In fantasy, I've seen magic used in many ways: as plot device, curio, religious allegory, and the personification of morals, but rarely do I find a book where magic is truly magical. Too often, it's a convenience, a cliche, but for Dunsany, magic is pervasive, mysterious, unknowable, and lovely. He captures a sense of the 'sublime': something so unbelievably beautiful that it becomes overwhelming, even frightening.
Dunsany wrote his stories with a handmade quill in a single draft. His language is a precise and delicate thing: a crystal skein from which he suspends his story. The descriptions are constantly turning and surprising, glinting with unexpected revelations, so that the whole of his world, from the most mundane to the fantastical teems with sorcerous possibility.
His magic does not delineate between the knowledge of farmers and that of wizards. Beneath the surface, it is known in varying ways to all, and each has the sense that at any unlooked-for moment, it might bubble up into their own lives, should they look too long at its mysteries. These things we cannot control and cannot understand might snatch us up in a wayward minute, and cast us adrift within a terrible beauty.
It is here we see the inspiration Lovecraft drew from Dunsany: the unfathomable world lurking just beneath our own, kept at bay only by intense mediocrity. For Lovecraft and Dunsany, it is the artist and musician who catch the true notes of the beyond and give mankind the gift of a more palatable version, like blue-eyed blues.
However, the danger of Dunsany's mysteries is not the deadliness of Lovecraft's, instead the great fear is that we should love something too much--that we should see something which from that moment, we can never shake free, but remain ever after haunted and seduced. Like Milton's Satan, the danger is not that evil should destroy us, but that we should come to understand its mind: to sympathize with a devil.
Dunsany's dances freely with heathenry--his magic is not Tolkien's Christian allegory, but mocks austerity and fears any death that would bring on the overwhelming awe of Heaven. There are some downright sacrilegious sentiments for those who fall in love with magic, gladly forsaking their humanity and their souls.
Yet magic is not opposed to religion, it is simply unconcerned with the small, somber moments of mankind. These are remote, incompatible worlds, not sides of a coin. The town priest says as much, warning the villagers that all things of Elfland are cursed in the eyes of God, they have never even had a possibility of salvation, for they were not made by God, and are unrelated to Him and his aims.
Yet religion is not the central theme here, nor does the book take it much more seriously than the galloping trolls. What is interesting because is how much it differs from most fantasy, where magic is the personification of one or another chivalric ideal, heathen ideals long since taken in by monotheism.
This isn't to say that the Dunsany doesn't in some ways praise chivalry. It is a Fairy Story, and though it gestures to some complexities of philosophy, its gender roles and class distinctions are often played straight. They are not harped on, but neither are they subverted.
There is also a ponderous quality to the language and actions which might make it difficult for some readers. This gentle lulling is central to the book's tone (and the magical themes in particular). The story is told neither from the perspective of mankind nor of Elfland, but some shifting point between.
This book is markedly different in its central concerns from either the Christian Epics that proceeded it or the Genre Fantasy that followed. The conflict between madness and tradition appears also in Peake's Titus books
, the shifting pale is reminiscent of 'The Mists of Avalon'
, and the suffusing mist of magic across the world can be seen in 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'
, but other than Lovecraft few have picked up the thread of this intricately cracking brocade.
This book is otherworldly, existential, and thoughtful without a hint of pretension. It is whimsical and beautiful without being either condescending or a farce. More than this it brings a strange, new world to your door, a world that bears a grand, forgotten question. It recalls a remote place in childhood, before we had decided whether sanity or madness was likely to bear us finer fruits.
I begin to wonder if I chose wrongly.My Fantasy Book Suggestions