BORN: 1878, London, England
DIED: 1957, Dublin, Ireland
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
The Glittering Gate (1909)
The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922)
The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924)
The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926)
‘‘Two Bottles of Relish’’ (1932)
Lord Edward Dunsany. Alexander Bassano / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Lord Dunsany was the name under which Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (Baron Dunsany) wrote during an authorial career that spanned nearly five decades. An Irish aristocrat whose peerage stretched back to medieval times, Lord Dunsany is considered one of the earliest and most significant authors of modern fantasy literature. An immensely prolific writer, Dunsany’s sixty-plus volumes of drama, verse, and short stories were almost always written in longhand with an old-fashioned quill pen. He has been described as a ‘‘fantasist’s fantasist’’—although his work was popular during his lifetime, its continuing reputation has rested largely on the praise of other fantasy writers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Irish Heritage, Military Service, and Writing as a Sideline. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, was born in London in July 1878. He was of an ancient Irish family and succeeded to the family title as the eighteenth Baron Dunsany in 1899. He was given a top-flight English education at Eton and the military academy at Sandhurst, and he went into a fashionable and famous regiment, the Coldstream Guards, which had been his grandfather’s regiment. He served as a junior officer in Gibraltar and then in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Dunsany was married in 1904 to Lady Beatrice Child-Villiers, daughter of the seventh Earl of Jersey. They had one son, Randal Arthur Henry, who was born in 1906. In time, Dunsany gave the famous family castle in County Meath to his son, and Dunsany and his wife lived in England.
Although Dunsany always thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, it was not through his verse that he gained fame. Dunsany published several collections of short stories, but he first became well known through his association with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, beginning with the production of his The Glittering Gate in 1909.
In World War I, he was a captain in the Fifth Innis-killing Fusiliers, serving with distinction in France, and he received some minor wounds while battling Irish insurrectionists in 1916. After World War I, Dunsany took up literature as a sideline and was a prolific writer of drama (with encouragement from William Butler Yeats and others), short stories, poetry, and novels. Dunsany’s personal opinions, prejudices, and passions—including his love of sports—often crop up in his work. He is chiefly remembered for several of his stories, including ‘‘Two Bottles of Relish,’’ (1932) and for several plays that became part of his collected works.
Dunsany claimed that the fantastic novels and short stories he wrote simply came to him without much effort (and, he cautioned, ought not to have too much read into them). Although he had a quick intelligence, a sharp wit, and a sometimes dark humor, his theory was that the artist goes beyond that which his ‘‘intellect can discover.’’ At his best Dunsany let himself be led by his lively imagination, and the dreamlike quality of his best work made him famous.
During World War II, Dunsany returned to Dunstall Priory in England as part of the Home Guard, hoping to assist if needed in capturing fallen German pilots or defending England against a possible invasion—neither of which happened, somewhat to Dunsany’s disappointment at his inability to contribute something to the war effort. However, a threatened German invasion in 1941 forced Dunsany to flee Greece, where he and his wife had gone upon his appointment as Byron Chair of English Literature at the national university in Athens.
Modernization of Irish Folklore. Dunsany’s precise religious beliefs are a matter of some debate, but he most certainly was not a conventional Christian. In novels such as The Gods of Pegana he seems to be proposing that the gods described in the stories actually exist, but in other works such as Time and the Gods they are more like allegories. The gods and goddesses of Dunsany’s works are there merely to express ideas but also to create a convincing, interesting, and unearthly world. As an educated Irishman, Dunsany would have been familiar with the rich history of Irish folklore and mythology, in addition to his scholarly study of the classical mythology of Greece and Rome. Unlike many other Irish writers, however, Dunsany is more famous for his originality than for his reproduction of traditional creation myths and legends. When he does so, as in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which borrows from the Irish myth of Oisin, he also mixes these elements with more modern ideas, such as evolution and physics.
Since Dunsany’s colorful personality was just as much one of his great character creations as anyone who appears in his fiction, many consider it relevant to consider his several autobiographies as part of his literary achievement. He describes his life in My Ireland (1937), Patches of Sunlight (1938), While the Sirens Slept (1944), and The Sirens Wake (1945).
Apart from his more mainstream works, Dunsany is typically known as a fantasist, and his antimodern sentiments did not incline him much toward science fiction. One late novel, The Last Revolution (1951), however, stands on the border between fantasy and science fiction, even though its ideas continue to parallel the general nostalgia of his work. The Last Revolution follows a theme found in many other works of science fiction— namely, machines turning against those who created them.
Dunsany remained active until the end of his life, writing extensively and traveling often. He died at age seventy-nine of appendicitis on October 25, 1957, leaving behind a large body of uncollected work in addition to his dozens of published books.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dunsany's famous contemporaries include:
Winsor McCay (1867-1934): American cartoonist whose best-known work is his comic strip ''Little Nemo in Slumberland," which ran from 1905-1914. The elaborately drawn strip created dreamlike fantasy figures that were an important influence on Walt Disney, Maurice Sendak, and many other cartoon artists.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898): English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican clergyman, and photographer famous for writing the fantasy story Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871).
Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932): British writer of short stories about children and their imaginative worlds who is chiefly remembered for his novel The Wind in the Willows (1908).
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936): British author, poet, and friend of Lord Dunsany, famous for both children's and adult works, including The Jungle Book (1894) and ''Gunga Din'' (1892).
Works in Literary Context
Tone and Language. The tone of Dunsany’s fantasies is distinctive. His works are recognized for their dreamlike atmosphere. The surreal effect of his scenes sometimes comes from the juxtaposition of stark, realistic images with the highly idealized landscapes of pastoral mythology. Dunsany has been estimated higher than many other creators of fantastic mythologies and fairy worlds because of his style. His cadences often resound in readers’ memories, and his prose has been described as melodic, metaphoric, and poetic. Dunsany acknowledged the Bible’s considerable influence on his work, citing it as containing the greatest English in the history of the language. The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908) provides examples of this elevated prose style, influenced equally by older epics such as Beowulf in the language used by heroes to recount their exploits.
Irony and Optimism. The humor in Dunsany’s work has been described as a sustained gentle irony. Reminiscent in some ways of Ernest Bramah or of Dunsany’s own friend Rudyard Kipling, Dunsany related tales of the exotic but left it to readers to believe in them or not. He often lightly ridiculed his readers for their credulity, always including himself in the satire.
Dunsany was a longtime collaborator with the artist Sidney Herbert Sime. The art of both men was about imagining a golden world rather to the horrors that might lie beneath. Unlike much fantasy literature, Dunsany’s was not gothic: readers are instead transported to ethereal realms with glittering golden pavements, worlds where even if a mysterious wager turns out to have immediately evil consequences, all will come right in the end. Yet, Dunsany’s stories are not mere fairy tales—they remind readers of the common fallibility of human and god, suggesting that the world is (or should be) governed by an always-present mercy and forgiveness.
Fantastic Influence. Dunsany is often cited as a strong influence on later writers of fantasy—a genre that stretches back to the medieval Romances populated by wizards and dragons and reaches forward to the edge of contemporary science fiction. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, the most famous, if not necessarily the first of the great fantasy writers, Dunsany was skilled at creating entire imaginative worlds complete with their own religions, traditions, and cultures. Unlike Tolkien or C. S. Lewis, however, Dunsany did not create one imaginative world and stay in it—he was endlessly inventive and started fresh with each novel or short story. Dunsany shares with Tolkien a nostalgia for a simpler and more idyllic time in the misty past of English and Irish history, but for Dunsany, these values are always threatened by the greed and lack of imagination shown by the encroaching modern world.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
One of Dunsany's major themes is that the fantasy world is threatened with extinction by the modern forces of reason, science, or organized religion. Other writers who have also created fantastic worlds that are endangered by modern ways include:
Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), an anthology of legends by Sir Thomas Malory. One of the first books printed in Britain, Malory's collection about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table mark the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview.
Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904), a play by J. M. Barrie. This work, which formed the basis of Barrie's later novelization and the many adaptations, asks the audience to actively express their belief in fairies in order to help save the life of a character.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996), a nonfiction book by Thomas Kuhn. In this highly readable history of scientific thought, Kuhn argues that one major view of the universe (a ''paradigm'') is considered factually true until another one comes along to replace it.
Works in Critical Context
Dunsany’s contemporaries praised the author primarily as a great dramatist. He first came to prominence through his association with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the home base of other well-known Irish writers, including William Butler Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Lady Gregory. But during his lifetime, Dunsany achieved his greatest renown in the United States, where he was known as ‘‘America’s favorite peer.’’ He once had five plays running simultaneously in New York.
Although Dunsany’s career spanned nearly five decades, his early works continue to dominate critical discussion of his writings. Modern readers tend to neglect both his dramatic works and his novels in favor of his short fiction. In 1969, critic George Brandon Saul observed that sometimes Dunsany’s concern with the dreamworld led him into sentimentality and extreme vagueness of fancy, and his writing suggested more of a generalized talent than it did genius. Nevertheless, critics have generally recognized Dunsany’s talent as having had a major influence on fantasy novels and the sometimes symbolic genre of science fiction.
S. T. Joshi has suggested that this view of his output is too narrow, however. ‘‘Let us marvel at [Dunsany’s] seemingly effortless mastery of so many different forms (short story, novel, play, even essay and lecture), his unfailingly sound narrative sense, and the amazing consistency he maintained over a breathtakingly prolific output,’’ writes Joshi. Joshi continues: ‘‘Dunsany claimed aesthetic independence from his time and culture, [and] became a sharp and unrelenting critic of the industrialism and plebeianism that were shattering the beauty both of literature and of the world ....’’
The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Few of Dunsany’s works have received as much critical attention as The King of Elfland’s Daughter, since its publication in 1924. Critic Roger C. Schlobin summarizes a widely held belief that Dunsany’s ‘‘greatest stylistic triumph is the much-heralded The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and in this novel all the qualities of his fantastic fictions are epitomized.’’ Despite such praise, some critics have claimed that Dunsany’s second effort as a novelist fails in fictional terms. The descriptive and imaginative gifts that many have praised in his short fiction, these critics argue, do not serve him well in a longer form, and the book suffers from wordiness and excessive detail.
Responses to Literature
1. What is ‘‘dreamlike’’ about Dunsany’s fiction? Even though Dunsany cautions his readers against reading ‘‘too much’’ into his work, does the fact that Dunsany drew upon his own dreams open up his work to psychological interpretations? How do you interpret a polished work of fiction differently than you would interpret a dream?
2. Many modern writers of fantasy still use the formal writing style employed by Dunsany in his most famous work, The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Why do you think this style of writing has remained so closely associated with tales of fantasy? How would a fantasy tale written in a modern style—including slang—differ from Dunsany’s tales in tone and mood? To test your speculation, copy a paragraph or twho from the novel and rewrite it in modern language.
3. Although Dunsany is not very well known among modern readers, another fantasy writer who wrote at about the same time—J. R. R. Tolkien—remains the most popular fantasy author of all time. List some ways in which Tolkien’s works differ from those of Dunsany. This can include writing style, subject matter, and themes, among other things. Do these differences help to explain why Tolkien remains so much more popular than Dunsany? Or do you think Dunsany has been unfairly ignored by modern readers?
4. Do some research on the ‘‘Celtic Revival’’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Irish writers such as William Butler Yeats were encouraging other Irish writers of the time to emphasize Irish mythologies and folktales as an expression of Irish nationalism. Do you think it is fair to include Dunsany in this movement? Does his use of Irish mythology fit the model of what the Celtic Revivalists had in mind?
Amory, Mark. Biography of Lord Dunsany. London: Collins, 1972.
Bierstadt, Edward Hale. Dunsany the Dramatist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1919.
Chislett, William. Moderns and Near-Moderns. New York: Grafton, 1928.
Foster, John Wilson. Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.
Joshi, S. T. Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1995.
________. The Weird Tale: Arthur Macken, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Le Guin, Ursula K. ‘‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.’’ In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Susan Wood, 83-96. New York: Putnam, 1979.
Littlefield, Hazel. Lord Dunsany: King of Dreams: A Personal Portrait. New York: Exposition, 1959.
Weygandt, Cornelius. Tuesdays at Ten: A Garnering from the Talks of Thirty Years on Poets, Dramatists and Essayists. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1967.
Anderson, Angelee S. ‘‘Lord Dunsany: The Potency of Words and the Wonder of Things.’’ Mythlore 15 (1988): 10-12.
Duperray, Max. ‘‘Lord Dunsany Revisited.’’ Studies in Weird Fiction 13 (1993): 10-14.
Lobdell, Jared C. ‘‘The Man Who Didn’t Write Fantasy: Lord Dunsany and the Self-Deprecatory Tradition in English Light Fiction.’’ Extrapolation 35 (1994): 33-42.
Official Site of the Dunsany Family. Retrieved May 8, 2008, from http://www.dunsany.net