The Magazine

A Clubbable Man

Lord Dunsany's fantastic tales of Joseph Jorkens, the club storyteller, come back into print.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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The Collected Jorkens

Volume 1

by Lord Dunsany

Nightshade, 343 pp., $35

YOUNG AUTHORS typically display a brittle, cheeky glibness--or aspire to ziggurats of erudition and stylistic panache. The last thing a writer wants to be called, at twenty-five, is charming. And yet readers, particularly as they grow older, always return most happily to charming books, especially the ones they knew during their schooldays and adolescence. What did that sophisticate Noel Coward read in his last years? The Edwardian children's novels of E. Nesbit. Ask any older man or woman to choose a favorite work of fiction and the titles that come tripping from the tongue are likely to be The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland, M.R. James's ghost stories and Agatha Christie's whodunits, the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne and the comedies of P.G. Wodehouse.

All these share a distinctive late-Victorian character, evoking a gas-lit 1895, even those set in the 1920s or later: country houses and hansom cabs, the Pax Britannica, the age-old routines of vicars and viceroys, a time of intrepid exploration by the sandy-haired into the far corners of the globe. You don't read such books so much as settle into them. Such cozy narratives may be derided as imperialist or antiquated, the stuff of sentimental fiction or of boys' adventures. But, at heart, many offer the purest form of storytelling: tales of wonder, tales of the unexpected. And few writers have been more brilliant at this game than Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the eighteenth Baron Dunsany.

Born in 1878 and living until 1957, Lord Dunsany is to modern fantasy what H.P. Lovecraft is to horror fiction and Georgette Heyer to the Regency romance: a major author within a minor--and often-disdained--branch of literature. Typically such genre writers, even the greatest, find themselves the object of cults rather than the subject of dissertations; their readers call themselves fans, and none of their books is ever taught in Literature 101. Yet when people ask for Something Good to Read, these are the authors that friends recommend.

Dunsany's most famous novel, The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), remains a touchstone of lyrical fantasy; in it Prince Alveric crosses into the timeless land of faery, "beyond the fields we know," to win the love of the beautiful Lirazel and bring her back to his home. Distraught, her father uses one of his last two magic runes to waft his beloved child back to Elfland. It is a wonderfully touching story of loss and yearning, and of the ultimate return of magic to our world.

Though he was to publish more than sixty books of fiction, poetry, memoirs, and plays, Lord Dunsany established his reputation with his early fantasy collections: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908). In them he boldly outlines a new mythology and its deities, depicting the pantheon and geography of a land called Pegana in decorated, ornate prose.

The style is utterly and deliberately artificial, and readers either take immediately to its musicality and languorous phrasings or find it all slightly absurd. I love this orotund Dunsany for a page or two, then tire of the twee, fin-de-siècle biblicality: "There arises a river in Pegana that is neither a river of water nor yet a river of fire, and it flows through the skies and the Worlds to the Rim of the Worlds--a river of silence. Through all the Worlds are sounds, the noises of moving, and the echoes of voices and song; but upon the River is no sound ever heard, for there all echoes die." Beautiful and atmospheric, yes; but a little goes a long way.

DUNSANY eventually turned away from descriptions of the gods' realm to chronicle "little adventures at the edge of the world," many of them tales of swords and sorcery or marvels out of The Arabian Nights. The tone of The Book of Wonder (1912), for instance, is drier and more ironic--as in "The Hoard of the Gibbelins," a story that opens: "The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man."

Indeed, few writers can better tantalize a reader's imagination with an enigmatic lead sentence. Try: "When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude." That's from "Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men," and who wouldn't want to hear more? Like many others, this story is even further enhanced--at least in its original printing--by the unsettling artwork of the author's regular illustrator, S.H. Sime.