapters, or sections, that are discrete stories, but that build on the history of the story that came before it, and on the mythology of the story that came before that. Or, alternatively, it is like Lord Dunsany read the “Begats” of the Bible and was like “well, this wouldn’t be so boring if you threw in some crazier names. Actually, yeah, that is what I’m going to go with: something Biblical. But not the Book of the Christians and the Jews—a stranger, pagan Bible …and the Bible is pretty strange already.

It is also very, very imperialistic. I don’t even mean that it has the same sort of post-colonial tensions that a lot of the pulps we’ve read have—the sort of things that leads to creating inhuman Others out of orcs in order to act as a stand-in for indigenous peoples. I mean, old school Rule Britannia, pith helmets and khaki shorts, monocles and what have you. Stories where giving the natives quinine is like, a plot point. I would say it reminds me of Richard Burton but that is a bit on the nose, given that—let’s keep talking about Lord Dunsany’s crazy life— Lord Dunsany was in fact related to Richard Burton. Because of course he is.

TC: I did not know that. But I believe it because it sounds true.

How about specific stories, beyond the here’s-the-creation-myths-and-a-new-pantheon? The collection I have features “The Sword of Welleran” and “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth.” Or maybe it doesn’t feature those stories, but I just like those titles and so I am drawn to them. But there are some significant differences between the stories. The former is kind of a part-young-Arthur kind of sword-from-the-stone hero thing, but undermined by the fact that the young hero isn’t portrayed super-heroically and it ends with the salvation of a city, but it’s presented with melancholy, as if it’s a bit sad that the host of vile spirits have withdrawn. Like there’s less wonder in the world, because the hero has “won.”

The Sacnoth story has some of that, but it reminds me more of some Viking saga mashed up with Jack Vancian prose stylings. It’s more brutal, and weirder than the Welleran tale. It seems more ambitious, and features a sentence near the end that reads “...And the abysses closed up suddenly as the mouth of a man who, having told a tale, will for ever speak no more.”

But it doesn’t end on that note. Instead, it ends with a short epilogue where Loethric the hero returns to town with the evil wizard head as a trophy and then a coda that points to other interpretations or variations on the story, and “...other again say that there hath been no town of Aluthurion, and that Leothric never lived.” Dunsany doesn’t just dare the reader to suspend disbelief. He dares the reader to believe, even as he points out that this is just fiction.

Gutsy? Crazy? Defiant? Genius? You decide!

MK: You know what I’m into? Plays of Gods and Men. Do people ever do productions of that? I always wanted to see one. Oh, on a tangent—a few months ago I reviewed Shadows of the New Sun, a collection of short stories in homage of Gene Wolfe, and I was thinking that what I would have tried to write was a the actual text of Doctor Talos’ metatextual Eschatology and Genesis from The Book of the New Sun. Except, that is sort of what Plays of Gods and Men is actually like? Or it is like, an H.P. Lovecraft story, except the first half of it is like a Robert E. Howard story? Actually, that is it, on the nose; the epic history of wonder and dark magic in a forgotten prehistoric kingdom sets the stage for the unknown horrors that a bunch of gobsmacked Europeans get themselves into by meddling with things humankind was not meant to know. And it is gorgeous; just look at how it starts:

Time: About the time of the decadence in Babylon.

Scene: The jungle city of Thek in the reign of King Karnos.

Tharmia: You know that my lineage is almost divine.

Arolind: My father’s sword was so terrible that he had to hide it with a cloak.

Tharmia: He probably did that because there were no jewels in the scabbard.

Arolind: There were emeralds in it that outstared the sea.

I don’t know, that just hits the spot, right there. That could almost be John Carter and Dejah Thoris, Beren and Lúthien, Conan and Bêlit. Then, however, it changes shape midway through, and ends up ending—the climax of the horror, but I don’t think it counts as spoilers—with this:

[Dead silence only broken by Sniggers’ sobs. Then stony steps are heard.]

[Enter a hideous Idol. It is blind and gropes its way. It gropes its way to the ruby and picks it up and screws it into a socket in the forehead.]

[Sniggers still weeps softly; the rest stare in horror. The Idol steps out, not groping. Its steps move off then stops.]

So...that is pretty scary, even out of context, huh? and it is just the apotheosis of the spook story; the real scare is in the tail end after it, and in all the suspense leading up to it. Like an old serial, or Indiana Jones, if he hadn’t had sense to avert his gaze when they opened the Ark. And it’s a play! The whole thing works as a play; it isn’t just written in the style of a script, it could actually pretty easily be put on; the stage directions make sense, and have an economy of space in them that...well, look like they would work.

TC: Woah. I have never seen any of that, but now I’m skimming through Plays of Gods and Men and it is next-level Dunsany. In between responses as we started talking about Dunsany, I had checked out The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but I lost interest about 20 pages in. This fierce theatrical stuff is much more interesting. It’s like Sophocles meets Yeats. I’m on board with it, completely. I want to play games in that world.

MK: Yeah I have to say, Elfland is a little too airy to be taken lightly. I mean, it isn’t on accident that the word I want to use to describe it is...Spenserian. Which I definitely don’t mean as a slam! Just that you’ve got to be in the right mood, or have your brain stuck in the right paradigm, to really dig into that sort of thing. It is like listening to Shakespeare—a pet peeve of mine is making kids read Shakespeare before they see Shakespeare, which is just all kinds of backwards— where you know, it takes a second for your brain to get into the cadence and the language, but once it gets in gear, blammo! Major payoff. To me, it reads like the Elfland sort of stuff is the stuff Dunsany tries hard when he writes, while the more muscular stuff like Plays of Gods and Men is the sort of stuff that just pours forth when the muse hits him. Each are valid facets. Oh and another pet peeve of mine is when people talk about “muscular prose,” so, apologies.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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29 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
@Mordicai and Callahan: I remember something Le Guin said in her introduction to In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales: "a proper king in a proper palace is not going to keep old, used sapphires around." That sums up the peculiar logic of his fiction for me.

There's bits of Dunsany in almost all of the major fantasy authors: Howard, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, Tolkien, Vance, Wolfe, etc. I would say that Stardust is Gaiman's Dunsany novel, though I always found it unsatisfying: Dunsany-lite, as it were.
Tim Eagon
2. Tim_Eagon
Dunsany is currently at the top of my must buy list, but I haven't been able to find his stuff in our local used bookstores (I know it's readily available online, but I want a physical book if I can help...that way, I don't have to fight my wife and daughter for the iPad). I've read a handful of his short stories online and I'm definitely interested in reading more. Also, I think the list of fantasy authors not influenced by Dunsany is much, much shorter than those who aren't.

Speaking of Dunsany's influence on other Appendix N authors, his play King Agrimenes and the Unknown Warrior is the direct inspiration for Fletcher Pratt's best book, The Well of the Unicorn. In fact, the book in fact actually takes place in Dunsany's fantasy world.
Colin Bell
3. SchuylerH
@2: There are two recent omnibus editions of Dunsany worth seeking out: S. T. Joshi's Penguin Classic In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales is a good career retrospective while the Gollancz Fantasy Masterwork Time and the Gods (not to be confused with the collection of the same name) is rare but worth getting if you can find it.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
1. SchuylerH

I'm reading my first-- I know, shameful-- Le Guin now. The Dispossessed. Basically...amazing. I think I have to read all of these right away...

2. Tim_Eagon

There are times when Dover is the best bet; I would wager they have a cheap collection at least, & cheap as heck...

3. SchuylerH

...or just listen to Schuyler!
Colin Bell
5. SchuylerH
@4: So much awaits you: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Wind's Twelve Quarters... I wish I could read them again for the first time.

Dover have an illustrated edition of The Sword of Welleran and Wonder Tales (an omnibus of The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder). Might I ask which editions you used for the article?
Colin R
7. Colin R
I read this a couple years back. Atmospheric and cool for a while, though it meaders a lot in the second half without improving much on what it had already done well. But as far as D&D is concerned this was very instructive for me on how to use the Feywild and the 'eladrin', my favorite new features of 4th edition.
Walker White
8. Walker
I have always wanted to run an adventure based on The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. You could make it a true Gygax adventure by hiding Sacnoth in the lair of the final creature you encounter (he had a habit of this in the Giants/Drow series).
Walker White
9. Walker
I also always liked The Charwoman's Shadow more than The King of Elfland's Daughter.
Colin R
10. Steven Jacques Roby
Never cared about D&D, but I got into Dunsany in a big way in the 80s. Lots of great stuff there, including the line of writers influenced by him or echoing him. Just one quibble: "that scene from Clash of the Titans that everyone cool remembers"? No one is cool who has seen either version. Which lets me out because I saw the original during its theatrical release.
Colin R
11. JohnnyMac
MK, I love your description of Lord Dunsany as "... sort of a bridge between Lewis Carroll and H.P. Lovecraft...". That is a very deft thumbnail sketch. Though one must keep in mind that Lovecraft was major league fan of Dunsany's work and a lot of HPL's early work was written in open imitation of Dunsany. That is why, if one comes to Dunsany after having read Lovecraft, one is reminded of Lovecraft.

It is also interesting to note that though we tend to associate Dunsany's work with Edwardian or even Victorian England, he did in fact outlive Lovecraft by 20 years, only dying in 1957.
Colin R
12. Nicholas Winter
Bob Johnson and Peter Knight of Steeleye Span fame made The King of Elfland’s Daughter a musical project that seems mostly to have been ignored even though it has Christopher Lee as the King of Elfland in it:

http://sleepinghedgehog.com/music/bob-johnson-and-peter-knight-the-king-of-elflands-daughter/
Colin R
13. Casejord
When I saw this, I immmediately thought of Dunsany's "The Hoard of the Gibbelins", which seems (along with Fortress) the original "dungeon crawl" story.

Does not work out well for the adventurer in this case.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
5. SchuylerH

Wonder Tales & Gutenberg.

As for Le Guin, I am probably going to read these...what are they, Hainish Cycle? All right now. More or less. This one is hard to top; monastic utopian science-fiction is a specific pleasure of mine. Like The Glass Bead Game or Anathem.

6. ErikHarrison

Right, I totally want to do this play now.

7. Colin R

Once I understood the Eladrin were the High Elves, like the Drow were the Dark Elves, I became a big booster of them. Still, personally I think they should all be ethnicities of the same species. But I like a little too much SF in my Fantasy for some people's taste.

8. Walker

Old school adventures are frequently bananas.

11. JohnnyMac

Are we even sure he's dead? Sounds like a particularly orrnery bloke.
Colin R
15. Squamous Gambrell
Your experience of Dunsany is incomplete if you have never read any of Jorkens' tales:
The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (1931)
Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934)
Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (1940)
The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947)
Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (1954)
The Last Book of Jorkens (2002)

I haven't read as many I would like, but I can assure you, they are well worth the read.
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@14: The Dispossessed happens to be my favorite Le Guin because of the non-linear narrative. I believe that the full sequence, in published order and including collections, is: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World Is Forest, The Dispossessed, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling and The Birthday of the World.

@15: Weren't Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart directly inspired by Jorkens? (The club story sequence: inexplicably popular in SF.)
Colin R
18. leapin lizards
It's not one of his more important works but How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon The Gnoles is one of the funniest, creepiest and most perfect little stories I've ever seen anthologised.
Colin Bell
19. SchuylerH
@18: That was my first Dunsany, in Peter Haining's anthology The Wizards of Odd. Another Appendix N author, Margaret St. Clair, wrote a sequel, "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles". Both can be found in Tor's The Weird.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
15. Squamous Gambrell

Jorken has been so noted. I can't help but think it sounds very PG Wodehouse...

16. SchuylerH

Yeah I am predictably blow away by her; I had put her off reading this long because I knew I would be & I knew it would mean like, reading all her stuff as soon as I broke the seal. Anyhow, we're off topic!
David Levinson
21. DemetriosX
Point the first, you do the man a great disservice by not giving his full name. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett may be the coolest name in all of literature (I think it's the Drax that does it). Also Dunsany rhymes with "rainy".

Point the second, the Richard Burton you mention is, of course, noted explorer, linguist, translator of the Arabian Nights, and partial inspiration for Flashman, Richard Francis Burton. Not the actor.

But, yes, Dunsany is wonderful, possibly the best author in Appendix N. His influence, as noted by others, is widespread, both directly and indirectly, throughout weird fiction of the 20th century. There is so much there for the aspiring DM. His use of throwaway names and references as a way of implying depth and breadth to a setting is one of the most important lessons that should be learned. I could gush for paragraphs, but I'll stop.

I was a little worried when I saw TKoED at the top of the post. It just isn't that good, to the point of being tedious. It put my wife off of Dunsany forever, and nothing I do can get her to read his other stuff, even though I'm sure she'd like it. I hacked my way through it, but it did absolutely nothing for me. It might have been an inspiration for Robert Holdstock, so if you like the Mythago books, it might be more to your taste. I'll take Pegana and the Dreamlands every time.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
22. hoopmanjh
Speaking of both Le Guin and Dunsany -- in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", she describes Dunsany as "the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy". (Meaning that it's entirely too easy to find his language & diction creeping into your own work, and in most cases that will turn out to be a Bad Thing Indeed for anyone not named Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett.)
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
21. DemetriosX

Oh I'm talking about the explorer, not the actor. Did the actor have a pulpy career? I wasn't aware of associations of him in those very "Rule Britannia" style films, but I am not an old film buff.

Of course, Drax I left out only because I didn't do a Guardians of the Galaxy spoiler tag.

22. hoopmanjh

See, I think the same thing about Lovecraft; he's easy to ape, if you don't pay attention. I haven't read that book of hers (obviously, since The Dispossessed is my first), but I've been bringing it up a lot lately, mostly to compare it to the forthcoming Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great. Or Jo Walton in general for that matter.
Colin R
24. Eugene R.
I would say that Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is his Dunsany pastiche, which is why it seems so "tame" in comparison to the usual cosmic horror tone of his works.

As for the 18th Baron himself, I prize "Idle Days on the Yann", a travelogue that contains just the right mix of pastoral and perversity and posturing as to inspire my gaming thoughts. Kage Baker, who acknowledges a stylistic debt to the 18th Baron in interviews, named her last Children of the Sun fantasy The Bird of the River, after the ship that navigates the Yann down to where it meets the sea at the great cliffs of Bar-Wul-Yann, the Gates of Yann, beyond which it does not sail and where the captain wishes us well, commending our souls to the care of his own gods, "his little lesser gods, the humble ones, to the gods that bless Belzoond."
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
@23 Mordicai
I'm not aware of a pulpy career for the actor either, but it's surprising how many people aren't aware of the explorer. Thought I'd toss that out there for those who haven't.
Colin R
26. Eugene R.
DemetriosX (@25) -
With Richard Francis Burton appearing as a main character in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books and as a lead (with poet Algernon Swinburne) in Mark Hodder's steampunk adventures starting off with The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, my reading group was beginning to feel surrounded by Sir Richard.
Mordicai Knode
27. mordicai
25. DemetriosX

Really? Though in all fairness I was aware of him as a translator before I was aware of him as an adventurer & mercenary.

24. Eugene R.

Man I will say, nightgaunts & gugs are way scarier than a lot of Lovecraft creepy-crawlies; you know me though, I still think the monster of Lovecraft's that scared him the most were the nightgaunts.
David Levinson
28. DemetriosX
@26/27
I'd forgotten that Burton is in the Riverworld books. But then I don't really remember them all that well, they disappointed. But more on that when we get to PJP in this series. But he left so little impression that I thought I first learned of him through Flashman, which I encountered only 5 or 6 years after Dark Design.
Mordicai Knode
29. mordicai
27. mordicai

Weird, me neither; I know Burton through...ah, heck...I probably first knew of him through the Kama Sutra. Not that I'm trying to play it cool, I think I knew that "the guy who translated 1001 Nights translated the Kama Sutra..."
David Levinson
30. DemetriosX
I've been bingeing on Dunsany the last couple of days thanks to this post, and I have to say this is probably the single best recommendation that Gygax made for the aspiring (or indeed experienced) DM. I haven't run or participated in a tabletop RPG in close to 20 years (I've been jonesing for it lately, but I live in semi-rural Germany) and just a few small stories in my brain started throwing off ideas like sparks in a mad scientist's lab. Dunsany may be the best way to fire up your creativity ever.

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