Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 2
This Friday brings us the second installment 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 joined me once again to share 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.
This week we tackled only two stories, “Idle Days on the Yann,” and “The Sword and the Idol.” We have a pretty simple review scale. One star is a standout and two stars is truly great.
This week I happen to think we read two great ones, and I accordingly awarded each of them two stars.
I didn’t appreciate “Idle Days on the Yann” enough when I first read it some twenty years ago, probably because I made the mistake of reading it at the end of a long helping of Lord Dunsany. (Lord Dunsany can deliver a heady brew, and I at least can’t read too much in a row before I feel like I’m overwhelmed and begin to miss things.) In any case, at first blush it struck me as long and rambling. I’m a structuralist who loves well-conceived characters. Lord Dunsany just up and does whatever he wants with structure and doesn’t necessarily care about individuals in his fiction. I saw that the story was beautiful, I just missed the point of it.
Upon my return it was like seeing an old friend and suddenly remembering all the great times we’d shared and forgotten. Like that time we passed that haunting village on the river, or shared a fabulous bottle of wine with the ship’s captain, or talked with him under the star-shot darkness late one night about the divine.
Even though there is next to no dialogue and almost no one is named, there is a warmth and humanity to all the characters with whom the narrator interacts on ship. Lord Dunsany celebrates so often the joy and fragility of both life and beauty, and here he does so exceedingly well, enough that on re-reading the piece I, too, cherished my time upon the Yann. I know that I will return (and there are, in another collection, related stories, so I can come back in more ways than re-reading this tale).
I suppose I should point out to readers of ’70s era fantasy that this story is probably where Lin Carter got the idea for the giant carving from a single piece of ivory that appears in several of his short stories and novels
“The Sword and the Idol” I find masterful in a completely different way from “Yann.” It feels very true, like a folk tale told by a sociologist with great narrative skills. And what a comment upon human nature; that we humans so often choose fear over understanding. The whole change in the story’s society is motivated by envy and lust for power. We see the potential warmth in humanity in “Yann,” but we do not see evil. This story is a fine follow-up to the first, and they have a related thread that Bill addresses with great facility.
“Idle Days on the Yann” ** Religion seems to occupy the central place in this journey through the land of dream. The protagonist is of our world, the journey is one through a place of imagination, but everywhere again and again it is the gods and rituals of unfamiliar people that are described. The men of the ship traveling the length of the River Yann are of so many faiths that they pray in shifts, never more than one person praying to the same god lest they overwhelm the divinity. A whole city sleeps in order to dream their god, others dance or sacrifice in the face of natural and supernatural phenomena. Even small details reinforce this, like the merchant captain keeping a special reserve of wine in with his “sacred things.”
But we also see a flexibility in the divine — the narrator abandons his presumably Christian god in order to pray to a fantastical one, the merchant’s avowedly small and humble gods become great and terrible the second he is thwarted in a deal. The Helmsman of the ship offers a universal prayer, “to all the gods that are, to any god that hears” — the practical business of ship survival putting something as petty as denominational religion into focus. Is Dunsany saying the million faiths of man grow out of dream, the same source to satisfy the same need, with all the forgotten or potential faiths dotting the landscape of imagination, just waiting for us to sail by?
Our protagonist is along for the ride, his only purpose to see the place where the river meets the sea, the Gates of Yann. He encounters the strange, the other, he only but glimpses some terrible truths, such as the beast whose single tusk was large enough to carve into a city gate. And at the journey’s end the ship stops and goes no further, because the men of the ship are sailors of the river, not the sea. The sea can only be glimpsed from the river — much as the divine can only be glimpsed in a life of dream, a journey of imagination? I like that Dunsany muses so much on this, and that he squarely places our impulse for religion within the stew of myth and dreaming and mystery from which it emerged. Never does this feel like a parable, even when Dunsany/the narrator mentions returning to his poet’s home, where one can look one way and see the world of men, and the other to glimpse that of myth and fantasy. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as offering plenty of a sense of wonder.
“The Sword and the Idol” ** Another really good story, and another with religious underpinnings. I was reminded that many authors of this period seem to have done their own stone age tales and, based only on anecdotal reading, I suspect each story would reflect its author in an interesting way (just comparing this one with one by Wells would make a good essay!). Here we see the birth of a technology powerful enough to make a man and his line kings — and the counter to it, the birth of religion, a more potent force even than an iron sword in a world of stone. That potency comes from the imagination — we know what a sword does, but a god? It terrifies and humbles even the warrior king. The biblical language only reinforces the overall effect, but it also feels much more rooted in our world, sitting nicely but imprecisely somewhere in the hazy dawn of the human race.
And here’s Claire’s take:
IDLE DAYS ON THE YANN: A WHOPPING TWO STARS! **
SWORD AND IDOL: NO STAR.
“Idle Days on the Yann” reminded me how much I like a river journey story. Things don’t even need to happen on the river. It’s enough that you’re on a boat, with folks, and you’re seeing cool things. Bonus points for ACTION and DIALOGUE, but the forward momentum is already built in. This story reminded me of being in seventh grade again, when I’d read anything my father idly mentioned. I think he mentioned books on purpose, if you see what I mean. And suddenly, I’d read Ben Hur, and Tom Sawyer, and The Lord of the Rings. “Do you know Galadriel’s secret yet?” he’d ask. “Have you gotten to the chariot race?”
I’ve only read a few river stories before this. Huck Finn, of course (which I liked better than Tom Sawyer). George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. Bujold’s Passage. There are some great scenes on the Nile in the early Amelia Peabody mysteries, as she’s traveling in her dahabeeyah. But I digress. The point is, RIVER STORIES. And Dunsany dreamed of the great river Yann, and the dream was enough. The first time I caught my breath in this story, it was when the sailors laughed at him for saying he was from Ireland. “There are no such places in all the land of dreams,” they tell him. And so the narrator regales them with the places of his fancy. Blue cities “sentinelled all round by wolves” and red-walled cities “where the fountains are.” And they’re all nodding, like they’ve been to these places before. “Xanadu, sure! Everyone’s been there. It’s right down the block from Valhalla.”
It was then I realized that the River Yann was nowhere in this world, and that I too might sail it. So I settled in for the ride, monsters and ivory gates and all.
The friendship between the captain and the narrator was, I think, the most striking thing about this story. I mean, I loved the thing with the gods, and the men who prayed in shifts, and the idea that night comes down on men who pray and men who do not, and the generosity and flexibility of religious views herein… But the friendship (the word that sprang to mind was “BROMANCE,” as if Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were playing the leads in a film adaptation called “Blood and Ice Cream and the River Yann”) was what got me. I read the description of the wine the captain shared, “heavy yellow wine from a small jar which he kept apart among his sacred things. Thick and sweet it was, even like honey, yet there was in its heart a mighty, ardent fire which had authority over the souls of men,” and my mouth started watering. Not just for the prose, or for want of this wine, this wine and no other, but for the captain of a riverboat one might meet in a dream, who you know to be your friend because he shares this wine with you, and no one else. It made me all, you know, Dunsanied. By which I mean, full of longing and scorch marks and elusive ambrosia.
Their parting made me very somber. But I think they will meet again, those two friends. And it made me hope for dreams I will later remember, and turn into stories. I do meet friends in dreams, sometimes, and then write about them. Maybe that’s my way of sharing sacred wine.
Gracious. Well, it was a two-star story. There was a lot to respond to. And I didn’t even talk about that awesome scene of bargaining, with the jeweled scimitar and the lifting of the beard. Nor of the great gate, or of the description of dancing. Suffice to say that now I wish to be known, not only as C. S. E. “Tiger of the Gods” Cooney, but Claire “Haughty Queen of Distance Conquered Lands” Cooney as well. If you please.
I am less enthusiastic about “The Sword and the Idol.” No women. Stone axes. Iron sword. A son of no account. The best part was the god in the tree. And how it wasn’t one until Ith said it was. Or fancied it was.
See, what I found frightening about this was not the power of the gods over men, or how a god’s idea of punishment differs from man’s, but the power of man to distort, by his own imagination, a tree into a god… And then get his whole darn village to fear the thing, and sacrifice to it.
But I loved the wolves, and I loved the prophetic dogs: “the fierce and valiant dogs that belonged to the tribe” who “believed that their end was about to come while fighting, as they had long since prophesied it would,” and who, when the wolves slunk away, “cried out to them and besought them to come back.”
Maybe I’m just not really into cavemen. I am, however, always interested in the notion of, “Who had that idea first?” The first person to use garlic in a recipe. The first person to realize that pizza was a great idea. The inventor of the wheel. The harnessers of electricity. So. Who made the first iron sword? And, then, because it wasn’t the sword’s true time, sacrificed it to a tree.
And this is purely a word-choice thing, but I love how “Idle” from the first title and “Idol” from the second title partner up in my mind. It seems like somebody was playing around. Whether it was Dunsany or his editor, I do not know, but I kind of love them for that.
Claire, I’d been thinking that myself about the word play on Idle/Idol. I’m sure it was a deliberate choice, because the next story has “Idle” in it as well!
Anyway, 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.
Next Friday we’ll discuss four shorter stories: “The Idle City,” “The Hashish Man,” “Poor Old Bill,” and “The Beggars.” Hope to see you here!