Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Book of Thirty-Three ~ A Review of "Wonder Tales" by Lord Dunsany


Who is Lord Dunsany?

There was a time when that question would be absurd to any Fantasy fan, but that was in a time when his work was more easily available. It's hard to believe now, but Lord Dunsany was the king of Fantasy literature. There was a time where he was the most imitated writer in the field and was considered one of the fathers of modern genre fiction with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt. His name was synonymous with Fantasy. But that was a long time ago. His influence is still felt today, though not in the ways one would think.

The 18th Baron of Dunsany was an Irish writer named Edward J. M. D. Plunkett. He was a storyteller of considerable talent and most certainly the single most influential Fantasy writer of the last century. He inspired just about everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien to H.P. Lovecraft to Jack Vance to Michael Moorcock to Clark Ashton Smith and beyond. Not only was his influence immense, but so was the quality of his work. He wrote fantastical and wondrous weird tales and did it in a space that would put most modern writers to shame.

This is a review of his most easily accessible work, Wonder Tales.

Wonder Tales is a collection of two books. The first is The Book of Wonder (1912) and the second is Tales of Wonder (1916) which combine together for 33 short stories. Despite that high amount, the book itself only comes out to 158 pages. The reason? These stories are compact.

Reading Dunsany is an alienating experience to anyone weaned on modern Fantasy gunk. While he might be long on description, he is also direct and to the point. He rarely relies on dialogue. He doesn't need 1200 pages to tell a complete story. He doesn't need meandering subplots or dozens of characters. He expresses an untold number of ideas in a mere three pages of story. He evokes wonder with simple and carefully chosen words in lush passages. He is everything Fantasy is currently not. This is so far away from where the genre is today that it is almost sickening reading these tales now. Every single problem with modern Fantasy is completely absent in these 33 tales.

As previously stated, this is a release containing two books. To assess it honestly is to say the first books is the stronger of the two. Dunsany's stories are better the shorter they are, and the stories in the first book are shorter and sharper. From a story about a centaur as he captures his bride to a piece about thieves that come across an ineffable terror that would make Lovecraft jealous to one about a terrifying race of Gibbelins, these are stronger as a whole. Not to say the second book is bad, but it is not as strong a whole piece as the first. Every tale in The Book of Wonder is 5 stars. If you were to find Wonder Tales it would be worth it for this half alone.

The second book is not as fantastical as the first. Settings are more modern and there is more of a Weird Tale approach. Don't get me wrong, it is still plenty fantastical and has mystery and action to spare, but the settings are (for the most part) more mundane and straightforward and the longer pieces drag and are too stretched out. The better stories are, once again, the shorter and more direct ones. In other words, the stories least like modern fantasy are the ones most worth reading. The tale of the outwitted giant, the one about a wizard plotting underneath the modern world, and the very Weird Tales-like The Exiles' Club are by far the highlights here. You also can't go wrong with well regarded classics like The Three Sailor's Gambit, The Loot of Loma, or The Three Infernal Jokes, either. It is mind-blowing how good some of these are to read nowadays. Despite not being quite as great as the earlier book as a whole, there is much excellence to be found here.

This is the sort of thing all writers of the fantastical should be handed to get their feet wet. Reading this makes it clear just how far off the mark fantasy has come since Dunsany was writing about Thangobrind the Jeweller and his unfortunate journey. There is no bloat, there is no grey sludge, there is no obsession with scatology, and there is no religion of the new. There are only imaginative locations filled with large characters who exist to paint pictures in the reader's mind. They were all written to inspire and instill wonder and delight the reader.

This is Fantasy.

This was Fantasy. This is not what traditional publishing puts out now.

The archivists of classic genre fiction have failed newer generations quite handily. Finding Lord Dunsany's work in print is not so easy. This release by Dover is easily the most common and easy to find release but even it is mostly unknown. Considering his influence on the most important writers of the twentieth century (though he is one as well) it is inexcusable that it is not as easy to find The Book of Wonder as it is to find something like A Wizard of Earthsea.

This goes for much of the best fantasy literature and how the industry has deliberately hobbled creativity and imagination by keeping classic material out of their hands for modern muck that only exists to smear mud in reader's faces and keep them miserable. Where fantasy now is nowhere near Dunsany. It's in the toilet and deeper into the sewer..

But just because they failed does not mean we can let their mistake remain. It is time to rediscover the classics.

Lord Dunsany is one the most best writers of wonder you will ever read. If you are a reader of Fantasy, a lover of adventure, or a writer of the wondrous, then this is essential reading. You will not find much on Dunsany's level. There is not much in the genre better than this, and certainly nothing from traditional publishing.

Give it a try and realize what you've been missing.

Highest recommendation.

2 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting. Never read Dunsany before. Is this a good place to start with his fiction? Thanks.

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    1. It's a great place to start. The stories are just short enough for anyone to sit down and pick up in between whatever they're doing.

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