In the Land of Time: And Other Fantasy Tales by Lord Dunsany
In In the Land of Time: And Other Fantasy Tales (1986), literary critic and editor S.T. Joshi has compiled a large collection of Lord Dunsany’s short fiction that spans fifty years and is representative of his entire oeuvre. As someone who is not well-acquainted with the writings of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), I found this collection to be both an excellent resource and an enjoyable read. I especially appreciate the opportunity to listen to this in audiobook format, thanks to Tantor Audio who has recently released an audio edition which is 17 hours long and is beautifully narrated by Steven Crossley.
After giving us an informative introduction, Joshi has arranged Dunsany’s stories into six sections. The first and longest section, which he calls Pegana and Environs, contains Dunsany’s stories about Pegana, an imaginative land inhabited and controlled by a cast of remote and frivolous gods. These fables, written in a formal and elaborate style and often sounding like the King James Bible, are slightly reminiscent of the tales about the Greek and Roman pantheons (yet more amusing) and include origin stories as well as tales of the gods meddling with humans and amongst themselves. While reading them I found myself thinking of Tanith Lee’s TALES FROM THE FLAT EARTH and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
There’s a feeling of playfulness and irony that pervades the Pegana stories which, as Joshi suggests, may be related to Dunsany’s concurrent reading of Nietzsche. The stories in this section are:
- The Gods of Pegana
- Time and the Gods
- The Legend of the Dawn
- In the Land of Time
- The Relenting of Sarnidac
- The Fall of Babbulkund
The next section is called Tales of Wonder and contains a sampling of stories that are different from those found in Dunsany’s 1916 book titled Tales of Wonder. In this section Joshi has included:
- The Sword of Welleran
- The Kith of the Elf-Folk
- The Ghosts
- The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth
- Idle Days on the Yann
- A Shop in Go-by Street
- The Avenger of Perdóndaris
- The Bride of the Man-Horse
In these stories we visit many exotic places and meet a sentient sword, a creature who asks for a soul but ends up regretting it, a man who sets out to prove that ghosts don’t exist, singing flowers that are the dreams of poets, a wise talking cat, and a centaur. I liked the style, content, and diversity of these stories better than the Pegana fables.
The third section contains several Prose Poems:
- Where the Tides Ebb and Flow
- The Raft Builders
- The Prayer of the Flowers
- The Workman
- The City
These are very short, most just a couple of minutes in the audiobook version. Here we meet a man whose dead body keeps getting re-buried while he’s aware of it, a man who falls off a scaffolding and tries to carve his name on the way down, and a king who swears to visit a city that a prophecy claims he’ll never reach. Some of these poems are clever, some are thoughtful. They’re all beautifully written. “Roses,” a poem of only a few lines, is a good example of one of Dunsany’s common themes — that nature will continue to thrive long after humans manage to exterminate themselves.
The fourth section, titled Fantasy and Reality, contains:
- The Wonderful Window
- The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap
- The City on Mallington Moor
- The Bureau d’Echange de Maux
- The Exiles’ Club
- Thirteen at Table
- The Last Dream of Bwona Khubla
These stories were my favorites. One is about a very expensive window that looks out onto a captivating imaginary city. Another is about a businessman who, with half of his brain, competently and logically does his job and, with the other half of his brain, lives in his own fantasy world. In another story we visit a city that only appears when you drink rum, and in another, we visit a shop where traders can swap the bad things that happen to them. There are some repetitive elements in these stories, but they’re all clever and amusing.
Dunsany wrote over 150 stories that have been collected as The Jorkens Tales and Joshi provides five in the fifth section (called Jorkens). Joseph Jorkens is a (fictional) member of a London gentlemen’s club who is known for the tall tales which he can be induced to begin if one of the club members buys him a drink. The Jorkens tales that Joshi has chosen for this collection are:
- The Tale of the Abu Laheeb (the first Jorkens story)
- Our Distant Cousins
- The Walk to Lingham
- The Development of the Rillswood Estate
- A Life’s Work
Jorkens tells the fantastical tales as if they’re true, so his listeners are never quite sure how much to believe. In these tales, Jorkens visits Mars, puts an elephant in a matchbox, gets chased by a tree, and explains how the man who just rode by their club in a carriage is actually a satyr. These stories were a lot of fun and I’ll be seeking out more of the Jorkens tales soon.
The final section is called Some Late Tales (because they were written later in Dunsany’s life) and includes:
- The Policeman’s Prophecy
- The Two Bottles of Relish
- The Cut
- Helping the Fairies
- The Romance of His Life
- The Pirate of the Round Pond
This is a diverse set where we see what would happen to London if all the humans were gone, we solve a murder that involves a relish-eating vegetarian, we watch a dog start putting on airs, we witness the consequences of offending “the little people,” and we watch some meddlesome boys use torpedoes to sink toy boats on a public pond. These stories, which wouldn’t be classified as fantasy, are entertaining and sometimes exude sardonic social commentary.
It’s easy to see why Lord Dunsany was such an important influence on Tolkien, Lovecraft, Le Guin, Moorcock, and others fantasy writers. Any reader who is interested in the history of fantasy literature should become familiar with Lord Dunsany’s writings and In the Land of Time: And Other Fantasy Tales is the perfect method for doing so. Tantor Audio’s new edition is exquisitely performed by Steven Crossley. I highly recommend it.