This is a most fascinating collection of stories, in many different styles and on various subjects. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the
eighteenth Baron Dunsany was a notable Irish writer who lived from 1878 to 1957. These short, some very short, stories were originally published in several different journals. The collection
was first published in 1908. In addition, ten of Sydney H. Simes's lovely original illustrations are scattered throughout the book. ( I don't know if
there were ever more than ten.) And because this artwork is so significant to the book, I am including it under the "art" index, rather than literature.
Lord Dunsany is a master of words, and his writing is sheer poetry. Though "modern," it imitates archaic language, and he gives life and voice to not only people and animals, but to the hills and sky and buildings and cities. By the title story, one may think these are heroic fantasy tales and some indeed are. In fact, Lord Dunsany was influential to J. R. R. Tolkien, which becomes obvious in several stories. But he also influenced H. P. Lovecraft, and a few of these tales are real creepers. Many glorify death, but not in a morbid way, and others are just pure delightful fantasy. There are strong religious messages in several, and it is also clear that Lord Dunsany wasn't always impressed with humanity and its arrogance and dominance over the earth. And that gives vent to some very satirical humor. Some of the stories take place in lands typical to Ireland, but others are more exotic, with an Eastern flavor, complete with deserts and camels. And some are a hodge-podge of a little of everything.
The Sword of Welleran has that Tolkien quality. It is about the peaceful city of Merimna, whose ancient warriors conquered all the lands. They are now dead (or are they?). Glorious statues memorialize them, especially Welleran and his famous sword. And there is also Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and the youngest, Iraine.
But now the city is quiet and peaceful. The guards and sentinels go out each night into the desert, but they sleep and return in the morning. All is safe.
There is a little boy, Rold, whose mother tells him of the ancient heroes at a young age. He begins to ask questions, and as he grows older, steals away in the night to explore the statues and soon knows them all.
Now, it is believed by the enemies that the ancient warriors are still alive. They see them from a distance guarding the city. However, one day, the tribes beyond Merimna begin to wonder if they are only seeing statues, and decide to send two prisoners condemned to death to spy on Merimna to find out if Welleran still lives, in exchange for their freedom. They agree, and though they are afraid, they creep into Merimna, and touch the Warriors' noble horses. But what they feel is cold marble, and they return to their people to proclaim that Welleran is indeed dead.
However, the spirits of the great warriors can see what is to happen, and though they no longer have voices, they can trouble their peoples' dreams. That night, the men of Merimna begin to arise and take up arms. Welleran himself troubles the dreams of Rold, now a strong young man. Still asleep, he takes the sword, and the red cloak, and goes out into the desert. The men are all still asleep, because "waking men cannot hear the souls of the dead." They wait, and the enemy arrives. Led by the dreams of their heroes, and armed with the sword of Welleran, Rold slaughters the invaders. But when morning comes, they see all the dead, and how terrible is the Sword of Welleran, and they become sad. And they also know, now for certain, that Welleran will never return.
The Fall of Babbulkund takes place in an eastern desert. It is narrated by one who is traveling in a camel caravan toward it. Called City of Marvel, the four companions long to partake in its exotic beauty. But as they set up camp at sunset, another travelers approaches them. They offer him food and drink, and he tells them of Babbulkund.
It is ruled by the Pharaoh Nehemoth, eighty-second descendant from the one who built the city. The man tells of its unbelievable beauty, the lake with shores of glass and the golden and scarlet fish, where slaves march beneath it bearing green and purple lights. And that night the sands rose and the desert was troubled.
The next evening another traveler passes, and again, they offer him food and drink. He tells them of Nehemoth, and the splendors of his palace, and how he worships the god Annolith, who may only be worshipped by a Nehemoth. All the other people pray to the dog god Voth. And he tells of Princess Linderith, who is adorned by the stone Ong Zwarba, a gem surpassed by none. But in spite of the beauty and riches, there is a sense of unease about Babbulkund.
Now the next night, a traveler on foot, and dressed in rags approaches them. He accepts their offering, but says he must go because he is a servant of the Lord of God. He tells them to hasten if they want to see the glories of Babbulkund, because it will be destroyed for worshiping heathen gods.
The Kith of the Elf-Folk tells of the Wild Things who have danced over the marshes for centuries. They have no souls so they never die, but one little one wants a soul so she can worship at the cathedral where she hears the organ and singing over the marshes. Her longing and sadness become so great that she goes to the Oldest of Wild Things. He tells her she would have to die if she had a soul. But she insists, so he goes to the spider and takes a web and gathers grey mist and the song of the plover and reeds, and each Wild Thing contributes a memory. The Oldest continues gathering until he has a living soul. When he gives it to the little Wild Thing, he tells her to place it above her heart. And he warns her that she can never get rid of it unless she gives it to someone without a soul, and no Wild Thing would want it, and humans have souls. And he tells her when she dies, her marsh-made soul cannot go to Paradise.
And so she is transformed into a human but life is not beautiful as she imagined. She can't go to church, and is sent off to work in a factory. She is miserable and wants to give away her soul, but another girl tells her that all the poor have souls—that is all they have. So she looks for someone rich.
But it turns out that she, called Mary Jane, has a beautiful voice, and is sent to London to learn. She becomes an opera singer known as Maria Russiano. On the last performance of a certain opera, Maria sings her heart out, and when the song is finished, all that can be heard is the loud chatter of Cecilia, Countess of Birmingham and her friend. Maria immediately rushes from the stage, and plucks out her soul to give to the Countess who reluctantly takes it. All that is left is a pile of clothing, and a little brown body that runs all the way back to the marshes.
The Highwaymen tells of Tom o' the Roads, whose skeleton and tattered coat swung by a chain in tree. And the wind blew:
"And swinging there by the neck, there fell away old sneers from off his lips, and scoffs that he had long since scoffed at God fell from his tongue, and there rotted old bad lusts out of his heart, and from his fingers the stains of deeds that were evil; and they all fell to the ground and grew there in pallid rings and clusters. And when these ill things had all fallen away, Tom's soul was clean again, as his early love had found it, a long while since in spring; and it swung up there in the wind with the bones of Tom, and with his old torn coat and rusty chains."
But Tom has a couple friends, and though just as bad, do him a good deed. And the angels smiled.
In the Twilight is about a man drowning when a boat capsizes, and he relives bits of his life.
The Ghosts is about a man staying with his brother who claims ghosts abide in his house. The man is not a believer, but thinks ghosts are simply created by one's imagination. So he imagines them into being, and gets more than he bargains for. And this one is a prime example of the way Lord Dunsany gives life to inanimate objects, and creates lovely poetry, too:
"It was a windy winter, and outside the cedars were muttering I know not what about; but I think that they were Tories of a school long dead, and were troubled about something new. Within, a great damp log upon the fireplace began to squeak and sing, and struck up a whining tune, and a tall flame stood up over it and beat time, and all the shadows crowded round and began to dance."
Well. . . I could just go on and on and on about this book, it is so filled with awesome fantasy. In the
next story, we read of a Whirlpool that brings ships to their doom, and then one about a Hurricane and Earthquake scheming to wipe evil humanity off the
planet, but on the planned day, the earthquake falls asleep in the abyss. We witness a stream and a road arguing about who is more important, Man or the
Sea. And The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth, is really very Tolkien, complete with giant spider, (think Shelob) and an abyss that is so
deep, one can look down and see the stars from the other side of the earth!
This one is a must read to anyone who likes fantasy and the supernatural. And if you are a high school English teacher, your students would probably love it. Highly recommended.
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