The Book of Wonder

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, John Rateliff reminds us:

“I do not know where I may be
when this preface is read…
But it does not greatly matter where I am;
my dreams are here before you
amongst the following pages…
[W]riting in a day when life is cheap
[e.g., the middle of World War I],
dreams seem to me all the dearer,
the only things that survive…
[I] offer you these books of dreams…
as one throws things of value,
if only to oneself,
at the last moment
out of a burning house.”

— Lord Dunsany, “Preface”, The Last Book of Wonder

For the last half-century, J. R. R. Tolkien has stood alone as the most influential writer of fantasy: the author most imitated, the one who set the paradigm of the genre, the single person who most defined what fantasy is. But before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, who dominated the first half of the twentieth century in the same way JRRT dominated the latter half. Without Dunsany, modern fantasy would be very, very different from what it is today, and immeasurably poorer. Unlike Tolkien, who was best in long fictions (e.g., the 1200-page Lord of the Rings), Dunsany excelled at the short story; no one has ever surpassed him in the fantasy short story, a form he essentially perfected. Among his admirers were William Butler Yeats (who asked him to write plays for the Abbey Theatre and edited the first omnibus of Dunsany’s work), Ernest Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, H. L. Mencken (who helped introduce his work to America), James Joyce, H. P. Lovecraft (who went through a “Dunsanian period”; see April 2003 column), J. R. R. Tolkien,[1] Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin (who in an autobiographical essay proclaimed herself “A Citizen of Mondath”, a land in one of Dunsany’s tales), Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Arthur C. Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges (who considered him a precursor to Kafka), Rudyard Kipling, Clark Ashton Smith, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name only a few. In addition to short stories, he also wrote novels (including one fantasy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter), plays (many of them fantasy; he once had five plays running in New York at the same time), poetry (eight volumes), essays, and three autobiographies. A true Renaissance man, he ran for Parliament (twice), went on numerous safaris around the world, played competition-level chess, fought in three wars (the Boer War, the Irish Uprising, and World War I, being reluctantly sidelined to the Home Guard because of age in World War II), campaigned tirelessly for various causes (everything from condemning synthetic foods to decrying the practice of docking dogs’ tails), and divided his time between his ancestral 12th-century castle in Ireland, his London townhouse, and his country home in Kent. Dunsany truly lived the life some pulp writers ascribed to their larger-than-life heroes.[2] But out of it all, it is by his books that he deserves to be remembered, and among them the best of the best are the eight volumes of fantasy short stories he wrote between 1904 and 1916 (published between 1905 and 1919)[3], which reached their pinnacle in the three volumes A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), and The Last Book of Wonder (1916).

Come with me, ladies and gentlemen
who are in any wise weary of London:
come with me: and those that tire
at all of the world we know:
for we have new worlds here.

— “Preface”, The Book of Wonder

A Dreamer’s Tales

By the time Dunsany came to write A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), his fourth book, he had already created the first fantasy pantheon[4], an innovation whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. The Gods of Pegana (1905; his first book), introduced cosmogony (creation-myths) and fantasy deities to the genre, one of the fundamental elements of modern fantasy; it was the direct model upon which Lovecraft based his Great Old Ones (the very core of “the Cthulhu Mythos,” in its turn the most influential concept to come out of pulp horror[5]) and Tolkien his Valar, who underlie the entire history of Middle-earth from The Book of Lost Tales through The Lord of the Rings; all writers influenced by these elements in either Tolkien or Lovecraft are therefore influenced by Dunsany as well, even if they have never read his work themselves. Dunsany had also already written what is essentially the first “sword and sorcery” tale, “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1907, in The Sword of Welleran), in which an evil magician and his many minions can be defeated only by a magical sword (“Sacnoth”), and the sword can be forged only out of the spine of an invulnerable dragon:

“[I]t is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug [the dragon],
for no sword can pierce his hide; his back
cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown.
In one way only can Tharagavverug
die, and that is by starving.”

— “The Fortress Unvanquishable… “

These two achievements alone would guarantee him a high place among fantasy masters, but it was Dunsany’s distinguishing characteristic as an author that he disliked repeating himself. Thus, it was thoroughly typical of Dunsany that, having created these innovations, he quickly moved beyond them: No sooner had he created a new cosmology (like that of Pegana) or subgenre (e.g., sword and sorcery, the thieves’ tale, and so on) than he tired of it and went seeking new challenges. His work is thus a treasure-trove for his fellow writers — Dunsany throws out ideas and then leaves the development of them to others; he is an explorer, not a settler. This is in part what makes him so impressive: The sheer variety of his work is staggering. Dunsany was no Tolkien (nor even a Pratchett), to painstakingly and lovingly craft a setting and then develop it slowly over the course of decades; after his first book, he rarely used the same setting for more than a story or two, preferring to create a whole new setting and cast of characters each time he wrote a new tale — and this despite the fact that he wrote some two hundred stories in those dozen years (roughly a third of them fables). Some are set in fantasy worlds, others in modern-day (i.e., early twentieth century) London, still others in dream-lands that are nonetheless somehow linked to our world (a motif his disciple H.P.Lovecraft would later develop at greater length). While occasionally a story is linked to an earlier tale by a reference to a character or place that had appeared elsewhere, each is essentially a stand-alone piece. It’s small wonder Dunsany burned out after 1916, when, among other disasters, he was shot in the head by his fellow countrymen during the Easter Uprising; then sent from the hospital to the Western Front to take part in the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in human history; then put to work writing propaganda for the government for the rest of the War, as soul-killing a task as one could imagine). What’s amazing is that he could throw out so many ideas, so finely realized, in such a short time — an achievement that has never been equaled in the fantasy field.

I dreamt that I had done a horrible thing,
so that burial was… denied me either in soil or sea,
neither could there be any hell for me. I waited
for some hours, knowing this. Then my friends came for me,
and slew me secretly and with ancient rite,
and lit great tapers, and carried me away.
… It was all in London that the thing was done,
and they went furtively at dead of night along grey streets
… until they came to the river…. They took me
down a stairway that was green with slimy things,
and so came slowly to the terrible mud.
There, in the territory of forsaken things,
they dug a shallow grave…

— “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”

The Book of Wonder

This creativity is Dunsany’s hallmark: Most of his stories are quite short — each was written in a single sitting and is intended to be read the same way, as a stand-alone exploration of an idea or motif. Their brevity and compression is part of the impact, as is his mastery of style (Le Guin considers him one of the three or four master stylists of the genre; compare to her “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”), his knack for mixing the exotic and the homey, the humorous and the grim, the evocative and the ironic, and his gift for nomenclature (unexcelled by any other fantasy writer and equaled only by Tolkien — and most subsequent fantasists have followed Dunsany’s example rather than Tolkien’s, going with what sounds right rather than what is lexicographically consistent). The reader literally never knows quite what to expect from a Dunsany wonder tale, other than that potentially sentimental material is likely to be treated with a light touch and a refreshing cynicism. A place might be haunted by something terrible that has not yet happened, but casts its shadow backwards from the future (“The Field”). Denizens of a fantasy world may laugh disbelievingly at descriptions of our world (“Idle Days on the Yann”), but our own world can turn disconcertingly unreal at a moment’s notice (“Taking Up Piccadilly”). A hero may achieve a perilous quest and yet utterly fail to achieve his aim (“The Quest of the Queen’s Tears”). A story might prematurely conclude, with a promised revelation lost forever (“The House of the Sphinx”, “The Hashish Man”, “The Secret of the Sea”, “Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn”), or an experience be simply related and not explained (“The City on Mallington Moor”, “Bethmoora”, “The Ghosts”). The narrator might be a dreamer (“Idle Days on the Yann”, “Bethmoora”), a drug addict (“The Hashish Man”), or a madman (“The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap”); the point-of-view character an animal (“The Lord of Cities”, “Furrow-Maker”), an inanimate object (“Blagdaross”), or the damned corpse of a dead man (“The Highwayman”, “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”). Dunsany’s protagonist might be a fairy-tale hero (“The Fortress Unvanquishable… “, “How One Came, As Was Foretold, to The City of Never”), or, equally, a villain of the blackest die (the evil sorcerer of “A Narrow Escape”, the garrulous cannibal of “Poor Old Bill”, the intrepid thief of “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”) or, more interestingly, somewhere in-between.

It was quite dark when he went
by the towers of Tor, where archers
shoot ivory arrows at strangers
lest any foreigner should alter their laws,
which are bad,
but not to be altered by mere aliens.

— “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”

Such is certainly the case with one of Dunsany’s most appealing subseries, the thieves’ tales (including “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”, and “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”), each of which recounts a risky exploit by a bold thief to gain some precious treasure from its current (rightful) owner, usually resulting in the unpleasant demise of said thief either before, during, or after the theft.

[T]hey came… to that lean, high house
where the gnoles so secretly dwelt…
[Nuth] sent the likely lad [up] with the instruments
of his trade by means of the ladder to the
old green casement. And the moment that Tonker
touched the withered boards, the silence that, though
ominous, was earthly, because unearthly
like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath
offending against the silence… and [he] prayed
that a mouse or a mole might make any noise at all,
but not a creature stirred… And then and there,
while yet he was undiscovered, the likely lad
made up his mind, as he should have done
long before, to leave those colossal emeralds
where they were and have nothing further to do
with the lean, high house of the gnoles,
but to quit this sinister wood in the nick of time
and retire from business at once and buy a place
in the country. Then he descended softly and
beckoned to Nuth. But the gnoles had watched him
through knavish holes that they bore in trunks of
the trees, and the unearthly silence gave way…
to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up
from behind — screams that came faster and faster
until they were incoherent. And where they took him
it is not good to ask, and what they did with him
I shall not say.

Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house
with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin,
for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him;
then he stole nimbly away…

— “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”

Just by focusing on a single thread such as the thieves’ tale, we can see Dunsany’s influence on Clark Ashton Smith (“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”), Jack Vance (“Liane the Wayfarer”), and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (e.g., “The Jewel in the Forest”; compare to the November 2002 column), and this is only one of literally dozens of possible examples. In these eight volumes of stories Dunsany explored so much new territory, experimenting to find out just what the fantasy short story is capable of, and in the process laid the groundwork for all the writers who would follow him, many of whom chose to develop their own some small patch from among the ground Dunsany had surveyed. If Tolkien is the genre’s father-figure, then Dunsany is clearly the grandfather. His work is little read today because the genre’s emphasis has shifted from short self-contained fictions, at which he excelled, to epic interlinked novels, which were outside the scope of his talent. But within his chosen medium, his work is as readable, enjoyable, and impressive as the day it was published: a true, timeless classic.

The Last Book of Wonder

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Dunsany’s art is to look more closely at a single representative story. There are many fine ones to choose from — “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” (the first sword and sorcery story), “Chu-bu and Sheemish” (the story of two squabbling idols; Tolkien’s favorite Dunsany tale), “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (the source of D&D‘s gnolls), “The Bird of the Difficult Eye” (one of his most effective modern world/fantasy crossovers), “Bethmoora” (a quiet, haunting reverie that represents his more lyrical side), “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” (a grim picture of a very individual damnation) — but perhaps one of the most representative is “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”. Here we have all the elements of a classic fantasy tale: irredeemably evil villains (the cannibalistic Gibbelins, who stockpile treasure purely as a way to lure humans to their tower and hence into their larder), a fantastic treasure (“they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires… In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Men, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again”), a bold hero (“Alderic, Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King’s Peace of Mind, a man not unremembered among the makers of myth”), and a cunning plan whereby the hero plans to defeat the villains (“he had studied carefully for several years the manner in which burglars met their doom when they went in search of the treasure… “). Dunsany carefully lays out the problem, and the steps by which the knight prepares to resolve it — as, for example, when he decides he needs a dragon-mount to carry out a daring scheme:

This was his plan: there was a dragon he knew of
who if peasants’ prayers are heeded deserved to die,
not alone because of the number of maidens
he cruelly slew, but because he was bad for the crops… .

So [Alderic] took horse and spear and pricked
till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him
breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted,
“Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?”
And well the dragon knew that this had never been…
“Then,” said the knight, “if thou would’st ever taste
maiden’s blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed,
and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee
all that the troubadours tell of the doom of they breed.”

And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth,
nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire;
for well he knew the fate of those that did these things…

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

And yet, in the end, having built up so many expectations based on fairy tale and medieval romance, Dunsany utterly reverses them in the last two sentences: the clever scheme proves to be not-quite-clever enough, the bold hero no more successful than all those who have gone before, as the cliches turn inside-out. The reader who may have thought he or she was reading essentially a fairy tale (which tends to be the story of the one prince who wins through to Briar Rose, not the hundreds who tried, failed, and perished) finds Dunsany’s tale is more complex and unpredictable, and the expectation that this hero will succeed totally unfounded. Dunsany thinks nothing of killing his heroes, sympathetic or otherwise, in the last sentence of a story — like his contemporaries O.Henry and Saki, he was fond of surprise endings, sudden twists that confound reader expectations. A villain may escape scot-free, a hero perish miserably, a carefully-wrought plan suddenly come to naught because of some overlooked detail. The freedom to take a story in an unexpected but ultimately satisfying direction is one of Dunsany’s best bequests to modern fantasy writers:

And without saying a word, or even smiling,
They neatly hanged him on the outer wall
— and the tale is one of those
that have not a happy ending.

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

The Books of Wonder and Your Game

Dunsany’s stories, being short and self-contained, make ideal stand-alone scenarios; there is more often than not a character, location, or plot-idea in each one that would enrich any fantasy campaign. His specific contributions to D&D are harder to trace, aside from his providing the name of the gnolls (acknowledged by Gygax and Arneson in the “Monsters & Treasure” booklet for the first-edition D&D game [1974] — although Dunsany’s own “gnoles” were quite different, and far more dangerous and impressive), but his Gods of Pegana is still one of the most interesting fantasy pantheons, particularly in its treatment of the god of Death (Mung) and the wary relationship between the (absent, transcendent) creator god, the petty but still powerful Small Gods who rule over the worlds, and the humans who worship them. His thieves’ tales are a fine model of perilous adventuring, and some of the dilemmas he sets his heroes — defeat a dragon who can die only by starvation, steal a holy jewel whose god will come to retrieve it personally if his minions fail, investigate a haunting without falling prey to the things that haunt ghosts — are as good as story hooks today as they were eighty years and more ago. His villains — the sorcerer Gaznak and his three servitor dragons, the evil emperor Thuba Mleen (the original King in Yellow), the gnoles and the Gibbelins — are also potent models for challenges to throw in player characters’ ways in any fantasy campaign.

[I]t does not become adventurers
to care who eats their bones

— “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”

Bibliographic Note

Dunsany’s work has been issued and re-issued by many publishers over the last ninety-eight years; luckily, most of his early short-story collections are currently back in print. The easiest way to get them is in the massive Fantasy Masterworks omnibus, Time and the Gods (Millennium Books, 2000), which collects six of the eight early short story collections together in one volume: Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, The Last Book of Wonder, and The Gods of Pegana (which it bizarrely places at the end of the otherwise chronologically sequenced volume), omitting only Fifty-one Tales (his book of fables) and Tales of Three Hemispheres (a miscellany of odds and ends). Although not available in the US, it can be ordered on-line via In this country, Wildside Press ( has reprinted five of the early collections: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, and Fifty-one Tales, omitting The Sword of Welleran, The Last Book of Wonder, and Tales of Three Hemispheres (Wildside has also re-released two volumes of Dunsany’s plays, his first novel, and — bizarrely enough — the first of his two books of wartime propaganda). Chaosium ( released a more modest omnibus volume, The Complete Pegana (1998), which includes The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, and the three-story sequence from Tales of Three Hemispheres known as “Beyond the Fields We Know”.

Unfortunately, none of these collections include the artwork by S. H. Sime that accompanied these books’ original editions (nor, for that matter, did the Owlswick Press editions of A Dreamer’s Tales published in the late 1970s). This is a serious flaw because Dunsany considered Sime not an “illustrator” but his partner, even sharing a dual byline with him for The Book of Wonder‘s first appearance. So great was his confidence in Sime that for this book the two men reversed their usual procedure: Sime did the artwork first, then Dunsany wrote stories inspired by them (a procedure that had earlier produced the fine tale “The Highwayman”). Reading Dunsany without the Sime illustrations is like watching a black-and-white print of a color movie; what remains may be entertaining, but an essential element meant to contribute to the overall impact is missing.

Several anthologies of Dunsany stories have been put together at various times — three by Lin Carter for the Adult Fantasy Series (At the Edge of the World, 1970; Beyond the Fields We Know, 1972; Over the Hills and Far Away, 1974), one by E. F. Bleiler for Dover (Gods, Men, and Ghosts: The Best Supernatural Fiction of Lord Dunsany, 1972), and most recently The Hashish Man and Other Stories (ed. Jon Longhi, Manic D Press, 1996), with another recently announced as forthcoming (In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, Penguin, March 2004). Aside from the Bleiler (which gives a pretty good one-volume overview), these have tended to be eccentric selections; any serious reader of fantasy is better off avoiding them and searching out the original collections. Although the stories themselves are independent, Dunsany did not group them randomly; each of his eight early volumes has a coherence that will be missed by a reader who has access to only a random selection mixing tales from different books (rather like songs from concept albums spliced onto “greatest hits” collections).

Unquestionably by far the best way to read Dunsany, for serious fantasy aficionados, is in the original collections, sequenced as he arranged them and with the accompanying art he fought to have included. For those willing to haunt used-book dealers and online sites such as, the J.W. Luce editions of the late teens are recommended, since these include the original artwork by S. H. Sime; so do the Books for Libraries Press print-on-demand copies from 1969-1970. Since Dunsany was so popular in his time, the original collections were reprinted many times, and a scattering of them can be found in almost any well-stocked used bookstore as well as most larger public libraries (usually stored in their below-ground stacks, some of them undisturbed for decades).


[1] When American Clyde Kilby arrived in Oxford in the summer of 1966 to offer Tolkien “editorial assistance” in finishing The Silmarillion, one of the first things Tolkien did was hand him a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and told him to read it before starting work on Tolkien’s own story.

[2] Dunsany came by his adventurous streak honestly; one of his mother’s cousins was the Victorian explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights, first European to visit Mecca, and one of the searchers for the Source of the Nile. Dunsany’s full name and title was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, with “Edward Plunkett” being his name before he succeeded to the title “Lord Dunsany” at age nineteen. The correct pronunciation, by the way, is “Dun-SAIN-y” (rhymes with “rainy”) not “DUN-sah-nee”.

[3] The eight volumes are The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915; a collection of fables also known as The Food of Death), The Last Book of Wonder (1916; retitled by his British publishers “Tales of Wonder”), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919, a collection of odds and ends put together by his American publisher).

[4] The first fantasy pantheon: Some would credit William Blake’s visionary poems from the late 1700s about Los, Orc, and Urizen as the first synthetic pantheon, but closer examination shows that Blake is writing psychomachia, a form of allegory in which each figure stands for a part of the human psyche (e.g., Urizen is Reason, Orc what we would now call the rebellious Id, and so on.). By contrast, Dunsany is writing fantasy: Mung the god of death is simply Death Himself as a character, not some allegorical abstraction.

[5] Lovecraft borrowed from Dunsany not just in concept but in detail. For example, two of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones derive their names from Dunsany: Nyarlathotep from Dunsany’s Mynarthitep (“The Sorrows of Search”) and Shub-Niggurath from “Sheol Nugganoth” (“Idle Days on the Yann”). More importantly, Dunsany’s concept of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, the sleeping creator-god who dreams the universe into being, creating without being aware of it, whose eventually wakening will spell disaster for our universe, inspired both Great Cthulhu (in lost R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming) and Azathoth.

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