As fall advances and the nights grow longer here in the Northern Hemisphere, I’ve been reading and thinking more about horror authors. Previously, we’ve discussed authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and, more recently, Robert E. Howard, both of which have left an enormous footprint in the speculative horror and fantasy worlds. In researching both, a common name comes up: Lord Dunsany.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, was born on July 24, 1878, and would become one of the fantasy genre’s foundational authors. Part of a Royal family in Ireland, Dunsany spent much of his early life at Dunsany Castle, one of Ireland’s longest-inhabited homes. The family was not one for tradition: According to biographer Mark Amory, the family often traveled abroad, married foreigners and sought out other careers rather than simply live off of their assets.
From an early age, Dunsany found a taste for the fantastic, reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as the Holy Bible and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His education varied throughout his teenage years, moving from school to tutor, eventually attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he dabbled in some writing. In 1899, his father died and Dunsany joined the military, becoming part of the Coldstream Guards’ 1st Battalion. Shortly after his entry into the military, he was deployed to Gibraltar, where he saw combat. While in Africa, he met author Rudyard Kipling.
Leaving military service in 1901, Dunsany returned home to Ireland, where he hunted and eventually married, and began to take up writing seriously. He had been connected to various members of the Irish literary renaissance, and was generally encouraged to pursue the arts. He began to create the fantastic world of Pegana, influenced by a variety of foreign religions and folklores.
Dunsany worked to create not only the geography, but also the history and cosmology of Pegana, and is described by Diana Waggoner’s The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy as “not much like the world of the Oriental tale or the Arabian Nights, because it is not experienced, but envisioned. Fantasy, dream, adventure, nostalgia, and horror are far more closely entwined than in any other author, except, of course, by his imitators.” A full collection of the tales were published in 1905 as The Gods of Pegana, commissioned by Dunsany, where it has since been described as one of the first works of fantasy literature, despite some flaws in its execution.
Reviewers praised The Gods of Pegana, and bolstered by his success, Dunsany continued to write, publishing another collection of stories titled Time and the Gods a year later. The follow-up collection received considerably more acclaim than its predecessor, and is notable for improvements in its prose and plotting. The year of 1908 brought another collection of stories, The Sword of Welleran, which marked a change in material for Dunsany, featuring human characters in addition to his more fantastic creations, and is generally noted for further refinement in his writing style. Dunsany would publish several additional collections over the next decade: A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-One Tales (1915), Tales of Wonder (1916) and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919), all of which continued his stories of Pegana.
Dunsany’s writing career was interrupted with the onset of World War I, and having previously served in the British military, he was eager to rejoin. Dunsany volunteered and was attached to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 5th Battalion as a Captain, serving in Ireland, where he was wounded during the Easter Rebellion in 1916, before being sent off to France in 1917. He was struck by the dismal nature of the front lines and trenches in France, impressions similar to that of fellow fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. He returned home at the end of the war and continued to write, and then spent the next couple of years traveling. From 1919-1920, he toured the United States, where he met a young Rhode Island author named H.P. Lovecraft. In 1924, he was part of a delegation of authors to Czechoslovakia, along with science fiction author H.G. Wells.
From the 1920s, Dunsany shifted his focus from short story collections to novels. The first, Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, an adventure story set in Spain, was published in 1922. This was followed in 1924 by The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a second-world fantasy influenced by the likes of William Morris’ writings, and has since become one of Dunsany’s more well-known stories, influencing numerous authors who followed. 1926 brought a second Chronicles of the Shadow Valley novel, The Charwoman’s Shadow, and he continued with The Blessing of Pan in 1927, The Curse of the Wise Woman in 1933 and My Talks with Dean Spanley in 1936.
Throughout the 1930s, Dunsany once again shifted focus, and created a character known as Joseph Jorkens, featured in a series of fantastic adventure stories set in London gentleman’s clubs. Five of these volumes—The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (1931), Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934), Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (1940), The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947) and Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (1954)—were published in his lifetime, with a final volume, The Last Book of Jorkens, released half a century later in 2002. The books were popular, garnering attention from the public and from other authors, such as Rudyard Kipling, whom he had met years before.
In 1940, Dunsany taught English in Athens, Greece, but was evacuated due to the onslaught of World War II. Thereafter, he served as a volunteer in local defense forces. He continued to write throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s before passing away in 1957 as a result of appendicitis.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact that Dunsany had in the fantasy genre, and he remains one of the literary movement’s most notable figures, influencing many authors who would become major figures in and of themselves. Authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard noted their appreciation and influence of the man, with Lovecraft saying of The King of Elfland’s Daughter: “Inventor of a new mythology and weaver of surprising folklore, Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty.”
Other authors whom Dunsany inspired include J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Margaret St. Clair, Jack Vance, Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman, chiefly due to his works that fashioned new and exotic worlds that were separate from our own. Dunsany has since been called the “Father of Genre Fantasy” by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. His fantastic stories help to bridge the gap between the fantasy genre’s earlier roots—the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and William MacDonald—and their modern counterparts, authors like Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft, who have, in turn, continued to inspire authors through to the present day.