Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 4

dreamer's talesThis Friday brings us the fourth 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, “Carcassonne” and “In Zaccarath.” We have a pretty simple review scale. One star is a standout and two stars is truly great.

time and the godsIn some ways it may seem that Dunsany has shown us all the themes he’s capable of covering. He hasn’t, it’s just that if THIS is the first book of his you’ve read, you’ve run into some of the same things several times.

“In Zaccarath” gives us another city doomed to die, complete with splendid descriptions of the court in its full bloom and what little is left after time and tide has swept on. As Bill mentioned last week I’m comparing Lord Dunsany only against himself, but it’s hard for me to know how I would have felt about “In Zaccarath” if I’d read it before, say, “Bethmoora” or “The Madness of Andelsprutz.” I think I’d still prefer “Andelsprutz” over “Zaccarath,” followed by “Bethmoora.” Zaccarath is slightly different in that it feels that the focus is upon the folly of the king and his court rather than upon the city itself — so secure in their power that they ignore all the signs and portents that the end has come. That I like, as well as all the jeweled imagery and the length, which is dead-on. But I’m still not sure I’d give it a star.

I have mixed feelings about “Carcassonne” as well. I want to like it more than I do. There are so many fine phrases, like the description of the palace, or of the ageless and beautiful witch in her bath of endless waters. There are tremendously quotable lines, like “We must wrestle with Time for some seven decades, and he is a weak and puny antagonist for the first three bouts.” And then there are the spiders, who are to be surprised when the knights don’t return, leaving the hall for their webs.

sime1For these and for the marvelous scene of the dragon playing with a bear like a cat with a mouse and several other moments I feel like I should give it two stars, but then I compare it to my very favorites from earlier weeks and it seems too simple a theme stretched on too long for too obvious an end. And I think how much I wish to return and re-read the others I’ve given two stars — I know I’ll re-read “Idle Days on the Yann” whereas I’m not sure I’ll feel the need to go back to “Carcasonne again.” So, one star, despite all that beautiful imagery and wonderful phrasing.

How do you two feel about them?

Bill: Interesting you should mention themes, Howard, I was thinking the same sort of thing about repetition. I do think Time is one of Dunsany’s great themes, though, with all of his lost cities and tales of inevitable collapse and unavoidable fate. I gave both stories one star, I’ll be reading them again, but I felt both fell a bit short of their promise as well.

lorddunsany3“In Zaccarath” * feels like more of a vignette, I think, or at least I was expecting something a little less abrupt for the ending. I love the picture Dunsany paints, a decadent court that can’t even comprehend its own end in the face of repeated warnings. A really fine bunch of Dunsanian names occur at the beginning and the image of a hall so large that clouds pass through it is fine fantasy stuff. The hugeness and scale of the place reinforces the remoteness of its rulers, who, from their lofty position, mishear prophecies of doom as promises of endurance, which I think is a great metaphor. I don’t rate this higher because I think it has the ingredients of a story that could have been a masterpiece, but seemed abrupt or incomplete to me. Or maybe I was just waiting for the doom to fall as part of the narrative.

“Carcassone” * is another about inevitability, fate, human powerlessness to confront the march of time. A vigorous troop of heroes led by a young King set out to take a city they are told they can never achieve, and spend the rest of their years at the task. And fail, in the end. Howard, you already pointed out many of the images that stuck with me as well, and this story really does have some jewels. I think the story almost invites an allegorical reading (a journey through the stages of life for example), but I don’t think that’s what Dunsany is doing, and I think the story would be weaker if he had.

So both stories feature human folly in the face of the inevitable, but that human folly is glorious all the same.

Thanks, Bill. Claire, what did you think?

ozyClaire: The first thing out of my mouth when I finished “In Zaccarath” was, “Oh, man! I LIKED it!” Which I’d not really been expecting to do, after diligently reading your comments. I love the quick whoosh of breath leaving the body, as the soap bubble that was everlasting Zaccarath… pops. It was like your eyes flashing open after a dream ends, and remembering, suddenly, that it was only a dream after all. It’s another Ozymandias story! Yeah, guys, I’m gonna have to give this one TWO STARS, in DEFIANCE of your one Bill, and your none, Howard, and say that it was a NUGGET of a short story (the golden kind, not the chicken kind), that looks all pretty and shiny, but is still, you know, a solid lump in the throat as you realize your own mortality!

Also, I want an emerald necklace. And an amethyst chandelier. Oh, and a diadem of diamonds like the heavens falling. I’m not saying you have to get them for me, Bill and Howard. I’m just saying that if you see a dreamy diamond peddler out there in the streets, send him my way.
“Carcassonne…”hashish manLet me just pause at the title before plunging into the first paragraph. The name evokes dead things already, doesn’t it? So. Let us see what unfolds. Ah. More chandeliers. Thank you, Dunsany. I like the way you hang words from your huge and high ceilings.I loved this: “Once Arleon, for the sake of a rhyme, had made war upon Estabonn…” I mean, what kind of rhyme was it? Did Estabonn have the rhyme for “orange” behind its fortress walls? Ahem: “And Arleon of the Harp did then lay siege upon the palace high, and play his wild harp for fifty dire midnights, until the owls sang his song and not their own, and the denizens of Estabonn did relinquish up the rhyme…”

I love this too; it kills me: “Far away it was, and far and far away.” I want that to be a line in a song I know as well as lullabies from childhood or most of Sondheim. I want to kip it and use it for my own. That line, it makes me want to PLAGIARIZE REMORSELESSLY! And then, then he brings up the WITCH, and I want to write her story, oh, yes I do. And still nothing has HAPPENED, precisely, Dunsany, but oh, you took me places, Dunsany. You took me places in my own brain, so even though I wasn’t sure about the one star rating, you’ve sort of already earned it, even though I have to slog through so many more pages of nothing precisely happening!!!

(Howard: nods and thinks that whole “nothing happening” issue, along with the sense that he was slogging to the end, is why he had trouble awarding this one a star. But he doesn’t interrupt Claire.)

dreamer's tales oldI liked the Beowulfy bit about waking up to find something terrible had eaten the sentry, and the bit with the dragon and the bear, and close on the heels of that, the whole paragraph about twilight. “It was the hour when meaning comes into senseless things.” OH, HELP! I want to LICK that line!

And then we come to the crux of the matter, I think, when the king smiled “as the aged smile, with little cause for mirth,” and tells his doughty harpist (whose fault, after all, this whole story is) that “It may well be that Fate has conquered us, and that our quest has failed.”

And yet–and yet–they do continue on. Which in a way means the exact opposite of despair. They pass out of the narrative, out of the story; they may never reach Carcassonne, but they sure as hell had a great time trying to get there. They had a lot of good hunting and feasting. They made their own legend. They listened to some really stirring harp music. They had a dream. And if they never made it, so what? They chased it.

And maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, but I call that a fine tale. A star at least, with another for the witch. So, two. Two stars for “Carcassonne.”

Howard: I feel like we were further apart this week than usual. Claire’s off to the World Fantasy Convention, or I’d ask her how she could give “In Zaccarath” two stars when she gave NONE to “The Sword and the Idol,” which not only had imagery, but had a plot and commentary about the nature of humans and their religions! And I’d ask both Bill and Claire if they really thought they’d read “Carcassonne” again because, despite the beauty I kept flipping to see how many pages were left. We’re saving a final week for a last look over what we’ve read, so perhaps we’ll each have our minds changed about a few things. Who knows?

Next week we have three very short ones to finish the book: “The Field,” “The Day of the Poll,” and “The Body.” Hope to see you here, and I look forward to your own reactions to this week’s stories.

4 Comments on “Lord Dunsany Re-Read: A Dreamer’s Tales, Part 4

  1. I enjoyed both of this week’s selections, although I must admit I was nodding over “In Zaccarath” due to the lateness of the hour and my body still being on Daylight Savings Time.

    “Carcassonne” reminded me very much of THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER in some ways. Ruler sets out on a futile quest doomed to failure? Check. Ruler and companions spend years of their lives on said quest? Check. They become a legend among the people and something of a bogeyman while wandering the countryside? Check. Their destination is always out of reach? Check. Witch with interesting powers who plays a pivotal role in the story? Check. Objects of the quest include a beautiful woman who doesn’t age? Check.

    What Dunsany does in the two stories is often very different, and not just because of the length. Obviously, being a novel, TKOED is developed to a much greater depth than a short story along with a larger cast of characters. Still, the parallels between events and theme are there. I think this is another example of Dunsany continuing to return to certain themes and tropes.

    The thing that stood out to me was the hubris of trying to obtain something that you can’t have and in the process losing the good things you do because you’re too blind to recognize their value.

  2. I’ve yet to read more than twenty pages of The King of Elfland’s Daughter. How does Lord Dunsany handle characters in a longer work? Are they still sort of vague representative figures seen at a distance, or are they actual individuals?

    I think your hubris comment is dead on, Keith.

    • They are handled as individual characters, although there is still an aspect of distance compared to more contemporary storytelling. TKOED takes a few chapters to get rolling. It starts slow, I will admit. Once the child is born, though, it will pick up the pace. The interesting thing about that novel (now that this discussion has me thinking about it) is both the father and his son pursue things they aren’t likely to achieve once the king’s daughter (father’s wife, son’s mother) returns home.

  3. Howard: I definitely do plan to read Carcassone again, probably in the Ballantine collection ‘At the Edge of the World’ (which is where I found it this time, since the story was not in the edition of A Dreamer’s Tales I picked up as a free ebook!). I think I had some of the same issues you did, but it had a lot of the sort of things I groove on in it — I’m a sucker for a warrior company daring the impossible.

    Keith bring up a good point about hubris (and the similarities to TKOED, though I barely remember it myself), but my overall impression was that their quest was more heroic in the face of the impossible than, say, foolish or wasteful. I’m not really sure they threw anything away by going on the quest, I think that that is the sort of life they chose for themselves, and there was no glory to be had sitting in their hall with their weapons on the walls. What they did certainly was hubristic, and they of course finally ran up against the limits of mortality, but to me it felt more like a Celto-Germanic saga of heroic fatalism than, say, a Hellenic fable of the consequences of thumbing one’s nose at the gods. That’s maybe a quibble, but I found the tone more celebratory than tragic.

    But, hey, I admit I need to read it again!

    BTW, Carcassonne is a real city in Southern France with a very long and storied history.

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