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Category Archives: Appendix N

Review: “Blagdaross” by Lord Dunsany

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.

Behold:

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.

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Review: “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany is right there on the Appendix N Inspiratonal Reading list… listed as “Dunsany, Lord” no less.

Now… why is he there? Well, take your pick:

  • Because Gary Gygax grew up reading and enjoying these stories and this is a completely haphazard and idiosyncratic selection of things that just so happened to fire his imagination.
  • Because Lord Dunsany is arguably the most significant fantasist of the twentieth century and nobody collating a list of significant works of fantasy during the mid-seventies would have dared omit him.

Think carefully, y’all!

But seriously, though… the guy is positively tremendous. The story we’re going to look at today is my favorite short story ever. I had picked up Lin Carter’s compilation of Dunsany stories At the Edge of the World and when got to this one, I set it aside because I was persuaded then and there that I simply had to read all of Lord Dunsany’s fantasy from the very beginning. It’s that good!

A word of warning is in order here. Given everything else on the Appendix N list, you are liable to be extremely disappointed to find out that Lord Dunsany did not in fact write mind bendingly weird horror, blood soaked tales of sword & sorcery, sizzling planetary romance adventures, or off the wall science fantasy. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany actually had his work published in literary magazines! (His story “Time and the Gods” appeared in the same issue of a magazine that featured work by Bernard Shaw.)

But don’t let that scare you off. You’re going to be right at home with his stories. Among other things, they are the perfect prelude to the Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft. (And contrary to the haters out there, I think Lovecraft was pretty darn good at emulating the cadence of Dunsany’s prose.)

Even better, there are things here that really can be a big help to your tabletop role-playing game sessions. Dig this opening passage, for instance:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to the west. It comes up out of the distance and goes down into the distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean. To the northward red rocks, smooth and bare of soil, and without any speck of moss or herbage, slope up to the very lips of the Polar wind, and there is nothing else there by the noise of his anger. Very peaceful are the Inner Lands, and very fair are their cities, and there is no war among them, but quiet and ease. And they have no enemy but age, for thirst and fever lie sunning themselves out in the mid-desert, and never prowl into the Inner Lands. And the ghouls and ghosts, whose highway is the night, are kept in the south by the boundary of magic.

What a place!

What a stage!

Now I’m not sure how it is that we got to the point where role-playing game supplements went full on with the whole census data and almanac shtick. Honestly, the more stuff you give me the more stuff I feel like I oughtta be faithful to in running a game. That’s work! But worse than that, there’s only so much I can keep in my head at once. And even worse than that… the players are generally only going to want to hear at most half a paragraph sketching out the basic geography of the setting at any given time.

If you’re going to throw something like that at your players, you might as well make it something awesome like ghosts and ghouls that are kept out only by a boundary of magic… or even better, the personification of Death himself just chilling out in a desert! Heck, you just invited your friends over for a fantasy role-playing game. Imagine the look on their faces when they get a little unadulterated fantasy instead of yet another jumped up Poughkeepsie!

Short stories like this have to sketch out an entire world in a couple of paragraphs. And convey a tone and an atmosphere and a feeling all at once. And they have get to the point quickly– and convey that quickly as well. Just like you do when you’re running your games.

Here’s how Lord Dunsany does it:

From these three little kingdoms that are named the Inner Lands the young men stole constantly away. One by one they went, and no one knew why they went save that they had a longing to behold the Sea. Of this longing they spoke little, but a young man would become silent for a few days, and then, one morning very early, he would slip away and slowly climb Poltarnee’s difficult slope, and having attained the top pass over and never return. A few stayed behind in the Inner Lands and became the old men, but none that had ever climbed Poltarnees from the very earliest times had ever come back again. Many had gone up Poltarnees sworn to return. Once a king sent all his courtiers, one by one, to report the mystery to him, and then went himself; none ever returned.

This is what I call a situation. And this sort of thing is the bread and butter of role-playing game sessions.

Now, in our games the players are more likely going to have to foil some dastardly scheme perpetrated by Cthulhu worshiping cultists that are dead set on disrupting the magical barrier that keeps the ghosts and ghouls at bay. They’ll probably have to contend with Thirst and Fever as they head out into to the desert in order to challenge Death to a battle of wits. That’s just how we roll!

Where Lord Dunsany goes with this one is of course nothing like that. He’s more concerned with things like wise kings, beautiful princesses, heroic hunters, true love, solemn oaths, and terrible blasphemy.

You might recognize the overriding theme by the time you get to the end, though!

Read the whole thing!

A Quick Response to Malcolm the Cynic

This is from the comment thread on the previous post:

“You can prefer pre-Tolkienian fantasy if you like. You can dislike how too many people copied Tolkien if you’d like. But one thing you cannot do, at least not honestly or at least accurately, is claim that Tolkien didn’t make exactly what he wanted to make exactly the way he wanted to make it.”

I agree.

Going down that path at all is clearly not constructive. It was a mistake.

Those of you that wanted me to explicitly walk that stuff back before trying a different angle on this… consider it done!

Tolkien Really is Derivative

Check out this bit from Barbarian Book Club:

I honestly came to the challenge and expected to read a few fun stories, sword and sorcery types. Instead, I read Dunsany and everything I thought I knew about fantasy was demolished. I’ve spent the last two weeks devouring his work and won’t stop until I’m done with everything I can find. Reading modern fantasy without going back to Dunsany is like eating just a bit of frosting and some sprinkles instead of the whole magnificent piece of cake.

Pardon me for saying it, but… hey y’all, I told you so!

You thought I was off my rocker. You thought I’d gone off the deep end. You thought I was unhinged. Mentally disturbed. Deranged even. Too bad for you, I wasn’t!

So let’s talk about this. Why would it be fair to argue that Tolkien was in fact derivative? You’ve got to admit… there’s a lot more challenge to arguing that than the usual line you get about the sad, sad man that was heroically fighting a rearguard action to preserve all that was good and right and true as the captains of civilization’s remnants steeled themselves to commit to a truly titanic self-destruct sequence.

Oh, but that stings, doesn’t it? Face it. You don’t even want to entertain the thought. Well hey, cut the feigned outrage routine and think for a moment. Consider this thought from one of Tolkien’s pub mates:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

What is it then that Tolkien shared with, say, Frank Herbert that would have united him against the era in which Lord Dunsany hailed from?

There is a profound break there. You see something similar in the gap between Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Not that Leiber wasn’t a supremely talented writer that has a well deserved place in the fantasy and science canon. Not that I can’t recommend that you read and enjoy his work. But something vital fell through the cracks in a matter of a couple of decades– to the point where people that think they are heavy into sword and sorcery are going to be stunned when they finally have a first hand encounter with the man that laid the groundwork that established the conventions of that genre in the first place.

The gap between Tolkien and Dunsany is very much like that. But it goes even deeper and is more astonishing. How even to begin to describe it? I would put it this way: Lord Dunsany wrote pure, undiluted fantasy. The Lord of the Rings in contrast follows along with the precepts of what would ultimately be termed speculative fiction.

And there is indeed a world of difference between the two.

Tolkien and Modernity

Tolkien was ahead of his time. And that’s precisely what I object to about him. And you know it’s real. People experience a culture shock when they go look up his forgotten contemporaries that they don’t with his work.

You can see it, too, in where people struggle with him. I tend to like the parts that people complain about the most. And detest things that blow past other people.

Aragorn patrolling dangerous countryside with a broken sword for one thing. How utterly, embarrassingly British. Something as portentous and mythical as that, reduced to a cheap subversion along the lines of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. The anti-Conan did not originate with Michael Moorcock’s Elric– no, it’s right here! And it’s preposterous.

Tom Bombadil, in contrast, has always been my favorite part. It’s Tolkien tipping his hat to the old fantasy he was about to pave over. It’s weird and wondrous. Marvelous and whimsical. Untainted by the coming pain and regret. It’s not fully explained, either. Even better, (and wacky fan theories aside) it plays havoc with the book’s painstakingly crafted mythos.

It’s the first thing to go when anyone tasked with retelling Frodo’s tale for today’s audiences begins the editing process. Because while people today love Tolkien, they hate fantasy. And it’s both his genius and his curse that he could produce a brand of it that is not so offensive to our modern, post-Christian culture.