top of page

Pegana and Ireland: the fantastic realms of Lord Dunsany

Tania Scott

An Irish upbringing is generally considered conducive to writing tales of the fantastic, as Donald Morse has said, "For many readers, the Irish and the fantastic are synonymous" (Morse, 1). Lord Dunsany, therefore, as an aristocrat who could trace his family back to the time of the Norman conquests in Ireland was perfectly placed to write some of the most memorable and unique fantasy stories of the twentieth century. In his short story "Idle Days on the Yann" the narrator says that: "I told how I came from Ireland, which is of Europe, whereat the captain and all the sailors laughed, for they said, "There are no such places in all the land of dreams""("Idle Days on the Yann", 146). This early story shows how at this point in his life Dunsany could not allow Ireland to become part of his imaginary worlds; it does not belong in his dreams. However, in later works, Ireland becomes more and more prominent as a setting and as a resource to be used imaginatively. Dunsany's background as a staunch Anglo-Irish Unionist during a period where the majority of the literati were nationalists complicates his relationship with the land of his ancestors, yet even in the early stories we can see the same themes appearing which so preoccupied his revival contemporaries. One aspect of Irish culture appears in his works through his concern with the importance of oral culture and the art of storytelling. In "The Bride of the Man-Horse" the narrator states that, "Not all of us have sat at historian's feet, but all have learned fable and myth at their mothers' knees" (187). Fable is therefore attractive to Dunsany due to its immediacy and its power to affect our emotions in a way that history cannot.

Dunsany's most commercially successful works were also his earliest creations, the Gods of Pegana series of stories. Even at this point in his career we can clearly identify themes that will occupy his later work, particularly, as the title suggests, Dunsany's fascination with Paganism. The cosmology is fascinating and is based on ancient myth such as the tales of the Greek and Egyptian deities although it is set in a fantastic land: "There be islands in the Central Sea, whose waters are bounded by no shore and where no ships come - this is the faith of their people" (3). There are gods of day and night, life and death but also small gods of the home and the breadth of Dunsany's imagination astonishes the reader. Throughout these stories man seems almost inconsequential, a footnote on the lives of the Gods. He is controlled by Fate or Chance although the two appear to be indistinguishable: "Who was it that won the cast, and whether it was Fate or whether Chance that went through the mists before the Beginning to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI - none knoweth" (3). Thus the Gods play a huge part in Dunsany's early stories, but already he has begun to find older, pagan beliefs more palatable to his imagination than monist religions such as Christianity. In this he echoes the movement of figures like Yeats and Lady Gregory who during the Irish Literary Revival looked back to a pre-Christian Ireland as a point of unification for protestant and catholic communities.

The Christian and the Pagan conflict most strongly and to greatest effect in those of Dunsany's works which are set in Ireland. In two novels, The Curse of the Wise Woman and The Story of Mona Sheehy, Paganism is shown to be a continuing influence on Irish culture. Yet the people of these novels are not Pagans, they are torn between their ancient Pagan beliefs and their more recent loyalty to Catholic doctrine: "I seemed for a while to be hovering between two worlds, that both claimed the same area of Ireland. I see, now, that I was wrong, I see now that Tir-nan-Og is contrary to everything we have been taught, and I know that there are no spirits haunting the bog for any other purpose than to mislead us" (The Curse of the Wise Woman, 43). In this novel, although the narrator does choose to abandon the older beliefs which endanger his soul according to Christian doctrine, the beautiful descriptions of the 'other' realms make the reader wonder whether he made the right choice. In The Story of Mona Sheehy a young girl's life is controlled by the community's refusal to give up their pagan beliefs. It is believed that she is a child of the Shee and as such is put through a number of trials and tribulations, and the black humour comes from the fact that the reader is perfectly aware throughout that Mona is unquesetionably mortal. The criticism here is not of the Church, nor of older pagan beliefs but of allowing unthinking obedience to any kind of ritual or doctrine control lives.

Ireland as a setting appeals to Dunsany not only due to his fascination with Paganism but it also allows for him to concentrate on the power of the rural environment. The mechanization that occurred during Dunsany's lifetime was a constant concern for the author:

For our age is full of new problems that we have not as yet found time to understand, that bewilder us and absorb us, the gift of matter enthroned and endowed by man with life; I mean iron vitalised by steam, and rushing from city to city and owning men for its slaves. I know of the boons that machinery has conferred on men, all tyrants have boons to confer, but service to the dynasty of steam and steel is a hard service and gives little leisure to fancy to flit from field to field. (Dunsany qtd in Joshi, 56)

The increased mechanisation of the era in which he lived felt, for Dunsany, like it was constricting his imagination. Dunsany believed that man was losing his organic connection with nature, yet this could still be found in rural Ireland: "we have all one thing in common with oak trees, the need of some soil to love, and though we are able to travel far away from it, and to spend years in cities, yet it is not so with our hearts; they send down tendrils deep into that soil, and pine when they are transplanted" (198). Ireland provides a link to the ancient past, but a link that in Dunsany's time was still vibrant and real. As Dunsany admits in The Story of Mona Sheehy the Irish cultural past is always found in those living in the present: "like many an Irish mind, hers was stored with legends of kings at the head of the table in the long hall at Tara, which with her were as good as memories" (235).

With the Irish past so embedded in the minds of his characters, it is unsurprising that Dunsany is concerned with the image of the hero that is so important to Irish myth. Unlike Finn, Dunsany's characters do not live forever, yet they achieve immortality through fame:

At the end of that avenue was a colossal chariot with three bronze horses driven by the winged figure of Fame, and behind her in the chariot the huge form of Welleran, Merimna's ancient hero, standing with extended sword. So urgent was the mien and attitude of Fame, and so swift the pose of the horses, that you had sworn that the chariot was instantly upon you, and that its dust already veiled the faces of the Kings. ("The Sword of Welleran" 89)

Dunsany's stories abound in mighty warriors taking on impossible odds, yet there is always a level of irony to these tales. Dunsany rejects the cult of violence inherent in tales of Finn and Cuchulain, as can be seen in the ending of "The Sword of Welleran" where a young man, Rold, is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of ancient heroes and made to fight against the enemy. When he sees what he has done rather than rejoicing at his victory in battle he is stricken with remorse:

'O sword, sword! How horrible thou art! Thou art a terrible thing to have come among men. How many eyes shall look upon gardens no more because of thee!'

'And the tears of Rold fell down upon the proud sword but could not wash it clean.' (102)

Dunsany's heroes, like those of many earlier writers, often undertake a quest to prove their worth. However, there is always a highly ironic element in these quests which generally end in disaster or disillusionment. The short story "Carcassonne" gives us a satire of the quest narrative: "And Arleon told how many goodly perils were round about the city, and how the way was unknown, and it was a knightly venture. Then all the warriors stood up and sang of the splendour of the venture. And Camorak swore by the gods that had builded Arn, and by the honour of his warriors that, alive or dead, he would come to Carcassonne" (206). Thus the warriors from the very beginning are shown to be foolish; they go to Carcassonne simply because it has been prophesied that they cannot and it is a 'knightly venture'. Yet the story is told with a large amount of sympathy for the heroes who are so utterly destroyed by the quest they have undertaken: "But the wanderers were cheered in their wandering by the hope of coming to Carcassonne, and later on by anger against Fate, and at last they marched on still because it seemed better to march on than to think" (212). Similarly, in "In the Land of Time" the King rejects the fighting side of the heroic nature:

I will not go down clad with murder to be King over other lands. I have seen the same morning arising on Istahn that also gladdened Alatta, and have heard Peace lowing among the flowers. I will not desolate homes to rule over an orphaned land and a land widowed. (63)

However, the King only undertakes an even more pointless battle, one against time itself.

Dunsany's continued questioning of the heroic is probably at least in part due to a rejection of the use of ancient heroic ideals by Irish nationalists. Patrick Pearse often evoked the heroic image of Cuchulain to lend weight to his nationalist cause. When he founded a school for boys in 1908 he hung the hero's motto in the hall: "I care not if I were to live but one night and one day if only my fame and my deeds live after me." (Williams, 319) Dunsany's ironic portrayals of the heroic show the dangers of adopting ancient ideals and using them uncritically in modern situations. The literature of the Revival was similarly fascinated with the heroic and when all his poetic images desert him in "The Tower" Yeats clings to his hero: "Go therefore; but leave Hanrahan, / For I need all his mighty memories."("The Tower," II ll. 87-88). Yet the poet admits that Hanrahan is just another created symbol that has no power to comfort one in one's old age. Yeats himself in later years becomes concerned with using ancient ideals of the heroic in modern, real situations: "When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / What stalked through the Post Office?" ("The Statues", ll25-26).

Dunsany, who was wounded by rebels in 1916, was naturally concerned about the tendency of literature to be used in Ireland to promote nationalist agendas: "Perhaps I should say that I am no part at all of the Irish movement in art. No poet should be a part of any movement... I am not interested in depicting Irish condition; what matters with me is the condition of man, not in his relation to governments, as they are, or should be, but solely in relation to Destiny" (Interview in the New York Times, October 12th 1919 qtd in Joshi, 184). This may seem rather naive to the modern reader but can be seen as a frustrated reaction to the confusion of public and personal art during the Revival. In fact Dunsany almost came to relish his status as an outsider to the Irish literati, as can be seen in the following caustic letter to Yeats:

I hope you will not attribute to parsimony my neglect to send you one or two pounds for the poet under thirty. But you ask for it from men sufficiently eminent, and there can be no doubt that in Ireland, which is all that we are now considering, no eminence has been accorded to me, and my work counts as less in Ireland than the work of almost every Irishman who does any of the things that I do. I am not complaining of this, and I do not think it has been ascertained that recognition in an artist's own country does him any good whatever; but I am ineligible as a subscriber to this fund. (Dunsany in a letter to Yeats, qtd in Finneran, 458).

Dunsany therefore had a tempestuous relationship with his fellow Irishmen, not least the great W.B. Yeats. In Yeats's introduction to a selection of Dunsany's writing he comments on his admiration for and simultaneous exasperation with his fellow author:

When I was first moved by Lord Dunsany's work I thought that he would more help this change if he could bring his imagination into the old Irish legendary world instead of those magic lands of his with their vague Eastern air; but even as I urged him I knew that he could not, without losing his rich beauty of careless suggestion, and the persons and images that for ancestry have all these romantic ideas that are somewhere in the background of all our minds. He could not have made Slieve-na-Mon nor Slieve Fua incredible and phantastic enough, because that prolonged study of a past age, necessary before he could separate them from modern association, would have changed the spontaneity of his mood to something learned, premeditated, and scientific." (Yeats's introduction to Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany (1912) qtd in Joshi, 180).

Interestingly enough, this is exactly what occurs as Dunsany in his later novels does indeed renounce the purely fantastic in order to deal with Irish cultural and mythic heritage.

For Dunsany, Ireland is a land of conflicting images; the love that he had for the country that has been home for his family since the 12th century contrasts with his feelings as an outsider to the political climate of the 20th century. In one of his biographies he comments on what Ireland means to him:

Green fields, castles, politics and old stones, of which I have told in these pages are far from the real Ireland. The real Ireland is a land of dreams... And if we are not looking at the stars as we walk, or looking for them at broad noon, we are looking back over our shoulders at what has gone ages since, and peering back even further through the mist and haze of Time, to see bright and clear in the radiance, that shines from our vivid dreams, the kings and the heroes of days that never were. And that we shall part with last of all."(Dunsany qtd in Joshi, 201)

Whether his stories and novels are set in rural Ireland or Pagana, they are infused with the Celtic myths and legends of his native land. In the prose poem "The Raft-Builders" the narrator states that, "All we who write put me in mind of sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships" (198). Dunsany never gained critical acceptance from his contemporaries, yet now that we perhaps have more distance from the "doomed ships" than earlier critics, we can start to appreciate Dunsany's unique input to the Literary Revival and indeed Irish literature as a whole for the first half of the twentieth century.

Works Cited

Dunsany, Lord. In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales. Ed. S.T. Joshi. London: Penguin, 2004.

---. The Curse of the Wise Woman. London: Collins, 1972.

---. The Story of Mona Sheehy. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1939.

---. Letters to W.B. Yeats Volume II. Eds. Harper and Murphy Finnerman. London: MacMillan, 1977.

Joshi, S.T. Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Morse, Donald and Bertha. Eds. More Real than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the Arts. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Williams, Martin. "Ancient Mythology and Revolutionary Ideology in Ireland, 1878-1916." The Historical Journal, 26.2 (June 1983): 307-328.

Yeats, W.B. The Poems. Ed. Daniel Albright. London: Everyman, 2004.

bottom of page