Introduction to A Dreamer's Tales and Other Stories


A tall and spare young man wearing incongruous spectacles across most eager eyes was addressing an audience in a literary society in Dublin. Somebody said "He looks like a portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson," and indeed in the sparse moustache, in the eager eyes and in the suggestion of hollowness in the face, there was a resemblance. He was speaking on poetry and by his intense interest in his subject, he was able to enliven his audience as though by the spell of poetry itself. Every poem he quoted seemed inspired. He had none of the tricks, but everybody could see he was a natural orator.

He was Lord Dunsany whose plays "The Glittering Gate," and "King Argimines and the Unknown Warrior" had been produced by the Irish Theatre (in 1909 and 1911). He was an officer in the British Army, a notable cricketeer and a good huntsman and had already been through one war. But one could see that what he prized above all were the things of the imagination.

He was praising the work of a young poet who belonged to his own territory in Ireland—the County Meath. He spoke of that county with such gusto that one felt that Dunsany himself would put the fact that he was a Meath man before the fact that he was an Irishman. Meath is Ireland's middle county. It has the richest soil, and for that reason it has been fought for by every conquistidore who broke into Ireland. Before the Normans came Meath had already a thousand years of story. It was the demesne of the Ard-ri, the Imperator of the Celtic-Irish states. In Meath is Tara which was so sacred and venerable that the King who obtained possession of it had the other Kings of ancient Ireland for his vassals. And Cuchullain whose name evokes a whole cycle of myth and story had part of Meath for his patrimony. "Even the man who beat Napoleon was a Meath man," Lord Dunsany exclaimed. That is not true, however. Wellington, though he came of a Meath family, happened to be born in another Irish county.

Lord Dunsany's progenitors, the Norman-Irish or Norse-Irish Plunketts, were able to root themselves in this famous, not to say fabled, Irish territory. The first conquistidore founded two lordships—the lordship of Fingall and the lordship of Dunsany. The domains, the castles and the titles remain from the thirteenth century and form the oldest baronial possessions in the British Islands. Lord Dunsany then belongs to one of the half dozen families in the British peerage who are of actual Norman descent.

His father it is of interest to note was a considerable orator, and his uncle is the well-known Irish statesman, Sir Horace Plunkett. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the present Lord Dunsany, went to an English public school and an English university; he became an officer in the Guards, and he had gone through the South African war before he began to write.

His work began like an ancient literature with mythology. He told us first about the gods of the lands where his kings, his priests and his shepherds were to abide. The gods were remote upon Pegana, but below them were the thousand Home Gods—Roon, the god of Going, whose temples stand beyond the farthest hills; Kilooloogung, the Lord of Arising Smoke; Jabim, who sits behind the house to lament the things that are broken and cast away; Triboogie, the Lord of Dusk, whose children are the shadows; Pitsu, who strokes the cat; Hobith, who calms the dog; Habinabah, who is Lord of Glowing Embers; old Gribaun, who sits in the heart of the fire and turns the wood to ash. "And when it is dark, all in the hour of Triboogie," says the Chapter in "The Gods of Pegana" that tells of the Thousand Home Gods, "Hish creepeth from the forest, the Lord of Silence, whose children are the bats who have broken the command of their father, but in a voice that is ever so low. Hish husheth the mouse and all the whispers in the night; he maketh all noises still. Only the cricket rebelleth. But Hish has sent against him such a spell that after he hath cried a thousand times his voice may be heard no more, but becometh part of the silence."

After he had written "The Gods of Pegana" Lord Dunsany discovered a figure that was more significant for him than any of his gods—the figure of Time. "Suddenly the swart figure of Time stood up before the gods, both hands dripping with blood and a red sword dangling idly from his fingers." Time had overthrown Sardathrion, the city they had built for their solace, and when the oldest of the gods questioned him "Time looked him in the face and edged towards him, fingering with his dripping fingers the hilt of his nimble sword." Over and over again he tells of the cities that were wonderful before Time prevailed against them—Sardathrion, with its onyx lion looming limb by limb from the dusk; Babbulkund, that was called by those who loved her "The City of Marvel," and by those who hated her "The City of the Dog," where over the roofs of her palace chambers "winged lions flit like bats, the size of every one is the size of the lions of God, and the wings are larger than any wing created"; Bethmoora, where window after window pours into the dusk its "lion-frightening light." We all must regret that these stories by Dunsany were not amongst the stories we read in our youth. "Had I read "The Fall of Babbulkund," or "Idle Days on the Yann" when I was a boy," says W. B. Yeats, "I had perhaps been changed for better or worse, and looked to that first reading as the creation of my world; for when we are young the less circumstantial, the further from common life a book is, the more does it touch our hearts and make us dream. We are idle, unhappy, exorbitant, and like the young Blake admit no city beautiful that is not paved with gold and silver."

From the making of tales he has gone on to the making of plays, and he has brought into the theatre the impressive simplicity of his myths and stories. His kings and beggars and slaves are utterly simple and single-minded; they have nothing but a passion or a vision or a faith. He came to the theatre with little knowledge of what is called dramatic construction, but with an astonishing feeling for dramatic situation. It is by virtue of this feeling for situation that his "Gods of the Mountain," his "King Argimines and the Unknown Warrior," and his "Night at an Inn," are such effective theatrical pieces.

As fundamental as the sense of situation should be the dramatist's sense of exalted speech. There are words, words, words, but no speech, let alone the exaltation of it in the theatre of to-day. Lord Dunsany, with W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge has restored speech to the theatre and has made it exalted. "O warrior spirit," cries King Argimines, apostrophising the dead man whose sword he has found in the slave-fields—"O warrior spirit, wherever thou wanderest, whoever be thy gods; whether they punish thee or whether they bless thee; O kingly spirit that once laid here this sword, behold I pray to thee having no gods to pray to, for the god of my nation was broken in three by night. Mine arm is stiff with three years' slavery and remembers not the sword. But guide thy sword till I have slain six men and armed the strongest slaves, and thou shalt have sacrifice every year of a hundred goodly oxen. And I shall build in Ithara a temple to thy memory wherein all that enter in shall remember thee, so shalt thou be honored and envied among the dead, for the dead are very jealous of remembrance. Aye, though thou wert a robber that took men's lives unrighteously, yet shall rare spices smoulder in thy temple and little maidens sing and new-plucked flowers deck the solemn aisles... O but it has a good blade this old green sword; thou wouldst not like to see it miss its mark, thou wouldst not like to see it go thirsting into the air; so huge a sword should have its marrowy bone. Come into my right arm, O ancient spirit, O unknown warrior's soul. And if thou hast the ear of any gods, speak there against Illuriel, god of King Darniak." This is dramatic speech that is truly exalted and noble. The eloquence which is natural to him when he speaks of imaginative things and which may be his by inheritance has its finest expression in the speeches in his plays.

We are all fictionists nowadays: Lord Dunsany, however, is that rare creature in literature, the fabulist. He does not aim at imposing forms on what we call reality—graceful, impressive or significant forms; he aims at transporting us from this reality altogether. He is like the man who comes to the hunters' lodges and says "You wonder at the moon. I will tell you how the moon was made and why." And having told them about the moon he goes on to tell them about marvellous cities that are beyond the forest and about

the jewel that is in the unicorn's horn. If such a one were rebuked for filling the folk with dreams and idle tales, he might (had he the philosophy) make reply: "I have kept alive their spirit of wonder, and wonder in man is holy." Lord Dunsany speaking for himself would say with Blake "Imagination is the man." He would, I think, go on to declare that the one thing worth doing for mankind is to make their imaginations more and more exalted. One can hardly detect a social idea in his work. There is one there, however. It is one of unrelenting hostility to everything that impoverishes man's imagination—to mean cities, to commercial interests, to a culture that arises out of material organization. He dwells forever upon things that arouse the imagination—upon swords and cities, upon temples and palaces, upon slaves in their revolt and kings in their unhappiness. He has the mind of a myth-maker, and he can give ships and cities and whirlpools vast and proper shapes.

It is easy to find his literary origins—they are the Bible, Homer and Herodotus. He made the Bible his book of wonder when he was young, being induced to do this by a censorship his mother had set up—she was adverse, as he tells us, to his reading newspapers and current periodicals. From the Bible he has got his rhythmic, exalted prose. He took from it too the themes that he has so often repeated—fair and unbelieving cities with their prophets and their heathen kings. Homer he loves and often repeats, and the accounts of early civilizations that Herodotus gives delights him. I do not think he reads much modern literature, and I am certain that he reads none of the philosophic, sociological and economic works that fill the bookshops to-day. He would not judge a book by its cover, but he would, I am sure, judge it by its title. I have seen him become enraptured by titles of two books that were being reviewed at the time. One was "The High Deeds of Finn," and the other "The History of the East Roman Empire from the Accession of Irene to the Fall of Basil the Third" (I am not sure I have got the Byzantine sovereigns in right). He has a prodigal imagination. I have watched him sketch a scenario for a play, write a little story, and invent a dozen incidents for tales, in the course of a morning, all the time talking imaginatively. He thinks best, I imagine, in the open air while he is shooting or hunting around his Castle. And he exercises a very gracious hospitality in that twelfth century castle of his in the County Meath, and he would travel a long way a-foot, I know, to find a good talker that he could bring into the circle. It is a long time now since an ancient historian in Ireland wrote into "The Annals of the Four Masters," "There be two great robber barons on the road to Drogheda, Dunsany and Fingall; and if you save yourself from the hands of Fingall, you will assuredly fall into the hands of Dunsany."

Padraic Colum.

New York, August, 1917.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1972, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.