Edward Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, is one of the most acclaimed names in the field of fantastic fiction, held in high esteem by many of today’s major writers. More than eighty books of his work were published, and his oeuvre includes many hundreds of published short stories, as well as successful plays, novels and essays. A complex and fascinating character, and an important contributor to literature, Lord Dunsany was a versatile and creative writer, with works including fantasy, drama, poetry, science fiction, prose and autobiography. Born to the second-oldest title (created 1439) in the Irish peerage, Dunsany lived much of his life amid the dramatic, romantic setting of what is perhaps Ireland’s longest-inhabited home, Dunsany Castle near Tara. Dunsany himself is cited as a major influence by many writers and artists and as an important figure in the development of fantastic literature by editors, academics and critics. His work formed part of the foundation of fantasy, along with that of Poe, Morris and Rider Haggard, and fed into later work such as that of Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft. The term ‘Dunsanian’ evokes a particular style and atmosphere which has, in the words of more than one commentator, been much imitated but never duplicated. It is worth noting, however, that Dunsany never confined himself to any category – ‘genres’ such as fantasy, science fiction and so on did not really exist in his time – but was respected for his overall ability, being invited to lecture on many occasions, and receiving an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. Perhaps his most famous work was The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
For those unfamiliar with Dunsany’s work, he very much belongs to an earlier, perhaps more enlightened age, when fantasy writers were known for the beauty of their prose as much as the fantastical nature of their stories. He coined the evocative term ‘the fields beyond the fields we know’ in reference to the twilight realm of Faerie. The following quote from The King of Elfland’s Daughter gives as good an indication as any of both the tone and tenor of Dunsany’s style: “And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man’s thoughts for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.” Considered one of the pioneering works of fantasy today, it is amazing to think now that The King of Elfland’s Daughter was not really written as a fantasy novel at all, for the genre as such did not exist in Dunsany’s time. The heartbreaking story of a marriage between a mortal man and an elf princess, the book is a masterful tapestry of what could happen in a typical fairy tale following the ‘happily ever after’ part. What distinguishes the novel is the beauty of the language, the astute eye for character, the hint of humour and the intangible spell of wonder that it leaves. Even today, with all of the fantasy novels published since Dunsany’s time, his work remains fresh and exuberant.
Unlike many writers, every single Dunsany novel is entirely, exquisitely unique to read. His style and medium – though not the beauty or professionalism of his writing – constantly changed during the course of his authorial career and Dunsany was as much a poet and dramatist as a writer of prose. His thematic concerns rarely altered, however, and he retained throughout his life an abiding interest in his homeland of Ireland, its history, culture, myths and legends. Dunsany’s writing habits were considered peculiar by some. His wife, Lady Beatrice, once commented that “He always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales” (a hat which was, unfortunately, eventually stolen by a visitor to Dunsany Castle). Impressively, Dunsany almost never rewrote anything; everything he ever published was a first draft. Much of his work was penned with quill pens, which he made himself; Lady Beatrice was usually the first to see the writings, and would help type them. It has been said that Lord Dunsany would sometimes conceive stories while hunting, and would return to the Castle and draw in his family and servants to re-enact his visions before he set them on paper. Although he gained widespread acclaim during his lifetime, and was lucky enough to see many of his more famous works dramatised on stage, it was only after his death that the enduring nature of Dunsany’s legacy was truly seen.
Dunsany’s influences were many and varied, including everything from Classical mythology to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. He was also an admirer of the heroic romances of William Morris, set in imaginary lands of the author’s creation, such as The Well at the World’s End. Dunsany kept up a lifelong association with a number of famous poets, including W B Yeats, Francis Ledwidge and Lady Wentworth, a fact which is unsurprising given the lyrical, poetic nature of much of his own work. The long list of writers who, in turn, have openly and often cited Dunsany as an influence is a stunning roll call of the great and good in fantasy literature from the past century: H P Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur C Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Jorge Luis Borges, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Peter S Beagle and, of course, J R R Tolkien. Much of Dunsany’s work may be hard to find these days but, given the status and fame of his many admirers, I’d suggest that tracking down his books is a hugely worthwhile exercise. The King of Elfland’s Daughter, at least, is widely available and I’m almost certain that anyone who takes the time to read it will be encouraged, like many before them, to seek out the other eighty or so publications of Dunsany which exist out there, somewhere on forgotten hills or in fields beyond the fields we know.