On His Life and Work
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett was born on the twenty fourth of July, 1878 in London. He lead a very full life, however it is primarily for his literature that he is remembered, he was a published author, poet and a successful playwright; having at one time 5 shows playing at once on Broadway!
The Dunsany family have had their home at Dunsany Castle in County Meath, Ireland for over five hundred years and can trace their lineage back to the Norman Conquest of England. Edward was to spend most of his youth at family homes in Shoreham, Kent and Dunstall Priory before receiving his schooling at Cheam and Eaton. In 1896 he entered Sandhurst military college, before fighting in the Boer War from 1899 to 1901 in the Coldstream Guards. It was also in 1899 that he inheirited the title, becoming the 18th Baron of Dunsany. Interestingly his brother, Reginald had a glorious military career, becoming an Admiral.
His father, John William was a scholar, sportsman and engineer, installing the first telephone system in Ireland, and developing his own x-ray machine. Perhaps this is where his son got his polymathic talents from. As well as being author, poet and playwright, Edward went on to be successful at chess, becoming champion of Ireland, (once taking Capablanca to a draw) and composing chess problems for The Times newspaper. He was a capable marksman and hunter, as well as being keen enough on cricket to maintain his own cricket ground, (and at 6'4" he could probably clout the ball a fair way!)
In 1904 he married Beatrice Child-Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Jersey, and spent the rest of his life in happy wedlock. Their only child Randal was born on the 25th August 1906 and later bacame the 19th Baron.
His uncle, Horace Plunkett was responsible for the co-operative agricultural movement in Ireland and proposer of the Dominion structure of the Irish Free State
. Through this elder statesman figure Edward was able to meet many important and influential figures of the age, including Rudyard Kipling
, W. B. Yeats
and Oliver St. John Gogarty
. W. B. Yeats was to write of him :-
'He has but transfigured with beauty the common sights of the world'
Wether or not such luminaries actively boosted his career or not I can't say; but if so, Lord Dunsany did repay the favours by being patron
to several writers, including the poet Francis Ledwidge
Both Dunsany and Ledwidge saw active service during World War I
, Dunsany being a captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
. He was wounded in 1916, sadly however Ledwidge was killed, leaving Dunsany to arrange the publication of two collections of Ledwidge's work.
During the inter-war period Dunsany continued to write, publishing many important works, as well as being a sought after lecturer. He was indeed briefly made the Byron Professor at Athens university, but the outbreak of WW2 forced him to evacuate. During the War he again served his country, this time in the Home Guard and the Local Defence Force. After the war he gained a level of media attention, appearing on radio and television, as well as lecturing on tour across the US. Perhaps his war time experiences helped him cope with the fame, in fact he said of the trenches in WWI :-
"Our trenches were only six feet deep. I shall never fear 'publicity' again."
(He of course was 6'4"!)
Whilst dining with the Lord and Lady Fingall he suffered an acute attack of appendicitis. Unfortuneately he never came around after the operation to correct it, and the great warrior, Playwright, poet and writer passed away on 25th October 1957, and was buried in Shoreham.
The body of work left behind by the 18th Baron Dunsany is large and varied, but it perhaps his works of fantasy, myth and legend that have stood the test of time. Perhaps it is because through his use of archaic, lyrical prose to tell tales that connect to the deep parts of us from which myths arise, that such stories as The King of Elfland's Daughter are set forever outside time. If at times his language seems too cliqued, too reminiscent of Hollywood technicolor it's probably precisely due to later bad imitations. Really for me his work shines with the golden light of childhood summer evenings, when we thought only of 'wise, idle, childish things'1. I find it best to dip into his work, as really the air of the worlds you find yourself in is too pure, too rarified for most of us. Acclimatising yourself through his short stories is probably the best means of scaling his heights. His work is set in European Medieval landscapes, occasionally said to be in our world, but 'Beyond the fields we know' as well as Oriental and Eastern landscapes.
Far more numerous than his novels or plays were his short stories, often very short being only a few pages, again they show his love for language and story and often come with a turn of plot or barb to catch the unwary in the closing words. Of his poetry, it is often quite charming, but as others have noted, 'Certainly if he had written nothing but poetry he would not be remembered today'... (Darrell Schweitzer)
His stories of heroic deeds, evil wizards, fair maidens and monsters have however been echoed in the works of many fantasy authors from Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft. Indeed Lovecraft said :-
'To the truly imaginative he is a talisman and a key unlocking rich storehouses of dream'
It certainly did to Sidney Simes who illustrated many of Dunsany's works, and thus achieved his own lasting fame.
Dunsany and Arthur C. Clarke had a lengthy series of communications, which were subsequently published in 1998. Arthur says of a visit to Dunstall Priory :-
'...my clearest memory is of Lord Dunsany amending my copy of The Charwoman's Shadow, changing the phrase "Towards Moon's Rising" to "Beyond Moon's Rising." He used a quill pen and then dried the ink with a sprinkle of sand - the only time I've ever seen this done.'
So not only did he enjoy the beauty that could arise from words, he enjoyed the very physical process and would write with a quill pen, cut by himself.
In style I would personally liken his style to that of Tolkien's (particulary in J. R. R. T.'s the Lost Tales) . In common with Tolkien the roots of his work in in our own mythology, which perhaps add a resonace and depth to the writin it wouldn't otherwise have. Also in motivation, both can be found lamenting the loss of 'romance' through the growth of cities and industry. Certainly there is a whistfullness or even melancholia to some of his writing, perhaps arising from a personal longing for a time that only existed in his imagination. His works are not with out humour though, there is the little girl in Elfland's daughter who turns down the promise of wonder and magic and decides not to follow a troll into Elfland, because her mother has made jam cakes...Or in 'A Tale of London' where a Sultan's hashish smoking man describes a fantastic London.
And finally a quote from 'Lord Dunsany's Claim On The Decay Of Language' (Donnellan Lectures, 1943.)
"It is not only in headlines that these misused nouns appear; they sink down from there into the articles, and spread and contaminate books. I think I could tell you within ten years when any book of this century was written merely by noting the progress of the decay of the language that its pages exhibited; or, as it might be put if written in this decade, 'the language decay progress', or even 'the page language decay progress'."
Quite. I feel it gives a good insight into the kind of rigour you can expect to find in his work, truly he was a master, whose work has grown in importance since his death; and which will go on to influence the generations ahead of us.
Lord Dunsany published a great many works during his life, some of which were re-issued a number of times, often with different titles. Since his death there have been many re-issues also, again with different titles. The Dunsany estate has done a lot of work to sort this confusion out, and the below is taken from the families web-site, www.dunsany.net. The order is as near chronological as possible.
"Rhymes From a Suburb" a poem. Pall Mall Magazine, September 1897 (Issue 53 Volume 13, No. 1) This was his first published work!
The Gods of Pegana 1905 short stories
Time and the Gods 1906 short stories
The Sword of Welleran and other stories 1908 short stories
The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth 1910 Short story
A Dreamer's Tales 1910 short stories
Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany 1912 short stories
and other material, issued by the Yeats' Cuala Press, with introduction by W. B. Yeats
The Book of Wonder 1912 short stories
Five Plays 1914 A collection of Plays
Fifty-One Tales (vt: The Food of Death) 1915 short stories, there were slight variations between some editions.
ales of Wonder (vt: The Last Book of Wonder) 1916 short stories
A Night At An Inn 1916 Play
of Gods and Men 1917 Plays
A Dreamer's Tales and other stories about 1917 Combines "The Sword of Welleran and other stories" and "A Dreamer's Tales"
The Book of Wonder 1918 Re-use of title actually combines "Time and the Gods" and the original "The Book of Wonder"
Tales of War 1918 short stories
Nowadays 1918 Originally a limited edition
Unhappy Far-Off Things 1919 short stories
Tales of Three Hemispheres 1919 short stories
If 1921 Play
The Chronicles of Rodriguez (vt: Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley) 1922 a novel
The Laughter of the Gods 1922 Play
The Tents of the Arabs 1922 Play
The Queen's Enemies 1922 Play
Plays of Near and Far 1922 Plays
Plays of Near and Far (including If) 1923 Plays
The Compromise of the King of the Golden Isles 1923 Play
The Flight of the Queen 1923 Play
Cheezo 1923 Play
A Good Bargain 1923 Play
If Shakespeare Lived Today 1923 Play
Fame and the Poet 1923 Play
The Gods of the Mountain 1923 Play
The Golden Doom 1923 Play
King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior 1923 Play
The Glittering Gate 1923 Play
The Lost Silk Hat 1923 Play
The King of Elfland's Daughter 1924 Novel
Alexander and Three Small Plays 1925 Plays
Alexander 1925 Play
The Old King's Tale 1925 Play
The Evil Kettle 1925 Play
The Amusements of Khan Karuda 1925 Play
Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn 1925 Short story in small limited edition
The Charwoman's Shadow 1926 Novel
The Blessing of Pan 1927 Novel
Seven Modern Comedies 1928 Plays
Atalanta in Wimbledon 1928 Play
The Raffle 1928 Play
The Journey of the Soul 1928 Play
In Holy Russia 1928 Play
His Sainted Grandmother 1928 Play
The Hopeless Passion of Mr. Bunyon 1928 Play
The Jest of Hahalaba 1928 Play
Fifty Poems 1929 Like it says on the cover, poems, 50 of, I shouldn't wonder.
The Old Folk of the Centuries 1930 Play in limited edition
The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens 1931 short stories
A City of Wonder 1932 Short story in limited edition
Lord Adrian 1933 Play
The Curse of the Wise Woman 1933 Novel
If I Were Dictator 1934 Prose
Building a Sentence 1934 Essay
Jorkens Remembers Africa (vt: Mr. Jorkens Remembers Africa) 1934 short stories
Mr. Faithful 1935 Play
Up In The Hills 1935 Novel
Rory and Bran 1936 Novel
My Talks With Dean Spanley 1936 Novel
My Ireland 1937 Prose
Plays for Earth and Air 1937 Plays
Patches of Sunlight 1938 Autobiography
Mirage Water 1938 poems
The Story of Mona Sheehy 1939 Novel
Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey 1940 short stories
War Poems 1941 poems
Wandering Songs 1943 poems
The Journey 1944 Narrative poem
Guerilla 1944 Novel
While the Sirens Slept 1944 Autobiography
The Donnellan Lectures 1943 1945 Lectures
The Sirens Wake 1945 Autobiography
The Year 1946 Poetic cycle
A Glimpse from a Watch Tower 1946 Essays; scarce
The Odes of Horace 1947 Translation
The Fourth Book of Jorkens 1947 short stories
To Awaken Pegasus 1949 poems
The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders 1950 Novel
Carcassonne about 1950 Short story in limited printing
The Last Revolution 1951 Novel
[His Fellow Men 1952 Novel
The Little Tales of Smethers and other stories 1952 short stories
Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey 1954 short stories
The Sword of Welleran and other tales of enchantment 1954 short stories , chosen by Lord and Lady Dunsany as a sample and memorial of favourite works
Books published after Lord Dunsany's death include :
At the Edge of the World 1970 short works, edited by Lin Carter
Beyond the Fields We Know 1972 short works, including "The Gods of Pegana" and a Play
in full, edited by Lin Carter
Gods, Men and Ghosts: The Best Supernatural Fiction of Lord Dunsany 1972 short works, edited by E. F. Bleiler
Over the Hills and Far Away 1974 short works, edited by Lin Carter
The Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer and Other Phantasms 1980 short works, edited by Darrell Schweitzer
Verses Dedicatory 1985 previously unpublished verse, edited by Lin Carter, in limited edition chapbook
The Ghosts 1993 Short story
The Hashish Man and Other Stories 1996 short stories , edited by Jon Longhi
The Complete Pegana 1998 short works, including "The Gods of Pegana" and "Time and the Gods", edited by S.T. Joshi
Arthur C. Clarke & Lord Dunsany: A Correspondence 1998 Collation of letters, with some of Lord Dunsany's in facsimile, edited by Keith Allen
Time and the Gods (omnibus) 1999 Omnibus of The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, A Dreamer's Tales, The Book of Wonder and The Last Book of Wonder (not in order)
The King Of Elfland's Daughter 1999 Worth mentioning, a fairy tail of what harm can happen if you unwisely bring magic into your life. Re-issued by Del Rey in trade paperback format.
1. Actually the snippet 'wise, idle, childish things' comes from Tolkien's Cottage of the Lost Play, in the Book of Lost Tales.
The primary sources for this write up were a short introduction by Neil Gaiman in 'The King of Elflands Daughter', and the homepage of the Dunsany family