In “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.