The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany by MJEIn 1903, at the age of 25, four years into his title, Lord Dunsany went to see a play called The Darling of the Gods, written by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Long’s 1898 story, “Madame Butterfly”, had made use of his sister’s stay in Japan as the wife of a missionary (though apparently it bears too many similarities to an 1887 French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, for this to be the entire inspiration), and had been adapted by Belasco for the stage in 1900. The Darling of the Gods, a success in New York and newly transplanted to the London stage (where it was produced by the wonderfully-named Beerbohm Tree, and starred Lena Ashwell as Princess Yo-San), was also set in Japan, or, rather, a fantasticated version of Japan that was the sort of place an early-20th century Western audience wanted it to be — a storyland of escape, exoticism and picturesque tragedy, an embodiment of all the lingering dreams of the Decadent and Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century, that had so fallen in love with the aesthetics of imported Japanese prints and lacquered wood. In a further act of what Harold Bloom might have called a ‘creative misreading’, Dunsany, watching the play, was overtaken by the poetic possibilities of creating a pantheon of gods, and the result was his first published (and only self-funded) book, The Gods of Pegāna, brought out in 1905. (Online text here.)

OrientalStories1932

cover to Oriental Stories, Winter 1932

This is a situation that recurs throughout the history of fantasy: one culture, encountering another, becomes overwhelmed by fantasies of that distant place and creates its own version of it, a version that becomes increasingly stylised and storyfied, till it enters the realm of pure invention. At the start of the 18th century in France, for instance, the first translations of The Thousand and One Nights were followed by increasingly creative ‘translations’ of other, obscure, ‘newly-discovered’ collections of Eastern tales, footnoted to varying degrees of veracity, till finally the whole thing becomes a convention and people openly pen invented ‘Oriental Tales’ using all the pre-existing backdrops, props and costumes of this imagined version of a distant culture, with no relation to the facts at all. (And when William Beckford wrote Vathek, he was doing the same thing at a double remove: he wrote his mock-Oriental Gothic tale in French, as though it were a ‘genuine’ French imitation Oriental tale, rather than a poor English one.) A similar thing happened in the 19th century, with a different meeting of cultures, this time when the Brothers Grimm began to investigate the folk tales of the peasant classes. Which is why, when Victorian England fell in love with fairy tales, they pictured their heroes and heroines in Germanic peasant dress and dark, endless forests.

Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, then, is mock-mock Oriental. But it’s also, thanks to its prose style, mock Biblical, and perhaps it’s by being pulled in two separate directions that it breaks free from any definite cultural associations and starts to seem like a wholly new thing. Which is why it’s regarded as one of the first books of truly modern fantasy. Pegāna, though, is not a separate, invented world. The name refers to a sort of Olympus, a dwelling place for Dunsany’s invented gods, though one that exists ‘Before there stood gods on Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah’.

Before our world was created, two forces, Fate and Chance (like Moorcock’s Law and Chaos) cast lots ‘to decide whose the Game should be’. Nobody knows which of these two won, only that the winner went to the primal creator, MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ (whose name is always shouted like that), and told him to create the gods.

In the Land of Time by Lord Dunsany (Penguin Classics)Dunsany’s world is founded on the fact that Man can never know the answer to the important questions. Whichever one it was who won that initial casting of the lots — Fate or Chance — as far as we’re concerned, our fate is decided: Man was created by Kib, and each man will be killed, in time, when Mung (Death) makes ‘the sign of Mung’ to him, and between those points he must follow the path set out for him by Dorozhand (Destiny), who alone knows the ‘reason and purpose of the Worlds’. In the face of this, all a man can do (and it is ‘man’, because there are no women in Dunsany’s first book) is distract himself in the works of Limpang-Tung, ‘the God of Mirth and Melodious Minstrels’. The gods, meanwhile, enjoy nothing more than to laugh at their creation, all the while knowing that, when their own maker MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ wakes from this sleep (which will end the world), he will laugh at them for their pettiness in creating it.

We poor humans, meanwhile, have nothing but fatalism for our solace:

‘All that is is so because it was to be. Rail not, therefore, against what is, for it was all to be.’

Dunsany has a lot to say about ‘Prophets’. There are prophets who speak the truth, and there are those who lie. Those who speak the truth speak the one and only truth any honest man can: that he knows nothing of the gods, and has no influence over them. This sort of prophet is not very popular. The people would rather have a prophet who gives them a comforting lie, and The Gods of Pegāna has its fair share of such false prophets: Yug, who claims to know all things, but dies all the same; Alhireth-hotep, who claims to speak with Mung (Death), so Mung comes calling; Kabok, who goes so far as to say he advises Mung, but does a runner when Mung starts lurking in his garden at night; and Yun-Ilara, who genuinely does not fear Mung, to the point that he spends his days in a high tower shouting insults at the god of Death… Only, in his weary latter years, to regret this, and instead spend his time begging for Mung to visit.

"Mung and the Beast of Mung", by Sidney Sime

“Mung and the Beast of Mung”, by Sidney Sime

Most of these tiny tales are poetic parables mocking false hope and the empty promises of religion. Dunsany’s invented names — one of the hallmarks of his writings — are at first of two types. There are the brutal-sounding single syllables, which he gives to most of his gods: Skarl, Kib, Sish and Mung. And there are the overblown, overlong names, like MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ, or Yoharneth-Lahai. I get the feeling these names started off as basically comic: the short names are meant to emphasise the primitive, nonsensical nature of some of the gods of Pegāna; the long names emphasise the over-grand nature of others. In a similar way, the mock-Biblical language is used to satirise religious writing with its entirely tautological way of enforcing belief:

‘Kib is Kib. Kib is he and no other… Because this is written, believe! For is it not written, or are you greater than Kib?’

But a sort of poetry creeps in, both into the invented names, and into the prose:

‘Then Mung went down into a waste of Afrik, and came upon the drought Umbool as he sat in the desert upon iron rocks, clawing with miserly grasp at the bones of men and breathing hot.’

The first section to really read like modern fantasy — evoking wonder for wonder’s sake — is ‘The Eye in the Waste’:

There lie seven deserts beyond Bodraháhn, which is the city of the caravans’ end. None goeth beyond. In the first desert lie the tracks of mighty travellers outward from Bodraháhn, and some returning. And in the second lie only outward tracks, and none return.

The third is a desert untrodden by the feet of men.

The fourth is the desert of sand, and the fifth is the desert of dust, and the sixth is the desert of stones, and the seventh is the Desert of Deserts.

In the midst of the last of the deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn, in the centre of the Desert of Deserts, standeth the image that hath been hewn of old out of the living hill whose name is Rānorāda — the eye in the waste.

About the base of Rānorāda is carved in mystic letters that are vaster than the beds of streams these words:

To the god who knows.

Now, beyond the second desert are no tracks, and there is no water in all the seven deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn. Therefore came no man thither to hew that statue from the living hills, and Rānorāda was wrought by the hands of gods…

The penultimate chapter, ‘The River’, is perhaps Dunsany’s best prose-poem in the book, about silence, sleep, dreams, and the end of all things:

‘It hath been said that when Skarl ceases to drum, and MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ awakes, and the gods of Pegāna know that it is the End, that then the gods will enter galleons of gold, and with dream-born rowers glide down Imrana (who knows whither or why?) till they come where the River enters the Silent Sea, and shall there be gods of nothing, where nothing is, and never a sound shall come. And far away upon the River’s banks shall bay their old hound Time, that shall seek to rend his masters; while MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ shall think some other plan concerning gods and worlds.’

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIt’s strange to think that, in her 1973 essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, Ursula Le Guin would call Dunsany ‘the most imitated’ writer of fantasy, whose archaic prose style, and mode of poetic invention through fantastic names evoking distant, story-misty cities and hinted-at magics, made him ‘the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy’. This style of fantasy, heavy on magic and imaginative invention, can be found in, for instance, Michael Moorcock’s method of writing Elric books with a list of fantastic-poetic concepts like ‘The City of Screaming Statues’ by his side. But nowadays (and things may have come to an end starting with Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara), the dominant mode of fantasy, as typified by George R R Martin, is at the opposite extreme: minimal magic, minimal poetry, maximal grit. But perhaps the outlook on life is basically the same: both share a cynicism about the promises of religion, and an insistence on the inevitability of death (not to say Death working overtime, in Game of Thrones).

The final word, as ever, belongs to Mung, who will always have the final word:

And Mung said: ‘Were the forty million years before thy coming intolerable to thee?’

And Mung said: ‘Not less tolerable to thee shall be the forty million years to come.’

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.