edited with an introduction and notes by ST Joshi
(Penguin Classics, $14.00, 400 pages, trade paperback; published in February 2004.)
Lord Dunsany was once an immenselyprolific world-famous author whose writings appeared in the leading periodicals of the early twentieth century. He is now mostly forgotten, save within fantasy, where his name is often uttered reverentially despite the relative unavailability of his work in the past several decades.
S.T. Joshi has assembled a selection of Dunsany's fiction, In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, spanning the legendary author's entire career, from his innovative mythological tales of the early 1900s to his more realistic texts of the 1950s.
Joshi identifies six stages in Dunsany's oeuvre, each successive one shedding layers of fantasy. Even within each stage, a thinning of the fantastic occurs, as the real world intrudes with increasing insistence on the author's imagination.
The highlight of this retrospective, for both its historical importance and its imaginative daring, is The Gods of Pegäna. This novella, with its evocatively archaic and poetic prose, details a bizarre otherworldly cosmogony, from creation to apocalypse. In 1905, the world had never seen anything like it.
The invention of mythological otherworld fantasy is Dunsany's greatest and most idiosyncratic contribution to the literary canon; that type of world-building reportedly influenced J.R.R. Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth.
Other basic templates of fantasy were first articulated in Dunsany's early works. His shorter mythological tales contain stylistic flourishes and ideas creatively appropriated by H.P. Lovecraft. The sword and sorcery genre popularized by Robert E. Howard can be traced to Dunsany's "The Sword of Welleran".
In the long-running Jorkens series (five examples are reprinted here), Dunsany engages in wildly imaginative tall tales, as recounted by a notoriously unreliable narrator. Other memorable stories include "Idle Days on the Yann", which blends fantasy and reality with dreamlike charm, "The Cut", a mordant social satire, and "Poseidon", a melancholy parable.
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© Claude Lalumière 24 April 2004, 4 September 2004