Review: Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany

The Book of Wonder - Lord Dunsany

Gutenberg ebook: Book of Wonder (1912, short stories)

Wikipedia: Book of Wonder (has list of stories)


I'd been reading so many authors gush about or at least admit being influenced by Lord Dunsany (read his full name here and you'll see why everyone abbreviates it) that it seemed time to find out why. Unfortunately I started with his novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, because it had often been mentioned in the gushing. And it was not the right book to start with (I might try it again someday, but it was a boredom DNF and those don't usually change). Happily this book gives you both an example of why, but also why it's a better book.


First it's a series of short stories, which is usually a better place to get a feel for what an author can manage. If I'd been in a DNF mood this might have ended badly, because the first story was everything that made me stop reading the Elfland novel. Except added to that is a very giggleworthy line that - I'll stop myself there because yes, it's quote time.


Story title: The Bride of the Man-Horse

I'm skipping the first paragraph, but these are the 2nd through 4th ones. "She" is mama centaur, pondering her son leaving home:

She knew that today he would not drink at the stream coming down from the terraces of Varpa Niger, the inner land of the mountains, that today he would not wonder awhile at the sunset and afterwards trot back to the cavern again to sleep on rushes pulled by rivers that know not Man. She knew that it was with him as it had been of old with his father, and with Goom the father of Jyshak, and long ago with the gods. Therefore she only sighed and let him go.


But he, coming out from the cavern that was his home, went for the first time over the little stream, and going round the corner of the crags saw glittering beneath him the mundane plain. And the wind of the autumn that was gilding the world, rushing up the slopes of the mountain, beat cold on his naked flanks. He raised his head and snorted.


"I am a man-horse now!" he shouted aloud; and leaping from crag to crag he galloped by valley and chasm, by torrent-bed and scar of avalanche, until he came to the wandering leagues of the plain, and left behind him for ever the Athraminaurian mountains.


This....this is an MST3K film, waiting to be made. You've got the random fantasy place names and people, you have a centaur, and you have story of young dude going on a journey. Also "man-horse," I just, ugh, no. Awful, clunky word choice.


This is an example of one of Dunsany's fairy tales where he gets florid with descriptions, which was a trend in fantasy writing at the time. He actually is better at it than others, but it does go into cloying territory. So normally I'd just tell you to skip over this one story and go on to discuss the better stuff - but the problems of how this one is written are what drove me away from Dunsany the last time. Also I feel a touch ranty at how this one ends, so I want to mention it (behind spoilers).


Let me just quote the sixth paragraph before I move on, because it's exactly the kind of writing that made it impossible for me to make it through Elfland. And showing it to you gives you a much clearer idea than trying to describe Dunsany's style of writing. Because while the above might just be a bad beginning, this paragraph is the kind of thing that's typical of his descriptions and backstory.

When first the feet of the centaur touched the grass of that soft alluvial earth he blew for joy upon the silver horn, he pranced and caracoled, he gambolled over the leagues; pace came to him like a maiden with a lamp, a new and beautiful wonder; the wind laughed as it passed him. He put his head down low to the scent of the flowers, he lifted it up to be nearer the unseen stars, he revelled through kingdoms, took rivers in his stride; how shall I tell you, ye that dwell in cities, how shall I tell you what he felt as he galloped? He felt for strength like the towers of Bel-Narana; for lightness like those gossamer palaces that the fairy-spider builds 'twixt heaven and sea along the coasts of Zith; for swiftness like some bird racing up from the morning to sing in some city's spires before daylight comes. He was the sworn companion of the wind. For joy he was as a song; the lightnings of his legendary sires, the earlier gods, began to mix with his blood; his hooves thundered. He came to the cities of men, and all men trembled, for they remembered the ancient mythical wars, and now they dreaded new battles and feared for the race of man. Not by Clio are these wars recorded; history does not know them, but what of that? Not all of us have sat at historians' feet, but all have learned fable and myth at their mothers' knees. And there were none that did not fear strange wars when they saw Shepperalk swerve and leap along the public ways. So he passed from city to city.

I'm ok with some purple prose. But aside from that this has something I really tire of: repeatedly tossing in exotic sounding names of places the reader has never heard of - purely because hey, mysterious lands, wow. Ok in one story, but gets very old when done repeatedly, and with lots of geography and ancestry (which are usually never referred to again). Lovecraft has this problem sometimes - but he was also trying to be like Dunsany, whose writing he admired.


Now, about the ending part. So our...hero (?) is named Shepperalk but I'm calling him HorseDude. His whole journey is all about finding Sombelene - we're not exactly told why, except she's immortal - in her beauty somehow, which is "inhuman." I assumed there was going to be something in the story about love. I mean, bride is in the title. But - there's not. Or that's not what I'd call it.


Some of what HorseDude knows about Sombelene:

"...the dreams in his heart awoke and romantically he pondered all those rumours that used to come to him from Sombelenë, because of the fellowship of fabulous things.


...She was unwed, unwooed.


The lions came not to woo her because they feared her strength, and the gods dared not love her because they knew she must die."


Everything he knows of her is secondhand information, from others and his dreams.


And so he rides/runs on in, grabs her, and gallops off. The end. Seriously, that's it. Final two paragraphs:

"He galloped with half-shut eyes up the temple-steps, and, only seeing dimly through his lashes, seized Sombelenë by the hair, undazzled as yet by her beauty, and so haled her away; and, leaping with her over the floorless chasm where the waters of the lake fall unremembered away into a hole in the world, took her we know not where, to be her slave for all centuries that are allowed to his race.


Three blasts he gave as he went upon that silver horn that is the world-old treasure of the centaurs. These were his wedding bells."

Sorry, the "to be her slave" doesn't make up for the grabbing her by the hair and taking her away without even stopping for a "oh btw my name's HorseDude!" Or more importantly, you know, asking if she's even interested in him.

(show spoiler)


Yeah, that's just SO romantic. I think you can see why that had me a bit ranty. Nothing like that happened in Elfland - it was all the writing style that made it a DNF. But when I read this story I was "wait, WTF does everyone go on about Dunsany?!" (Here's a list of people Dunsany influenced - read that and see why I felt I was missing something.)


I should note that I do know that there's usually an Allegory or Meaning (capitalized for Importance) of some type that Dunsany is going for, but that's one of the reasons that sometimes this sort of fairy tale doesn't work for me. Especially if it's too heavy handed. I don't see these characters as people, just types or icons. And annoying ones. This is a particularly bad example - which is again why I looked back at the stories and thought WHY put this one first?! It's a really weak story.


ANYWAY. The rest of the stories are mostly NOT like this one. They are so much better that this one seems like a joke or a parody. They're not exactly excellent - hmmm, now I'm doubitng myself. It's possible that after that first story I was so incredibly relieved not to have anything quite that cringe-worthy, that relief made me rate them higher. I can't tell.


I did find other stories amusing and interesting, which made me understand the Dunsany-love. There are several about thieves which are nicely action-adventure-ish. There's dark humor and deaths - which was another relief. Sometimes you'll read fantasy stories from this era that are all foreboding and then never a bad ending except for villains. In many of these stories there's not really a clear hero/villain thing going on, which I liked. And while the humor isn't throughout, there is some:


Story title: How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles

6th paragraph in from the start:

"Lord," said the old woman whose bonnet was lined with red, "you did make me start." And then she saw by his eyes that that was not the way to speak to Mr. Nuth.


And at last Nuth spoke, and very nervously the old woman explained that her son was a likely lad, and had been in business already but wanted to better himself, and she wanted Mr. Nuth to teach him a livelihood.


First of all Nuth wanted to see a business reference, and when he was shown one from a jeweller with whom he happened to be hand-in-glove the upshot of it was that he agreed to take young Tonker (for this was the surname of the likely lad) and to make him his apprentice. And the old woman whose bonnet was lined with red went back to her little cottage in the country, and every evening said to her old man, "Tonker, we must fasten the shutters of a night-time, for Tommy's a burglar now."


Story title: The Coronation of Mr. Shap

Again, 6th paragraph in:

"...On far the most important day of his life he went as usual to town by the early train to sell plausible articles to customers, while the spiritual Shap roamed off to fanciful lands. As he walked from the station, dreamy but wide awake, it suddenly struck him that the real Shap was not the one walking to Business in black and ugly clothes, but he who roamed along a jungle's edge near the ramparts of an old and Eastern city that rose up sheer from the sand, and against which the desert lapped with one eternal wave. He used to fancy the name of that city was Larkar. "After all, the fancy is as real as the body," he said with perfect logic. It was a dangerous theory.


For that other life that he led he realized, as in Business, the importance and value of method. He did not let his fancy roam too far until it perfectly knew its first surroundings. Particularly he avoided the jungle—he was not afraid to meet a tiger there (after all it was not real), but stranger things might crouch there. Slowly he built up Larkar: rampart by rampart, towers for archers, gateway of brass, and all. And then one day he argued, and quite rightly, that all the silk-clad people in its streets, their camels, their wares that came from Inkustahn, the city itself, were all the things of his will—and then he made himself King. He smiled after that when people did not raise their hats to him in the street, as he walked from the station to Business; but he was sufficiently practical to recognize that it was better not to talk of this to those that only knew him as Mr. Shap."

You can tell that this Shap story is going into the Dunsany model of fantasy world (with the place names, exotic locale, etc.), but it's not as problematic in that it's also grounded in that "real" world. So it works better for this story - at least for me. Plus it's got a message I understand, while I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to take away from HorseDude story.


Anyway, this is well worth hopping into, just to take a look at an influential fantasy author. It's very clear why he's an influence, once you read him. Lots of those he influenced take up the same sort of stories and worlds in their work.


Just skip the first story - or try it and see if you can see what he's going for. It's really very short.




Apparently I need to read Ursula K Le Guin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" - quoted in Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany by Darrell Schweitzer. Le Guin "...warns...against Dunsany as The First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy, and claims that she has never seen a Dunsany imitation that is more than "a lot of made-up names, some vague descriptions of gorgeous cities and unmentionable dooms, and a great many sentences beginning with 'And'."


Schweitzer doesn't agree with Le Guin at all about that. Meanwhile I can't say a whole lot because I have a bad habit of starting too many sentences with And. Heh.