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Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Go Read Lord Dunsany, Dang It!

Tolkien is derivative.

He was very much a man of his time. His work today is recognized as being inherently conservative and deeply Catholic. And yes, it is truly a masterpiece, one of the great works of the English language. But he also was a man of his times. He was thoroughly immersed in modernism. He was surrounded by snide progressive hecklers that chided him mercilessly. He went from being shell shocked in The Great War to watching the countryside be utterly consumed by “progress”.

I hate to say it, but this is not at all the proper context for someone to write the definitive fantasy story of all time. If you haven’t read the signature fantasy works that predate his influence, you won’t be able to imagine this being the case, but the man really did pull his punches. He tiptoed around themes and questions that deserved to be met head on. He truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line.

What’s the alternative, you ask? Well… if you want to see what a full-throated expression of what an unadulterated fantasy genre could be like without the taint of Modernity and despair, then look no further than Lord Dunsany.

My favorite story of his is “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” I will say nothing to spoil this one for you. Seriously, go read it. No commentary can do it justice. I can’t name a single story that can compete with this one in terms of its capacity to produce undiluted wonder. It is the very definition of fantastic. In comparison, every author after Dunsany might as well have hid their light under a bushel basket.

For people wanting a more explicit handling of the central problem that “real” Fantasy must necessarily address, see “The Kith of the Elf Folk”. If “half elfs” are just another fantasy race in your imaginary worlds, I have to say… you are brain damaged. This is a sort of dementia that is on par with vampires being divorced from Christian lore and concepts of damnation. The correct answer for what is going on with this are unimaginable to most people because Tolkien either toned down his answer or else was so careful in filing the serial numbers off of what he produced that people could enjoy his work without thinking deeply about the consequences of elves and men intermingling when the former are necessarily barred from heaven.

For a third Dunsany story that brings something different to the table than either of these, I recommend “The Journey of the King.” Now, many people have chided me saying that reading “Appendix N” is not sufficient for people to get a solid grounding in the roots of fantasy. Don’t read a pile of yellowed paperbacks and pulp magazines, they say, but go read the stuff that the Appendix N authors themselves used for inspiration. It sounds good. It sounds smart. And heck, I actually agree with it. But without a doubt the one book that casts by far the longest shadow over the fantasy genre is going to be The King James Bible. This story shows why. If you want to tackle life’s toughest questions, if you want to create something that sounds authentic, like it may have really happened in the ancient world… if you want to be fluent in the patterns of language that create a palpable sense of portentousness and wisdom, if you want to tap in to that part of the human psyche that still had this very real concern that we’ve done something to offend a primal and jealous force… then read that book!

Or at the very least, go read Lord Dunsany and see how his immersion in that particular volume gave him a power and a command of the language that no creator since his time has enjoyed.

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22 responses to “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Go Read Lord Dunsany, Dang It!

  1. Xavier Basora August 12, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    Jeffro,

    How exactly was Tolkein thouroughly immersed in modernity?

    • jeffro August 12, 2018 at 10:09 pm

      He was baptized in the horrors of the Great War for starters. His initial descent into fantasy was quite explicitly as an escape from modernity and progress. In his work, he grapples with them and repudiates them with every means at his disposal.

      Note that LotR is even subversive in its own way. It’s not about an epic quest. It’s more of an anti-quest. All of it is ultimately about the passing away of the legendary and the fantastic. It’s deeply moving, but this is not the only way to do fantasy and it is not an approach that is most natural to the medium.

      • Xavier Basora August 12, 2018 at 10:36 pm

        Jeffo,

        Thanks. That’s very helpful. I did pick up that sense of Greek tragedy about the passing of fantasy that struck me as very sad.
        I agree that Tolkein’s approach comes across as forced because reading through say the Breton cycles (aka King Arthur stories) or le Chanson de Roland etc there’s much more optimism and joy; something that Tirant lo Blanc, Don Quijote and the fabilau parodied even as they paid hommage to the fantasy genre

        And here’s a by the way about European fantasy that I’ve reflected on

        British/English fantasy comes from the Book of revelations+Germanic stories+English civil war while the Continential comes from the Acts of the apostles+fighting the Moslems+discovery and colonization of the Americas

        Yes it’s a super simplification but I find it coherent.

        Thanks again!
        Where can I find Journey of the king?

        xavier

      • malcolmthecynic August 13, 2018 at 10:46 am

        Actually King Arthur is a good example of what he is going for: The end to the story is about fading away, since Camelot was always an impossible dream, but that doesn’t mean the good, true, and beautiful aren’t worth fighting for, and maybe someday in the distant future somehow, perhaps through the grace of God, Camelot can be achieved.

    • jeffro August 12, 2018 at 10:57 pm

      Journey of the King is in Dunsany’s second collection of shorts, “Time and the Gods”. You can read it all here.

  2. Pat D. August 13, 2018 at 1:18 am

    @Xavier Basora:

    “I agree that Tolkein’s approach comes across as forced because reading through say the Breton cycles (aka King Arthur stories) or le Chanson de Roland etc there’s much more optimism and joy; something that Tirant lo Blanc, Don Quijote and the fabilau parodied even as they paid hommage to the fantasy genre”

    This reminded me of a blog post I read a while back: https://friendofsophia.blogspot.com/2013/06/well-obtain-it.html
    Short version – the “long defeat” attitude is more typically pagan e.g. Stoic/Norse/Buddhist than Christian. I think it could be said to be more fitting for the pre-Christian-but-not-fully-pagan setting of Tolkien’s work (they had some knowledge of God but not of the means of salvation; hope remains vague) but in itself it’s not fully Christian.

    • Xavier Basora August 13, 2018 at 3:38 am

      Pat

      Thanks for your link. I’ll take a look at it

      xavier

    • pcbushi August 13, 2018 at 7:29 am

      Then again, Christianity recognizes a “long defeat” on Earth that ultimately culminates in the glorious return of Christ, no? I’d argue that so long as Valinor and Eru Iluvatar persist, the decline of Middle Earth isn’t really all that off-message.

      • malcolmthecynic August 13, 2018 at 9:14 am

        I agree. I think Tolkien would too.

        For a clearer expression of what I think Tolkien was going for read “Leaf by Niggle”. The old world is a dim and shallow place, but if you go further up and further in it gets more “real”.

    • Matthew Ess August 15, 2018 at 7:22 am

      Wow… someone else actually has read something from that blog? Amazing! I thought I was the only one.

      That being said, I think there is a happy medium between the position “Christian should expect a long defeat in this world,” which I would argue is more pre-Christian as the author of that blog suggests, and the idea that “Christians can achieve an ultimate victory in this life/world.”

      We can have very real successes that are nonetheless not perfected until we reach Heaven or until Christ returns. The ultimate victory has already been achieved–we are victorious in history because Christ won the great victory over sin and death (and Satan)–but nonetheless there are many ‘small’ defeats. They don’t seem small to us, but they are in the most real terms. So I think the appropriate outlook for a Christian is that of a joyous determination, rather than a resigned one.

      In terms of Tolkien, I really think his stories were more optimistic than the man himself was (from what little else I’ve read of his besides the stories); he showed real battles that were worth fighting and that won somewhat imperfect victories in the name of the good, the right, and the beautiful… he personally has sounded like he believed in the pre-Christian ‘long defeat’, only Christianized with an eschaton of victory.

  3. pcbushi August 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

    Great recommendations. I keep intending to go back to Dunsany and read The King of Elfland’s Daughter. But I am perpetually distracted by the glitter of Vance and Howard and Brackett, and I still have to get back to Saberhagen…oi.

    • John Boyle August 14, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      PCBushi: The King of Elflands’s Daughter may not be the best place to start with Dunsany, as it was his farewell to fantasy. I would suggest some of his earlier work, such as The Gods of Pagana or The Book of Wonder, both available from Project Guttenburg.

      • pcbushi August 14, 2018 at 2:24 pm

        Thanks, John! I’ve read some of his short stories in the past. I just feel like a fraud until I get around to reading what’s probably he most renowned work! Will look at those others you mentioned.

  4. malcolmthecynic August 13, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Tolkien’s elves were a change from the older concept of elves, but that had nothing to do with “dialing back” so he would be accepted as serious literature.

    If this was his idea – there is no evidence at all this was his idea – he failed. Critics hated Tolkien.

    His concept behind his Tolkienian elves was that they were supposed to represent what unfallen man would look like. He spent around half his life figuring this out and trying to square it with the rest of his mythos, but that is why they are the way they are, not because he was trying to “hold back” his elves to make a point.

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  6. H.P. August 14, 2018 at 7:45 am

    You would have to be pretty “thoroughly immersed in modernism” to make so baseless a charge as “[h]e truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line” just because it meshes with your genre politics. And then repeat that charge even after others have pointed out that it is entirely without a basis. “The Damon Knight of Appendix N” is not a good look.

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  8. Joshua August 16, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    Downloaded his stuff from Guttenberg… Awesome. Thanks for the heads up.

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