Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 1

dreamer's talesThis week launches the first instcallment of our read through of a Lord Dunsany short story collection, A Dreamer’s Tales. My friends Bill Ward and C.S.E. Cooney have been kind enough to join me in posting their thoughts. You can join in too — this book’s stories not only are quite short, they’re freely available as a Kindle download or through Project Gutenberg. It won’t take very long to catch up if you haven’t read them yet, so you might want to do so before you read any further. We began with  the first five of them.

We could have started the re-read with any of Lord Dunsany’s eight short-story collections, but I thought the opening entries in A Dreamer’s Tales were quite strong and hopefully would convince newcomers to stick with him.

Here’s how I rate them. One star is a standout. Two stars means it’s among Lord Dunsany’s very best.

* “Poltarnees”
** “Blagdaross”
* “The Madness of Andelsprutz”
“Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”
“Bethmoora”

Lord Dunsany can often be a little light on plot or even plotless, though he’s a master of breathtaking description and at peering into the hearts and the desires and fears of human beings. “Poltarnees,” though, does have a plot, and it reads like a wondrous, forgotten fable. Naturally it’s threaded through with the lyrical language for which Lord Dunsany is known. I happen to think that it kind of skewers some traditional fable tropes because it hardly provides the expected ending. But then many old fables with young people concern themselves with love and romance between humans and this one is about the power of longing.

“Blagdaross” is more like a collection of moments gathered as a camera pans over a group of storytellers — a very strange group indeed — but every one of their stories is fascinating. I first read this one more than fifteen years ago and I’ve never forgotten key moments of it. Blagdaross remains my favorite of the storytellers, but the cord was even more terrible than I remembered, and this time its tale stayed with me longer, like the lingering effects of a nightmare.

“The Madness of Andelsprutz” — what a beautiful little story that no one but Lord Dunsany might have conceived, where he breathes life into entire cities. Claire writes more eloquently about it below, and then Bill has some excellent observations about some of its aspects that I had taken for granted.

“Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” is a haunting read, but I don’t number it among Dunsany’s best.

“Bethmoora” is a variation on one of Dunsany’s themes — that of an astonishing city that is faded and lost, described with great beauty. But he does it better elsewhere.

Take it away, Claire!

TIGER OF THE GODS?!! I want that to be on my tombstone. If I have to give them stars, I suppose I’d rate them like this:

* “Poltarnees”
** “Blagdaross”
** “The Madness of Andelsprutz”
** “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”
* “Bethmoora”

With Poltarnees I found myself constantly highlighting and copying the text in my Kindle, and then text messaging it to people, or posting it to Facebook, or Twitter. It kept snagging me. Snagging my attention, like sea breeze from a mountain. It made me want to leave my Inner Lands and go search for something far distant. But it dissatisfied me too, for the kind of reader I am. To be fair, that kind of dissatisfaction generally makes a nuisance of itself until I rectify it in my own writing. I keep seeing the Princess/Priestess setting off for the mountains, for the sea itself. Maybe as an old woman. Maybe her final journey. And maybe she meets an old fisherman on the docks, and recognizes him. And maybe she tells him, “You were wrong. Even at my most beautiful, I was never so beautiful as this.” And the moon looks down on her, and shines upon her brow, and hates her no more.

That’s basically my reaction. In a nutshell. But none of THAT was in the ACTUAL STORY. My final take? For a fable it made a good HORROR STORY! That last line? SHIVER ME TIMBERS! I still wish the princess got to effect her own escape. She’d’ve made a good PIRATE on that terrible, terrible sea.

“Blagdaross” was so CREEPY and adorable!!! It was like… The Velveteen Rabbit meets Toy Story 2 meets, I dunno, Don Quixote. I loved the cork especially, who stood sentinel for the leaping wine. And feared the cord, the grim cord and its purpose. And felt a great fellow feeling for the unstruck match.

But Blagdaross! So bitter and exultant! So sure of his place and the depth and breadth of his soul! So true to his name. Ah, man. Made me hate, for a second, to be a grown up.

“The Madness of Andelsprutz:” I love the idea of GHOST CITIES!!! This story was well-placed on the heels of “Blagdaross,” for they both concern the living souls of inanimate things. From discarded trash to dead cities is a mighty leap, made palatable by the logic of extrapolation. I loved the entire passage about “some cities are this, others are this,” but all having a certain “way about them.” And then, the horrible feeling of entering a city without any way about it at all. That stuck deep. I feared the story was going to be about a plague. But it wasn’t. Siege, though–and the ravages of war and waiting.

time and the gods“Ebb and Flow” was another nightmarish story. With that peculiar thing Dunsany does where he gives souls to things generally considered lifeless. Those “mean houses” and a man’s poor bones. It broke my mind a little, the line about longing for a proper burial: “for the great caress of the warm Earth or the comfortable lap of the sea.”

There’s a rocking and a lapping in the text itself. It’s delicious. It brings to my mouth the taste of mud and brine. Again, it’s a story almost wholly of atmosphere, of ritual, and not of plot at all. Hardly there is a character except the bones, the men who carry out the rite, the mean houses, and the tide itself. But one can dwell indeterminately in this place or leave it suddenly, but not quite forget it.

And in the end the whole thing turned exultant, like a dream that goes from dankness and despair and sour adrenalin to a burst of clarity just before waking. For that, and for the thing he did that made me think of burial in a way I’ve never thought of burial before… For those things, two stars. For the taste in my mouth.

I’m digging the placement of “Bethmoora” behind “Ebb and Flow.” Another first person, another setting in Benighted London. “Behold now night is dead,” he writes. But it isn’t, quite. Night breathes in his words. And then he leaps us into this fable of Bethmoora, through a pair of green copper gates, into a desert. He does that in the next breath. Nice segue, Dunsany. Dunsany, I SALUTE YOU!

Gosh, this dude’s got DREAD and LONGING down to a frikkin’ art form. Like he’s flinging his soul out from a well like a grappling hook, trying to catch hold of something that will save him. I should totally look him up on Wikipedia. His writing makes me wonder how he died.

And now we’ll hear from Bill:

Howard, I agree completely with your star ratings.

“Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” is the sort of story I associate with Dunsany, and felt like familiar ground and it’s the one I have the most to say about. Dunsany really does evoke the feel of genuine myth, everything from names and structure, to the metaphorical logic that underpins the story. I love the digressions in this, scenes like the Kings comparing the Princess to natural phenomena to determine if she is truly beautiful enough to rival the sea, or the gariach hunter’s own story of his first hunt. They feel like the kinds of things that accumulate around real myths, the stuff that gets stuck in because a dozen generations have told and retold the story among themselves. The highly poetic language and the personification of natural features and phenomena all reinforce this.

The lesser version of this story would probably solely be about beauty –those who behold the sea never return because of some great aesthetic longing it provokes. But instead it seems to me it’s about experience, wisdom, and closely mirrors a religious awakening (the sea, after all, is the god of the landlocked kingdoms). People never turn away from the sea once they behold it not because it uplifts them, or because it is the “supreme beauty” that those who have never seen it imagine it to be, but because it shows them something undreamt of in their own experience, something both beautiful and terrible and much more besides. It changes the world by being in it. They can’t go back down the mountain in the same way one cannot regain innocence, or return to the outlook of an earlier age.

In the end, the abstraction of the sea is easily switched from god to devil for those who haven’t seen it and now wish to curse it, because they never
understood it for what it was in the first place; you either have experienced it, or you have not.

“Poltarnees” was my favorite of the five, but “Blagdaross” is the better story in my opinion, and one I immediately realized I’d read before, though
I couldn’t tell you where. Seems to me it’s about imagination, both the fertile imagination of the writer, and the redemptive quality (and “largeness of soul”) imagination has on poor forgotten Blagdaross himself. You’d have to have an imagination to glimpse the former lives of these discarded things, but only one of them can be reborn through that same medium, and can get back what was lost. A really fine, fascinating, uplifting tale, and a celebration of fantasy and innocence.

“The Madness of Andelsprutz,” like “Bethmoora,” is about a fabulous city, though it invites us to look at the very soul of the city, (and I agree this is the better of the two). One thing I noticed here that Dunsany seems to do throughout is his free mixing of real world details with wholly invented, “secondary world” ones, something you don’t see anymore (and if you do, it almost always detracts from the intended result). So, the fabulous Andelsprutz is consoled by Athens and Carthage, just as the “river of the sea” in “Poltarnees” flows toward Hercules. Again, it powerfully evokes the language of legend and myth while remaining equal in invention to the rich layers of our inherited past.

“Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” reminded me of Poe, and surprised me a bit; it’s not what I associate with Dunsany. The conceit of waking up from a dream is nowhere near as acceptable today as it must have been when it was written, and overall it just felt like a solid short from a guy that knows the form, and his audience, very well. The interesting ideas it raised felt negated by the ending.

“Bethmoora” is enjoyable, but didn’t really resonate beyond just Dunsany being Dunsany (not that that isn’t enough!)

Overall, glad to be reading Dunsany after a long hiatus, he really is something amazing.

There’s the take from the three of us, but I’m hoping you’ll join in the discussion. Claire and Bill and I will be wandering through the site every now and then to respond to your own observations (although I might be a day or two late this week).

Next week we’ll only read two stories — “Idle Days on the Yann” and “The Sword and the Idol,” and I hope you’ll read along. Yann is so dreamy and poetic that it really should be savored slowly, methinks. It’s also longer than standard for Lord Dunsany. You could overdose on his prose by reading too much too fast.

Here’s my final summation for the week:

Dunsany is great.
Blagdaross is best of all.
Can’t wait to read more.

21 Comments on “Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 1

  1. Tiger of the Gods would be awesome on *anyone*’s tombstone 🙂

    Thank you all for doing this and shining a spotlight on Dunsany’s work

    • I know!!! In fact, I think I wouldn’t even mind if people started to call me that while I’m STILL ALIVE! My new byline should read “C. S. E. Tiger if the Gods Cooney.” Then ALL my fantasy novels will sell… To the entirety of the animal kingdom!

      I am really enjoying reading Dunsany for the first time. I have been meaning to for over a decade now, and can’t figure out why I waited so long.

      What’s your favorite Dunsany story? A friend recently lent me “The King of Elfland’s Daughter.” Have you read it? Opinion??!!

      • In general I think the short stories superior to the longer works. I’ve yet to finish the longer works, though, so perhaps that should disqualify me from comment. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve failed to finish the rather short books is kind of a comment right there. There are some excellent observations from Jo Walton and some site visitors on the relative merits of Dunsany’s shorter and longer works in an article from Tor.com on Lord Dunsany that Ms. Walton wrote back in 2009 that you might find of interest:

        http://bit.ly/1weLumx

        When I’m done re-reading Lord Dunsany’s short stories I think I will make it all the way through KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER at last. It may be that I was too young and impatient the last time I tried.

        • I like a couple of Dunsany’s novels (King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Charwoman’s Shadow), but strongly agree that he’s best in his short stories, especially those amazing first five books and the early volumes of Jorkens stories.

  2. Thanks for doing this. I tried to read Dunsany in high school and gave up. I’m so glad to come back and try again. I like all five stories to varying degrees.

    Cities, as living breathing organism, and their citizens are a longtime fascination of mine so “Bethmoora” and ““The Madness of Andelsprutz”effected me the most. Adelsprutz being comforted by the souls of other lost cities like Nineveh and Camelot will remain with me.

    Dawn in London in “Bethmoora” was evocative of many late nights I’ve spent in NY. His words about mythical emptied out and soulless cities brought to mind several real places I’ve explored in the US.

    I kept hoping the young man in “Poltarnees” would escape the grasp of the sea but I knew better.

    • Glad you’re enjoying it, Fletcher. I remember when I first tried the language I found it difficult too.

      And I know what you meant about “Poltarnees.” But with Dunsany he usually telegraphs what’s going to happen. Not that there aren’t surprises, but he emulates fable and fairy tale, so it’s part of the trope to show your hand a little.

  3. As work and business travel rule my life, I read only one of the stories, Poltarnees, and did it on my phone at an airport. I think it would be difficult to read such a tale in a more unfitting environment.

    The aspect of the story I enjoyed the most was the one I recalled best about reading Dunsany years ago—his weirdly weighty style. His strange, unparalleled ability to write prose that has a timeless, mythic quality, somehow seeming at once to be graven on stone tablets and chanted aloud by some ancient, wandering storyteller at a fireside. You can see why Lovecraft found it so transporting.

    The downside (and perhaps being in the airport had a little to do with this) is that the mythic nature of the story and the mood it generates, so well served by the prose, seemed a delicate skein and easily torn. If you aren’t ready for them some of the story elements are otherworldly enough to seem a little (don’t hit me!) silly.
    “She’s as beautiful as the ocean!”
    “No. Though I myself have never seen the ocean I am 100 percent certain she is not.”
    “Is too!”
    “Nope. Never happen.”
    “Well, she’s as beautiful as one of the Great Lakes, then. Or some other sizable body of water.”
    “Just don’t compare her to the ocean again, okay?”
    I promise I’ll read more Dunsany next week. And that I won’t do it on a phone at the airport.

    • That was awesome. I think there should be a series of dialogue skits called, “Dunsany in all the a Wrong Places.”

      Dunsany at McDonalds
      Dunsany in the Port-O-Potty.
      Dunsany at Basin Training.

      Ah, the summaries and analyses and SPOOFS we could come up with!

      …But maybe next time we would be better served (or better serve the author, may his bones turn over peacefully in their grave) by reading Dunsany by moonlight, whilst camping on the side of a holy mountain, to the lamentations of dead cities in ghostly chorus…

      • “…by reading Dunsany by moonlight, whilst camping on the side of a holy mountain, to the lamentations of dead cities in ghostly chorus…”

        Nicely said, Claire!

  4. John, with Dunsany you have to buy into the olden-tyme language or you’ll be as adrift as you’d be watching Star Trek and fixating on how Spock looks human except for his eyebrows and ears.

    That said, I think you have to be in the right mood, and I find that if I read too much in a row I can’t go on, or miss some of the beauty of the language.

    When you join us for “Idle Days on the Yann” make sure you take your time and savor it slowly.

  5. I first heard of Lord Dunsany quite a while ago, having seen him cited as an influence on both Lovecraft and REH, and have always meant to get around to reading him. I’m certainly glad this read-along got me to it! The style, while heavy indeed, definitely evokes the right tone and got me into just the frame of mind for such fiction. There is certainly a natural, effortless sense that you’re reading a legend or fable that’s been passed down and down and down for ages. The sense of the mythic that Dunsany manages to pour into his prose is staggering.
    While I loved all of the tales in their own right, I have to say my favorites were the ones that both Howard and Bill scored the lowest. I tend to lean towards the dread and the dark and I think that with the notable exception of the cord’s entry in Blagdaross- grim, haunting stuff that- Where the Tides Ebb and Flow and Bethmoora are the darkest of the lot. And I love the immensity of the mysteries in these two.
    Just what awful message did those men bring to the copper gates? What is the threat of this dripping gnausor sickness that empties a city in a single night? Thuba Mleen? I just thought there was a lot of really cool,frightening stuff hinted at and left lie, like glittering eyes in the tall grass. Oh, and the Grendel-ness of the desert. That was probably my favorite of the possible impetus (impeti?) for the Bethmoorans flight. A sentient, hungry desert. Now that’s scary.
    In Tides, I loved the weight of the prose. Everything was just heavy. But what struck me most was, again, the mystery of just what this guy could possibly have done to spawn a centuries, millennia even, spanning cult dedicated to seeing to it that his remains never see a proper rest. My mind’ll be dreaming up solutions for a long time to come.
    I guess in both cases it’s the sense of the story within the story and getting to have fun filling in the blanks on my own that drew me so strongly to them.
    Anyway, I definitely enjoyed every one of the stories and will be keeping up with the read. Cheers!!

    • Jason, it’s interesting to me that you took different things away from the stories than we did. But then Lord Dunsany shares something with Jack Vance in that both can create suggestions that linger, or even entire nightmares or cultures with casual ease, in the space of a few throwaway lines.

      I was exchanging a note with Claire the other day and telling her that her reaction to “Tides” has me rethinking my own reaction for some of the same reasons you cite — there is a powerful rhythm to the piece. Perhaps it’s hard to tell how much a particular Lord Dunsany story will sit with you, or how much impact it’s had without even more reflection. I might end up changing how I rate “Tides.”

      “Bethmoora” still feels a little to me like a dress rehearsal for some of his other stories, though, and I wonder if I’m letting my reading of his other work cloud my ability to see it as a standalone piece. That’s something I’ll keep in mind as I read future stories.

  6. I enjoyed reading the reactions to the stories as much as I enjoyed reading the stories: thanks, Howard, for starting this avalanche.

    I was struck, on rereading “Poltarnees”, by what a long shadow the story casts. Ursula Le Guin wrote about the magical effect of the first line in her essay “A Citizen of Mondath”, and I wonder whether Tolkien picked up from this story (consciously or unconsciously) the magical effect that the sea has on elves in The Lord of the Rings. Apart from that, I love the sting right at the end of the story: “and the moon looks in and hates them”.

    I loved the way all the mundane things in “Blagdaross” made themselves figures of epic importance. It’s the sort of thing people do–why not corks and matches etc? This sort of thing is wholly dependent on style–like a joke or a lyric poem. No plot to speak of, as you point out Howard.

    I liked the bit in “Andelsprutz” where the narrator is going around the city asking weird questions, and getting brusque answers from reasonable people–“I thanked him for his courtesy”. Then he finally finds someone as crazy as he is.

    “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” is worth reading, but I think I might have liked it better if it were a tad shorter… and it’s really not that long.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Hey James,

      Glad you’re reading along. I loved this comment: “It’s the sort of thing people do–why not corks and matches etc?” because it’s so very true and it made me wonder if that’s where Dunsany was coming from. I also enjoyed your insight that the narrator finally had to find someone crazy. Not someone who knew the truth, but someone a little “off.”

  7. I think the thing I most took from reading these stories is that I shouldn’t try to read Dunsany just before going to bed. One should be fully alert in order to savor the prose. I suspect a reread is in order for a couple of them if I’m going to have anything intelligent to say about them.

    I agree, Howard, with what you say about the cord in “Blagdaross”. Powerful stuff. I think that’s one of the images that has stuck with me the most. I’m still thinking about “Poltarnees”. I’m not sure if I would want there to be anything further between the princess and the hunter later on or not.

    I’d only read a few of the short stories here and there over the years, with only two of the Jorkens stories in the mix. I’ve heard enough folks say that Dunsany is better at shorter lengths. That may very well be true; I’ve not read enough of his work to be certain. I will say that I quite enjoyed The King of Elfland’s Daughter when I read it for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series I’m doing at Black Gate.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to next week’s selections. This time I won’t wait until Thursday night to read them.

    • Hey Keith — glad to have you here with this. Definitely don’t wait for the last minute for the next ones. I find, even though it’s short, that reading Yann in one sitting is hard.

    • Oh, good stuff. I’m glad you pointed us there. For many previous generations it was impossible to think about Lord Dunsany without thinking about Sime.

  8. I have a confession–I cannot read Dunsany’s works silently. I find that I absolutely must read them aloud to fully appreciate them–the cadence and the rhythm are too important to lose. Thus, I am forced to read them in solitude, lest the stares I would doubtless attract may lead to being chased by well-meaning people wielding white jackets with long sleeves that tie in back.

    I am a bit behind, sadly, but I just finished “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” and remembered why I enjoyed Dunsany so much, as well as other works by Lovecraft, C. A. Smith, and Vance that read similarly. I enjoy being lulled into a visionary half-dream state and feeling like I’m hearing a tale from long ago, perhaps translated from another tongue. I found myself nodding as I read Bill Ward’s comments about the expansion of experience and the loss of innocence. I wonder, too, if Dunsany was poking a bit of fun at established religion, given how avidly the people of the Inner Lands worshipped (and later, cursed) the Sea without ever having experienced it. I enjoyed the three-fold comparison of Hilnaric’s beauty, and the insidious hatred of the moon at tale’s end.

    But I also admit that I wanted Athelvok to return to the Inner Lands. I wanted him to be the hero that comes home, perhaps a bridger of the way between the Sea and his homelands. Then again, anything he said about the Sea might also be considered blasphemy and incite others to burn him, so perhaps it’s best he stayed gone.

    Ultimately, I’m also reminded of why I like speculative fiction so much. I like that the moon’s ire isn’t simply metaphorical, that in fantasy it can be literal.

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