This should be a throwaway story. Filler. A curio. This should be the sort of tale that you skim past in order to get to something with a hero, a magic sword, and a dragon in it. But it really isn’t.
Check it out. Here is Lord Dunsany writing about… (wait for it…) a piece of cork:
For the first few years in the bottle that I guarded the wine slept, dreaming of Provence; but as the years went on he grew stronger and stronger, until at last whenever a man went by the wind would put out all his might against me, saying, ‘Let me go free; let me go free!’ And every year his strength increased, and he grew more clamourous when men went by, but never availed to hurl me from my post. But when I had powerfully held him for twenty years they brought him to the banquet and took me from my post, and the wine arose rejoicing and leapt through the veins of men and exalted their souls within them till they stood up in their places and sang Provençal songs. But me they cast away—me that had been sentinel for twenty years, and was still as strong and staunch as when first I went on guard.
This is not one of Dunsany’s signature stories. It’s not going to be collected into anthologies. It’s not one people are going to rave about to each other or insist that people read. But it does highlight something that I think is really significant: the man could find more myth and romance and virtue and wonder in a garbage dump than most people would think to put into entire worlds of fantasy.
What is it that makes this possible? Why is there such a harsh break between what he was doing and what practically everyone would go on to do later on? Personally, I think it is due to this:
I lay idle one night in the gloom on the warehouse floor. Nothing stirred there, and even the spider slept. Towards midnight a great flock of echoes suddenly leapt up from the wooden planks and circled round the roof. A man was coming towards me all alone. And as he came his soul was reproaching him, and I saw that there was a great trouble between the man and his soul, for his soul would not let him be, but went on reproaching him.
A modernist would see nothing more here than disgraced man about to use a piece of cord to commit suicide. Dunsany, on the other hand sees things as they actually are. Because the truth is that we really are surrounded by all manner of wonders and terrors and tragedies. You don’t need some Never Never Land buried in mankind’s forgotten past in order to explore this. This is where we live.
This is also only the beginning. Because for his big finish, Lord Dunsany has a concise expression of what fantasy in the early nineteen hundreds was all about.
I am Blagdaross. Woe is me that I should lie now an outcast among these worthy but little people. Alas! for the days that are gathered, and alas for the Great One that was a master and a soul to me, whose spirit is now shrunken and can never know me again, and no more ride abroad on knightly quests. I was Bucephalus when he was Alexander, and carried him victorious as far as Ind. I encountered dragons with him when he was St. George, I was the horse of Roland fighting for Christendom, and was often Rosinante. I fought in tournays and went errant upon quests, and met Ulysses and the heroes and the fairies. Or late in the evening, just before the lamps in the nursery were put out, he would suddenly mount me, and we would gallop through Africa. There we would pass by night through tropic forests, and come upon dark rivers sweeping by, all gleaming with the eyes of crocodiles, where the hippopotamus floated down with the stream, and mysterious craft loomed suddenly out of the dark and furtively passed away. And when we had passed through the forest lit by the fireflies we would come to the open plains, and gallop onwards with scarlet flamingoes flying along beside us through the lands of dusky kings, with golden crowns upon their heads and scepters in their hands, who came running out of their palaces to see us pass. Then I would wheel suddenly, and the dust flew up from my four hooves as I turned and we galloped home again, and my master was put to bed. And again he would ride abroad on another day till we came to magical fortresses guarded by wizardry and overthrew the dragons at the gate, and ever came back with a princess fairer than the sea.
This concept of fantasy did not evaporate the moment that John Carter made his first leaps across the Barsoomian sands. It endured as a default reference point throughout the works of later authors such as L. Sprague de Camp and Michael Moorcock.
When did we as a people finally lay this down collectively? Ah, that’s easy. That happened some time around 1980 when somebody figured out that you could use D&D and Tolkien’s pre-Christian mythology as a template for a new type of fantasy that is utterly disconnected from wonder and Western culture.
Going down that path might have brought us something substantially more realistic. But it sure didn’t give us much that was actually real.