Category Archives: Dunsany, Lord

A Dunsanian Diptych

By way of follow-up to my post on Lord Dunsany’s Book of Wonder here, I have included  below two stories taken from that work.  Both I consider to be fine pieces which effectively demonstrate Dunsany’s style.  The second is perhaps my personal favourite from this collection. 

The Hoard of the Gibbelins

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.

Their tower stands on the other side of that river known to Homer—ho rhoos okeanoio, as he called it—which surrounds the world. And where the river is narrow and fordable the tower was built by the Gibbelins’ gluttonous sires, for they liked to see burglars rowing easily to their steps. Some nourishment that common soil has not the huge trees drained there with their colossal roots from both banks of the river.

There the Gibbelins lived and discreditably fed.

Alderic, Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King’s Peace of Mind, a man not unremembered among makers of myth, pondered so long upon the Gibbelins’ hoard that by now he deemed it his. Alas that I should say of so perilous a venture, undertaken at dead of night by a valourous man, that its motive was sheer avarice! Yet upon avarice only the Gibbelins relied to keep their larders full, and once in every hundred years sent spies into the cities of men to see how avarice did, and always the spies returned again to the tower saying that all was well.

It may be thought that, as the years went on and men came by fearful ends on that tower’s wall, fewer and fewer would come to the Gibbelins’ table: but the Gibbelins found otherwise.

Not in the folly and frivolity of his youth did Alderic come to the tower, but he studied carefully for several years the manner in which burglars met their doom when they went in search of the treasure that he considered his. In every case they had entered by the door.

He consulted those who gave advice on this quest; he noted every detail and cheerfully paid their fees, and determined to do nothing that they advised, for what were their clients now? No more than examples of the savoury art, and mere half- forgotten memories of a meal; and many, perhaps, no longer even that.

These were the requisites for the quest that these men used to advise: a horse, a boat, mail armour, and at least three men-at-arms. Some said, “Blow the horn at the tower door”; others said, “Do not touch it.”

Alderic thus decided: he would take no horse down to the river’s edge, he would not row along it in a boat, and he would go alone and by way of the Forest Unpassable.

How pass, you may say, the unpassable? This was his plan: there was a dragon he knew of who if peasants’ prayers are heeded deserved to die, not alone because of the number of maidens he cruelly slew, but because he was bad for the crops; he ravaged the very land and was the bane of a dukedom.

Now Alderic determined to go up against him. So he took horse and spear and pricked till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted, “Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?” And well the dragon knew that this had never been, and he hung his head and was silent, for he was glutted with blood. “Then,” said the knight, “if thou would’st ever taste maiden’s blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed, and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee all that the troubadours tell of the dooms of thy breed.”

And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth, nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire; for well he knew the fate of those that did these things, but he consented to the terms imposed, and swore to the knight to become his trusty steed.

It was on a saddle upon this dragon’s back that Alderic afterwards sailed above the unpassable forest, even above the tops of those measureless trees, children of wonder. But first he pondered that subtle plan of his which was more profound than merely to avoid all that had been done before; and he commanded a blacksmith, and the blacksmith made him a pickaxe.

Now there was great rejoicing at the rumour of Alderic’s quest, for all folk knew that he was a cautious man, and they deemed that he would succeed and enrich the world, and they rubbed their hands in the cities at the thought of largesse; and there was joy amoung all men in Alderic’s country, except perchance among the lenders of money, who feared they would soon be paid. And there was rejoicing also because men hoped that when the Gibbelins were robbed of their hoard, they would shatter their high-built bridge and break the golden chains that bound them to the world, and drift back, they and their tower, to the moon, from which they had come and to which they rightly belonged. There was little love for the Gibbelins, though all men envied their hoard.

So they all cheered, that day when he mounted his dragon, as though he was already a conqueror, and what pleased them more than the good that they hoped he would do to the world was that he scattered gold as he rode away; for he would not need it, he said, if he found the Gibbelins’ hoard, and he would not need it more if he smoked on the Gibbelins’ table.

When they heard that he had rejected the advice of those that gave it, some said that the knight was mad, and others said he was greater than those what gave the advice, but none appreciated the worth of his plan.

He reasoned thus: for centuries men had been well advised and had gone by the cleverest way, while the Gibbelins came to expect them to come by boat and to look for them at the door whenever their larder was empty, even as a man looketh for a snipe in a marsh; but how, said Alderic, if a snipe should sit in the top of a tree, and would men find him there? Assuredly never! So Alderic decided to swim the river and not to go by the door, but to pick his way into the tower through the stone. Moreover, it was in his mind to work below the level of the ocean, the river (as Homer knew) that girdles the world, so that as soon as he made a hole in the wall the water should pour in, confounding the Gibbelins, and flooding the cellars, rumoured to be twenty feet in depth, and therein he would dive for emeralds as a diver dives for pearls.

And on the day that I tell of he galloped away from his home scattering largesse of gold, as I have said, and passed through many kingdoms, the dragon snapping at maidens as he went, but being unable to eat them because of the bit in his mouth, and earning no gentler reward than a spurthrust where he was softest. And so they came to the swart arboreal precipice of the unpassable forest. The dragon rose at it with a rattle of wings. Many a farmer near the edge of the worlds saw him up there where yet the twilight lingered, a faint, black, wavering line; and mistaking him for a row of geese going inland from the ocean, went into their houses cheerily rubbing their hands and saying that winter was coming, and that we should soon have snow. Soon even there the twilight faded away, and when they descended at the edge of the world it was night and the moon was shining. Ocean, the ancient river, narrow and shallow there, flowed by and made no murmur. Whether the Gibbelins banqueted or whether they watched by the door, they also made no murmur. And Alderic dismounted and took his armour off, and saying one prayer to his lady, swam with his pickaxe. He did not part from his sword, for fear that he meet with a Gibbelin. Landed the other side, he began to work at once, and all went well with him. Nothing put out its head from any window, and all were lighted so that nothing within could see him in the dark. The blows of his pickaxe were dulled in the deep walls. All night he worked, no sound came to molest him, and at dawn the last rock swerved and tumbled inwards, and the river poured in after. Then Alderic took a stone, and went to the bottom step, and hurled the stone at the door; he heard the echoes roll into the tower, then he ran back and dived through the hole in the wall.

He was in the emerald-cellar. There was no light in the lofty vault above him, but, diving through twenty feet of water, he felt the floor all rough with emeralds, and open coffers full of them. By a faint ray of the moon he saw that the water was green with them, and easily filling a satchel, he rose again to the surface; and there were the Gibbelins waist-deep in the water, with torches in their hands! And, without saying a word, or even smiling, they neatly hanged him on the outer wall—and the tale is one of those that have not a happy ending.

Chu-Bu and Sheemish

It was the custom on Tuesdays in the temple of Chu-bu for the priests to enter at evening and chant, “There is none but Chu-bu.”

And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is none but Chu-bu.” And honey was offered to Chu-bu, and maize and fat. Thus was he magnified.

Chu-bu was an idol of some antiquity, as may be seen from the colour of the wood. He had been carved out of mahogany, and after he was carved he had been polished. Then they had set him up on the diorite pedestal with the brazier in front of it for burning spices and the flat gold plates for fat. Thus they worshipped Chu-bu.

He must have been there for over a hundred years when one day the priests came in with another idol into the temple of Chu-bu and set it up on a pedestal near Chu-bu’s and sang, “There is also Sheemish.”

And all the people rejoiced and cried out, “There is also Sheemish.”

Sheemish was palpably a modern idol, and although the wood was stained with a dark-red dye, you could see that he had only just been carved. And honey was offered to Sheemish as well as Chu-bu, and also maize and fat.

The fury of Chu-bu knew no time-limit: he was furious all that night, and next day he was furious still. The situation called for immediate miracles. To devastate the city with a pestilence and kill all his priests was scarcely within his power, therefore he wisely concentrated such divine powers as he had in commanding a little earthquake. “Thus,” thought Chu-bu, “will I reassert myself as the only god, and men shall spit upon Sheemish.”

Chu-bu willed it and willed it and still no earthquake came, when suddenly he was aware that the hated Sheemish was daring to attempt a miracle too. He ceased to busy himself about the earthquake and listened, or shall I say felt, for what Sheemish was thinking; for gods are aware of what passes in the mind by a sense that is other than any of our five. Sheemish was trying to make an earthquake too.

The new god’s motive was probably to assert himself. I doubt if Chu-bu understood or cared for his motive; it was sufficient for an idol already aflame with jealosy that his detestable rival was on the verge of a miracle. All the power of Chu-bu veered round at once and set dead against an earthquake, even a little one. It was thus in the temple of Chu-bu for some time, and then no earthquake came.

To be a god and to fail to achieve a miracle is a despairing sensation; it is as though among men one should determine upon a hearty sneeze and as though no sneeze should come; it is as though one should try to swim in heavy boots or remember a name that is utterly forgotten: all these pains were Sheemish’s.

And upon Tuesday the priests came in, and the people, and they did worship Chu-bu and offered fat to him, saying, “O Chu- bu who made everything,” and then the priests sang, “There is also Sheemish”; and Chu-bu was put to shame and spake not for three days.

Now there were holy birds in the temple of Chu-bu, and when the third day was come and the night thereof, it was as it were revealed to the mind of Chu-bu, that there was dirt upon the head of Sheemish.

And Chu-bu spake unto Sheemish as speak the gods, moving no lips nor yet disturbing the silence, saying, “There is dirt upon thy head, O Sheemish.” All night long he muttered again and again, “there is dirt upon Sheemish’s head.” And when it was dawn and voices were heard far off, Chu-bu became exultant with Earth’s awakening things, and cried out till the sun was high, “Dirt, dirt, dirt, upon the head of Sheemish,” and at noon he said, “So Sheemish would be a god.” Thus was Sheemish confounded.

And with Tuesday one came and washed his head with rose- water, and he was worshipped again when they sang “There is also Sheemish.” And yet was Chu-bu content, for he said, “The head of Sheemish has been defiled,” and again, “His head was defiled, it is enough.” And one evening lo! there was dirt on the head of Chu-bu also, and the thing was perceived of Sheemish.

It is not with the gods as it is with men. We are angry one with another and turn from our anger again, but the wrath of the gods is enduring. Chu-bu remembered and Sheemish did not forget. They spake as we do not speak, in silence yet heard of each other, nor were their thoughts as our thoughts. We should not judge them merely by human standards. All night long they spake and all night said these words only: “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish.” “Dirty Chu-bu,” “Dirty Sheemish,” all night long. Their wrath had not tired at dawn, and neither had wearied of his accusation. And gradually Chu-bu came to realize that he was nothing more than the equal of Sheemish. All gods are jealous, but this equality with the upstart Sheemish, a thing of painted wood a hundred years newer than Chu-bu, and this worship given to Sheemish in Chu-bu’s own temple, were particularly bitter. Chu-bu was jealous even for a god; and when Tuesday came again, the third day of Sheemish’s worship, Chu-bu could bear it no longer. He felt that his anger must be revealed at all costs, and he returned with all the vehemence of his will to achieving a little earthquake. The worshippers had just gone from his temple when Chu-bu settled his will to attain this miracle. Now and then his meditations were disturbed by that now familiar dictum, “Dirty Chu-bu,” but Chu- bu willed ferociously, not even stopping to say what he longed to say and had already said nine hundred times, and presently even these interruptions ceased.

They ceased because Sheemish had returned to a project that he had never definitely abandoned, the desire to assert himself and exalt himself over Chu-bu by performing a miracle, and the district being volcanic he had chosen a little earthquake as the miracle most easily accomplished by a small god.

Now an earthquake that is commanded by two gods has double the chance of fulfilment than when it is willed by one, and an incalculably greater chance than when two gods are pulling different ways; as, to take the case of older and greater gods, when the sun and the moon pull in the same direction we have the biggest tides.

Chu-bu knew nothing of the theory of tides, and was too much occupied with his miracle to notice what Sheemish was doing. And suddenly the miracle was an accomplished thing.

It was a very local earthquake, for there are other gods than Chu-bu or even Sheemish, and it was only a little one as the gods had willed, but it loosened some monoliths in a colonnade that supported one side of the temple and the whole of one wall fell in, and the low huts of the people of that city were shaken a little and some of their doors were jammed so that they would not open; it was enough, and for a moment it seemed that it was all; neither Chu-bu nor Sheemish commanded there should be more, but they had set in motion an old law older than Chu-bu, the law of gravity that that colonnade had held back for a hundred years, and the temple of Chu-bu quivered and then stood still, swayed once and was overthrown, on the heads of Chu-bu and Sheemish.

No one rebuilt it, for nobody dared to near such terrible gods. Some said that Chu-bu wrought the miracle, but some said Sheemish, and thereof schism was born. The weakly amiable, alarmed by the bitterness of rival sects, sought compromise and said that both had wrought it, but no one guessed the truth that the thing was done in rivalry.

And a saying arose, and both sects held this belief in common, that whoso toucheth Chu-bu shall die or whoso looketh upon Sheemish.

That is how Chu-bu came into my possession when I travelled once beyond the hills of Ting. I found him in the fallen temple of Chu-bu with his hands and toes sticking up out of the rubbish, lying upon his back, and in that attitude just as I found him I keep him to this day on my mantlepiece, as he is less liable to be upset that way. Sheemish was broken, so I left him where he was.

And there is something so helpless about Chu-bu with his fat hands stuck up in the air that sometimes I am moved out of compassion to bow down to him and pray, saying, “O Chu-bu, thou that made everything, help thy servant.”

Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.

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The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany

The Book of Wonder is a 1912 short story collection by Lord Dunsany, a writer and playwright now most famous for his fantasy stories, predominantly in the form of short stories and with an atmosphere and style so different to what is now considered fantasy fiction as to put it almost in another genre.

The Book of Wonder contains 14 short tales, each one strong in elements of the fantastic, the mythic, the romantic and often too the tragic. Dunsany was a major influence on fantasy and`”weird fiction” in the first half of the twentieth century (particularly on HP Lovecraft, a writer ironically at his best when furthest from the style of the man who most inspired him), and later on artists as disparate as Guillermo del Toro and Jorge Luis Borges. Today, my impression is that Dunsany is a writer more referenced than read, which having myself now read him I think is rather a loss.

Fantasy fiction is I think today probably the most moribund genre in literature, a genre in fact which is if anything peculiarly devoid of the fantastic, marked with multi-volume epics spanning hundreds of pages in which meticulously detailed worlds are explored in tedious depth by characters most notable for their morality and outlook being remarkably similar to that of contemporary Americans. A few current writers have tried to reinvigorate the form, some with a degree of success (China Mieville), some heroically but I think unsuccessfully (George RR Martin, who in trying to reinvent the genre has I think instead become lost within it) and some with results I can’t yet speak to as I’ve not read the relevant work (Richard Morgan, though I have high hopes). Generally, however, contemporary fantasy is an immensely commercial genre in which highly formulaic works are produced for a fanbase most notable for its apparently unquenchable appetite for repeatedly being served the same highly conservative fare.

It was not always so. Dunsany comes from an age in which the fantasy work had, in my view, as much right to be taken seriously as any other genre, and an age in which fantasy works of genuine talent and value were being written. That age ended, in my view, around the 1960s/1970s for reasons beyond the scope of this blog entry, though it does strike me there is some irony in discussing Dunsany and in doing so hearkening back to some lost golden age the like of which has passed from the world.

For Dunsany, the essence of fantasy is romance and wonder. The first story of this collection, the Bride of the Man-Horse, draws on classical myth to tell the tale of a centaur by the name of Shepperalk who ventures into the world for reasons that are unclear but seem intrinsic to his nature. He rides through a range of places the names of which follow no geography or known history but which rather are chosen to evoke mystery and a sense of the unknown. He is in a sense a spirit of freedom and romance, travelling amongst the mundane:

Bells pealed in frantic towers, wise men consulted parchments, astrologers sought of the portent from the stars, the aged made subtle prophecies. “Is he not swift?” said the young. “How glad he is,” said the children.

While travelling through the world of men, he encounters a being of immense beauty and unusual parentage:

The lions came not to woo her because they feared her strength, and the gods dared not love her because they knew she must die.

He sees her and takes her for his own, or to be hers:

He galloped with half-shut eyes up the temple-steps, and, only seeing dimly through his lashes, seized Sombelenë by the hair, undazzled as yet by her beauty, and so haled her away; and, leaping with her over
the floorless chasm where the waters of the lake fall unremembered away into a hole in the world, took her we know not where, to be her slave for all centuries that are allowed to his race.

Three blasts he gave as he went upon that silver horn that is the world-old treasure of the centaurs. These were his wedding bells.

And there, in what is far from the strongest tale in this collection, we have many (though not all, of which more shortly) of the classic Dunsanian elements. There is barely a plot here, a centaur goes for a ride, meets a sort-of-woman and goes off with her. There is little by way of logical worldbuilding, there is a hole in the world which is there because the image evokes wonder, not because we know where it goes or Dunsany has given any thought to such a matter. The point of the tale is, quite simply, wonder. The centaur goes out, magic rides among us, the marvellous and the strange exist and we can but gaze at them as they pass and say to ourselves how glad they are.

As noted above, The Bride of the Man-Horse lacks one of Dunsany’s key characteristics as a writer which most endears him to me. That trait is a sly wit, a darkly comic bent which often infuses his tales and which delights in peculiar dooms and (perhaps) undeserved fates. In Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men the famed thief Slith and his two criminal companions set out to steal a golden box said to contain the most wonderful poems ever contemplated by man. The story opens as follows:

When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude. On the one hand, many had sought the golden box, the receptacle (as the Aethiopians know) of poems of fabulous value; and their doom is still the common talk of Arabia. On the other hand, it was lonely to sit around the camp-fire by night with no new songs.

The tale takes us through the journey of the three thieves, the strange hazards they avoid and then to their ultimate plan for recovering the golden box and the poems it contains:

This was their simple plan: to slip into the corridor in the upper cliff; to run softly down it (of course with naked feet) under the warning to travellers that is graven upon stone, which interpreters take to be “It Is Better Not”; not to touch the berries that are there for a purpose, on the right side going down; and so to come to the guardian on his pedestal who had slept for a thousand years and should be sleeping still; and go in through the open window. One man was to wait outside by the crack in the World until the others came out with the golden box, and, should they cry for help, he was to threaten at once to unfasten the iron clamp that kept the crack together. When the box was secured they were to travel all night and all the following day, until the cloud-banks that wrapped the slopes of Mluna were well between them and the Owner of the Box.

Here again we have the essence of much of Dunsany’s style, implied detail (“the berries that are there for a purpose”) and evocation without elaboration – critical elements of description left vague and unspecified in nature (what form does the guardian take after all?). In short, much is left for the reader to imagine, and that I believe is the point. Dunsany’s tales are intended to engage the reader’s own imagination and to inspire the reader to flights of fancy. Unlike current fantasy writers, Dunsany does not detail his world, elements recur (Slith is referenced in other tales) but no real attempt is made at consistency. His language is chosen for tone and flavour, not for logic. Why, after all, would the fantastic be logical? If it is logical, sensible, ordered, is it fantastic at all?

It is no spoiler to say that Slith and his companions meet unusual dooms, in Slith’s case so peculiar that his is mentioned again in later tales. This is not a story of a heroic band fighting evil as would be found in sub-Tolkien fantasy, rather it is a fairy tale of a band of thieves, the treasure they sought to steal, the things they met and the fate they encountered. It is morally ambiguous, did Slith and his companions deserve their fates? Not especially. Is it just that the finest poems of mankind are locked away where none can read them? Clearly not. Dunsany’s is not a world of morality, it is not a world in which right triumphs, rather it is a world of romance and of the extraordinary, which may be dire as well as marvellous. Which is, in fact, marvellous in the oldest sense, in that we marvel at it even though we may not perhaps entirely approve of that at which we marvel.

In a number of places Dunsany makes comment on our own world, individuals cross from it into his worlds of romance, and clearly he sees ours as a rather forbidding and censorious place. Dunsany argues that dreams have merit, that imagination is not idle, that fancies should not be crushed forever in favour of the pragmatic. It is a view I sympathise with, life is more than mere utility, art has its own value and is its own justification.

Dunsany’s work is to a modern reader quite strange, this is ultimately a book of fairy stories aimed at adult readers, it is though also a work of superbly written fantasy which betrays a knowledge of classicism and myth which is worn lightly, deployed with humour but which does I think create a genuine sense of the fantastic. Dunsany is a writer of the impossible, fantasy in the sense of that which cannot be but which perhaps is in some ways brighter than that which can. He is a dreamer, and an advocate for the value of dreams. Immediately after this post, I intend to separately post two tales by Dunsany both of which are now out of copyright and which together give better than I can a sense of his wonderful mix of the romantic, the sinister and the very funny. Having now discovered him, I intend to read more by him, and it is obvious to me why he was so important to writers such as HP Lovecraft and Jack Vance, among many others.

I link here to a fascinating article in the New York Times which I found while writing this piece, which discusses in greater depth Lord Dunsany’s life and works. The Project Gutenberg edition of the Book of Wonder can be found here.

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Filed under Dunsany, Lord, Fantasy, Short stories