by Lord Dunsany
, first published in 1926
While it's often the case that Dunsany's novels fall significantly short of the quality of his short stories, I found The Charwoman's Shadow
to be an exceptionally worthwile read.
The book is set in a semi-imaginary Spain
during an unspecified era, (from the particulars of the story 16th or 17th century), the chief difference being that Spain was very likely never this wonderful
Without spoiling too much, the plot concerns Ramon Alonzo Matthew-Mark-Luke-John of the Tower and Rocky Forest who is sent by his father, the lord of this region, to acquire a dowry
for his sister Mirandola. As his noble birth precludes him from taking up a profession, Ramon Alonzo is told to seek a magician in a nearby forest who owed a favor to his grandfather. From the magician he is to learn the alchemical
secret of making "baser metals" into gold. Although the magician is more than willing to share his knowledge, he demands as price Ramon's shadow
, an item more valuable than it first seems.
The Charwoman's Shadow
reads like a myth
, although less so than some of Dunsany's other work. He portrays a world where the fantastic is commonplace, if dwindling, and fate plays as much a role as action. Dunsany's characterization
is very strong, with none of the stereotypes
one expects from the chivalric
legend he seems to imitate. The protagonist Ramon, is made to be very human. He is clever and brave, but also at times impetuous, selfish, and naive. Also, despite the eras in which this book was written and set, two of the female characters, Mirandola and the charwoman
of the book's title, are significant agents of the plot.
Dunsany gives an intriguing treatment of religion. Appropriate to the setting, Christianity
is a constant undercurrent. The worry that his consortion with the magician may lead to his damnation is a driving motivation for Ramon Alonzo. Also, Father Joseph, Ramon's family priest, is a significant character, and his "white magic" is revealed to be a potent force. However, Dunsany treats God as a powerful being, not an ultimate one. There is a "Country Beyond Moon's Rising" which "lies not only beyond salvation, but the dooms of the Last Judgement cross not its borders either"
Finally, I should mention that this is the only book for which I can recall being impressed by a testimonial on the inside page. Arthur C. Clarke
, who was a friend of Dunsany's in his later life, describes the ending of The Charwoman's Shadow
as "the finest piece of pure magic I know in the whole of literature".