A bit over a month ago, I decided to read a few of Lord Dunsany’s plays after reading Lovecraft’s glowing review of them in Supernatural Horror in Literature. The plays are wonderfully eerie and capture the spirit of ancient myths and folktales, in which people sin against the Gods, and the Gods, in a pissy mood, bring divine justice against the sinners.
Dunsany’s most influential works relating to ancient myths are his Pegana1 stories, within which a complete fictional pantheon and its associated mythology are constructed. Below is the cover of the Chaosium edition, which collects all of Dunsany’s tales of Pegana:
The Complete Pegana combines three of Dunsany’s collections: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), and three later stories grouped as Beyond the Fields We Know.
In a word, these tales are magnificent! There have been plenty of authors who have created their own fictional mythos, but I can’t think of any other who so perfectly captures the spirit of ancient myths and bends that spirit to his own purposes.
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) , born Edward Plunkett, was a prolific Anglo-Irish author and playwright who inherited his father’s title and estate in 1899. Though he had written minor works beforehand, The Gods of Pegana was his first major success, and he followed it up with Time and the Gods soon after. These stories were undeniably an influence on H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien and, as we note below, Fletcher Pratt.
The books are collections of short parables and myths describing the fictional world of Pegana, its rather mean-spirited and neurotic deities, and its prophets and kings. The Gods of Pegana begins with short tales describing each of the gods and the tale of creation, and evolve into tales of the prophets and kings and their interactions with the fickle gods.
Above all other gods is MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, who I can describe no more concisely than Dunsany in the introductory tale of The Gods of Pegana:
Before there stood gods upon Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah, had wrought and rested MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI.
There are in Pegana Mung and Sish and Kib, and the maker of all small gods, who is MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. Moreover, we have a faith in Roon and Slid.
And it has been said of old that all things that have been were wrought by the small gods, excepting only MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, who made the gods and hath thereafter rested.
And none may pray to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI but only the gods whom he hath made.
But at the Last will MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI forget to rest, and will make again new gods and other worlds, and will destroy the gods whom he hath made.
And the gods and the worlds shall depart, and there shall be only MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI.
Even the gods fear MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, for when he awakens, he will destroy all and begin again. The lesser gods who M-Y-S created include Kib, who created all life as a game, Sish, the destroyer of hours, and Mung, lord of all deaths. Therefore time hangs over the heads of even the gods, who know that one day they too will end.
By the beginning of Time and the Gods, the parables have become much more lengthy and much more pointed. Dunsany was clearly agnostic, if not atheistic, and he had a deep mistrust of organized religion. The parables, told as religious teachings which are also anti-religious, have an ironic beauty to them that is quite unique. In The Vengeance of Men, for instance, the cruel tricks of the gods on humanity are rewarded with an act that even the gods fear. In For the Honour of the Gods, an island nation which has lived in peace and godlessness learns the price of becoming one of the faithful. In The Relenting of Sardinac, a begger learns what it means to be a god. One of the tales, The Men of Yarnith, is such a beautiful parable of non-belief that I have to reprint it in its entirety at the end of the post.
It is not difficult to see the influence which Dunsany had upon those who came after him. Lovecraft praised Dunsany’s work regularly, and it is indisputable that his intricate Cthulhu mythos owes its existence directly to Dunsany’s Pegana. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated January 11, 1923, Lovecraft writes:
I am glad you like Dunsany — whose merits I have never been able to point out either to Loveman of Galpin. I certainly was under his influence in the winter of 1919-20 — I never had greater joy than in discovering him one day in September 1919! Celephais, Sarnath, Iranon, White Ship, — & The Other Gods, which you have not yet seen,. are my most Dunsanian things. I may yet have occasional returns to that mood, for the charm of Dunsany is endless — as I tried to “put across” in a lecture to one of the amateur journalist clubs in Boston last month. I have read everything of Dunsany’s except his new novel — which I have just bought & mean to digest as soon as I get a second to do it in. Of Dunsany I like best of all the Dreamer’s Tales. Plays hold me less than stories, & Dunsany’s newer work has less appeal because of the increasing note of visible irony, humour, & sophistication. I hope that Don Rodriguez represents a return to the earlier mood. I saw Dunsany in 1919, when he lectured in Boston. He is the most wholesome & delightful person imaginable.
It is not unreasonable to assume that Clark Ashton Smith, another creator of a vivid fantasy world, was also inspired by Dunsany! As Lovecraft notes, Dunsany’s style evolved away from, and never quite returned to, the style of his early Pegana stories.
This hardly had any negative impact on Lovecraft’s opinion. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he nearly runs out of superlatives:
Unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world of iridescently exotic vision, is Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Eighteenth Baron Dunsany, whose tales and short plays form an almost unique element in our literature. Inventor of a new mythology and weaver of surprising folklore, Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty, and pledged to eternal warfare against the coarseness and ugliness of diurnal reality. His point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period. As sensitive as Poe to dramatic values and the significance of isolated words and details, and far better equipped rhetorically through a simple lyric style based on the prose of the King James Bible, this author draws with tremendous effectiveness on nearly every body of myth and legend within the circle of European culture; producing a composite or eclectic cycle of phantasy in which Eastern colour, Hellenic form, Teutonic sombreness and Celtic wistfulness are so superbly blended that each sustains and supplements the rest without sacrifice or perfect congruity and homogeneity. In most cases Dunsany’s lands are fabulous — “beyond the East,” or “at the edge of the world.” His system of original personal and place names, with roots drawn from classical, Oriental, and other sources, is a marvel of versatile inventiveness and poetic discrimination; as one may see from such specimens as “Argimenes,” “Bethmoora,” “Poltarnees,” “Camorak,” “Iluriel,” or “Sardathrion.”
Beauty rather than terror is the keynote of Dunsany’s work. He loves the vivid green of jade and of copper domes, and the delicate flush of sunset on the ivory minarets of impossible dream-cities. Humour and irony, too, are often present to impart a gentle cynicism and modify what might otherwise possess a naïve intensity. Nevertheless, as is inevitable in a master of triumphant unreality, there are occasional touches of cosmic fright which come well within the authentic tradition. Dunsany loves to hint slyly and adroitly of monstrous things and incredible dooms, as one hints in a fairy tale.
Coincidentally, Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn (which I just read recently) also owes inspiration to another bit of Dunsany’s work, as acknowledged in a beginning note to the novel:
So in this other world, but that is an off-wandering; the need here is to provide a guide as far as the gate of our history, imaginary or real. A certain Irish chronicler named Dunsany caught some of the news from this nowhere and set it down under the style of “King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior,” but the events he cites took place generations before any told here, and he was only interested in a very small part of them, to it: the revolt of King Argimenes. The Irish chronicler did not tell that the revolt was against the heathen of Dzik, who burst in upon the Dalarnan lands with their gospel and sword in the days when men were living at peace and their problems all seemed solved; though he did say that, like all conquerors, these conquerors had become luxurious.
Pratt directly incorporated Dunsany’s story of King Argimenes from Five Plays into his own fictional history!
Dunsany’s Pegana stories are well worth looking into for any reader who has a love of fantasy, or even just a love of well-crafted prose. I’ll definitely be looking into Dunsany’s later work in future posts.
The complete texts of The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods can be read on project Gutenberg, though for me at least it’s one of those books which deserves to be read in print. As promised, below the break is the complete text of The Men of Yarnith.
1 Technically, “Pegana” should be spelled with a line over the first “a”, but for my own sanity I have not bothered to try and write it as “” every time.
THE MEN OF YARNITH
The men of Yarnith hold that nothing began until Yarni Zai uplifted his hand. Yarni Zai, they say, has the form of a man but is greater and is a thing of rock. When he uplifted his hand all the rocks that wandered beneath the Dome, by which name they call the sky, gathered together around Yarni Zai.
Of the other worlds they say nought, but hold that the stars are the eyes of all the other gods that look on Yarni Zai and laugh, for they are all greater than he, though they have gathered no worlds around them.
Yet though they be greater than Yarni Zai, and though they laugh at him when they speak together beneath the Dome, they all speak of Yarni Zai.
Unheard is the speaking of the gods to all except the gods, but the men of Yarnith tell of how their prophet Iraun lying in the sand desert, Azrakhan, heard once their speaking and knew thereby how Yarni Zai departed from all the other gods to clothe himself with rocks and make a world.
Certain it is that every legend tells that at the end of the valley of Yodeth, where it becomes lost among black cliffs, there sits a figure colossal, against a mountain, whose form is the form of a man with the right hand uplifted, but vaster than the hills. And in the Book of Secret Things which the prophets keep in the Temple that stands in Yarnith is writ the story of the gathering of the world as Iraun heard it when the gods spake together, up in the stillness above Azrakhan.
And all that read this may learn how Yarni Zai drew the mountains about him like a cloak, and piled the world below him. It is not set in writing for how many years Yarni Zai sat clothed with rocks at the end of the Valley of Yodeth, while there was nought in all the world save rocks and Yarni Zai.
But one day there came another god running over the rocks across the world, and he ran as the clouds run upon days of storm, and as he sped towards Yodeth, Yarni Zai, sitting against his mountain with right hand uplifted, cried out:
“What dost thou, running across my world, and whither art thou going?”
And the new god answered never a word, but sped onwards, and as he went to left of him and to right of him there sprang up green things all over the rocks of the world of Yarni Zai.
So the new god ran round the world and made it green, saying in the valley where Yarni Zai sat monstrous against his mountain and certain lands wherein Cradoa, the drought, browsed horribly at night.
Further, the writing in the book tells of how there came yet another god running speedily out of the east, as swiftly as the first, with his face set westward, and nought to stay his running; and how he stretched both arms outward beside him, and to left of him and to right of him as he ran the whole world whitened.
And Yarni Zai called out:
“What dost thou, running across my world?”
And the new god answered:
“I bring the snow for all the world–whiteness and resting and stillness.”
And he stilled the running of streams and laid his hand even upon the head of Yarni Zai and muffled the noises of the world, till there was no sound in all lands, but the running of the new god that brought the snow as he sped across the plains.
But the two new gods chased each other for ever round the world, and every year they passed again, running down the valleys and up the hills and away across the plains before Yarni Zai, whose hand uplifted had gathered the world about him.
And, furthermore, the very devout may read how all the animals came up the valley of Yodeth to the mountain whereon rested Yarni Zai, saying:
“Give us leave to live, to be lions, rhinoceroses and rabbits, and to go about the world.”
And Yarni Zai gave leave to the animals to be lions, rhinoceroses and rabbits, and all the other kinds of beasts, and to go about the world. But when they all had gone he gave leave to the bird to be a bird and to go about the sky.
And further there came a man into that valley who said:
“Yarni Zai, thou hast made animals into thy world. O Yarni Zai, ordain that there be men.”
So Yarni Zai made men.
Then was there in the world Yarni Zai, and two strange gods that brought the greenness and the growing and the whiteness and the stillness, and animals and men.
And the god of the greenness pursued the god of the whiteness, and the god of the whiteness pursued the god of the greenness, and men pursued animals, and animals pursued men. But Yarni Zai sat still against his mountain with his right hand uplifted. But the men of Yarnith say that when the arm of Yarni Zai shall cease to be uplifted the world shall be flung behind him, as a man’s cloak is flung away. And Yarni Zai, no longer clad with the world, shall go back into the emptiness beneath the Dome among the stars, as a diver seeking pearls goes down from the islands.
It is writ in Yarnith’s histories by scribes of old that there passed a year over the valley of Yarnith that bore not with it any rain; and the Famine from the wastes beyond, finding that it was dry and pleasant in Yarnith, crept over the mountains and down their slopes and sunned himself at the edge of Yarnith’s fields.
And men of Yarnith, labouring in the fields, found the Famine as he nibbled at the corn and chased the cattle, and hastily they drew water from deep wells and cast it over the Famine’s dry grey fur and drove him back to the mountains. But the next day when his fur was dry again the Famine returned and nibbled more of the corn and chased the cattle further, and again men drove him back. But again the Famine returned, and there came a time when there was no more water in the wells to frighten the Famine with, and he nibbled the corn till all of it was gone and the cattle that he chased grew very lean. And the Famine drew nearer, even to the houses of men and trampled on their gardens at night and ever came creeping nearer to their doors. At last the cattle were able to run no more, and one by one the Famine took them by their throats and dragged them down, and at night he scratched in the ground, killing even the roots of things, and came and peered in at the doorways and started back and peered in at the door again a little further, but yet was not bold enough to enter altogether, for fear that men should have water to throw over his dry grey fur.
Then did the men of Yarnith pray to Yarni Zai as he sat far off beyond the valley, praying to him night and day to call his Famine back, but the Famine sat and purred and slew all the cattle and dared at last to take men for his food.
And the histories tell how he slew children first and afterwards grew bolder and tore down women, till at last he even sprang at the throats of men as they laboured in the fields.
Then said the men of Yarnith:
“There must go one to take our prayers to the feet of Yarni Zai; for the world at evening utters many prayers, and it may be that Yarni Zai, as he hears all earth lamenting when the prayers at evening flutter to his feet, may have missed among so many the prayers of the men of Yarnith. But if one go and say to Yarni Zai: ‘There is a little crease in the outer skirts of thy cloak that men call the valley of Yarnith, where the Famine is a greater lord than Yarni Zai,’ it may be that he shall remember for an instant and call his Famine back.”
Yet all men feared to go, seeing that they were but men and Yarni Zai was Lord of the whole earth, and the journey was far and rocky. But that night Hothrun Dath heard the Famine whining outside his house and pawing at his door; therefore, it seemed to him more meet to wither before the glance of Yarni Zai than that the whining of that Famine should ever again fall upon his ears.
So about the dawn, Hothrun Dath crept away, fearing still to hear behind him the breathing of the Famine, and set out upon his journey whither pointed the graves of men. For men in Yarnith are buried with their feet and faces turned toward Yarni Zai, lest he might beckon to them in their night and call them to him.
So all day long did Hothrun Dath follow the way of the graves. It is told that he even journeyed for three days and nights with nought but the graves to guide him, as they pointed towards Yarni Zai where all the world slopes upwards towards Yodeth, and the great black rocks that are nearest to Yarni Zai lie gathered together by clans, till he came to the two great black pillars of asdarinth and saw the rocks beyond them piled in a dark valley, narrow and aloof, and knew that this was Yodeth. Then did he haste no more, but walked quietly up the valley, daring not to disturb the stillness, for he said:
“Surely this is the stillness of Yarni Zai, which lay about him before he clothed himself with rocks.”
Here among the rocks which first had gathered to the call of Yarni Zai, Hothrun Dath felt a mighty fear, but yet went onwards because of all his people and because he knew that thrice in every hour in some dark chamber Death and Famine met to speak two words together, “The End.”
But as dawn turned the darkness into grey, he came to the valley’s end, and even touched the foot of Yarni Zai, but saw him not, for he was all hidden in the mist. Then Hothrun Dath feared that he might not behold him to look him in the eyes when he sent up his prayer. But laying his forehead against the foot of Yarni Zai he prayed for the men of Yarnith, saying:
“O Lord of Famine and Father of Death, there is a spot in the world that thou hast cast about thee which men call Yarnith, and there men die before the time thou hast apportioned, passing out of Yarnith. Perchance the Famine hath rebelled against thee, or Death exceeds his powers. O Master of the World, drive out the Famine as a moth out of thy cloak, lest the gods beyond that regard thee with their eyes say–there is Yarni Zai, and lo! his cloak is tattered.”
And in the mist no sign made Yarni Zai. Then did Hothrun Dath pray to Yarni Zai to make some sign with his uplifted hand that he might know he heard him. In the awe and silence he waited, until nigh the dawn the mist that hid the figure rolled upwards. Serene above the mountains he brooded over the world, silent, with right hand uplifted.
What Hothrun Dath saw there upon the face of Yarni Zai no history telleth, or how he came again alive to Yarnith, but this is writ that he fled, and none hath since beheld the face of Yarni Zai. Some say that he saw a look on the face of the image that set a horror tingling through his soul, but it is held in Yarnith that he found the marks of instruments of carving about the figure’s feet, and discerning thereby that Yarni Zai was wrought by the hands of men, he fled down the valley screaming:
“There are no gods, and all the world is lost.” And hope departed from him and all the purposes of life. Motionless behind him, lit by the rising sun, sat the colossal figure with right hand uplifted that man had made in his own image.
But the men of Yarnith tell how Hothrun Dath came back again panting to his own city, and told the people that there were no gods and that Yarnith had no hope from Yarni Zai. Then the men of Yarnith when they knew that the Famine came not from the gods, arose and strove against him. They dug deep for wells, and slew goats for food high up on Yarnith’s mountains and went afar and gathered blades of grass, where yet it grew, that their cattle might live. Thus they fought the Famine, for they said: “If Yarni Zai be not a god, then is there nothing mightier in Yarnith than men, and who is the Famine that he should bare his teeth against the lords of Yarnith?”
And they said: “If no help cometh from Yarni Zai then is there no help but from our own strength and might, and we be Yarnith’s gods with the saving of Yarnith burning within us or its doom according to our desire.”
And some more the Famine slew, but others raised their hands saying: “These be the hands of gods,” and drave the Famine back till he went from the houses of men and out among the cattle, and still the men of Yarnith pursued him, till above the heat of the fight came the million whispers of rain heard faintly far off towards evening. Then the Famine fled away howling back to the mountains and over the mountains’ crests, and became no more than a thing that is told in Yarnith’s legends.
A thousand years have passed across the graves of those that fell in Yarnith by the Famine. But the men of Yarnith still pray to Yarni Zai, carved by men’s hands in the likeness of a man, for they say–“It may be that the prayers we offer to Yarni Zai may roll upwards from his image as do the mists at dawn, and somewhere find at last the other gods or that God who sits behind the others of whom our prophets know not.”
I adore Dunsany. Thanks for this, and for letting me about the collection!
Had heard the name but never read anything by him. I will now. And that parable will stick with me…
I first read C.A. Smith and Dunsany when I was in high school, and every now again I return to their stories. I like ornate and visionary language.
A good essay and introduction you have written here.
Thanks! I only knew of Dunsany’s work second-hand until I read it for this post, and I was genuinely moved by many of the tales in it, which caught me completely off-guard.