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.)


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 Cold Flame by James Reeves

Brothers Grimm - The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)For some months, now, I’ve been reading a tale a day from Jack Zipes’ translation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, only having known the more famous ones till now. And they’re a mixed bunch. As well as the very fairy-tale-like stories of princes transformed into foxes or frogs, brothers turned into swans, princesses setting three impossible tasks for their suitors, or that overlooked third brother winning through despite everyone thinking he’s a clod, there are plenty of duds: shaggy-dog jokes about stupid people (“Clever Hans”, “Clever Else”, “The Brave Little Tailor”) or the (once, no doubt very funny, not-so now) misadventures of odd collections of companions (“The Straw, the Coal and the Bean”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”), as well as some of the more traditional kind of tale that don’t quite satisfy as much as the well-known ones do.

Reading these lesser tales, where the shortcomings of the story are often made up for by an appeal to the listeners’ baser nature, you get a sense of their pulpy, lowest-common-denominator approach: silly jokes about talking sausages and stupid people on the one hand, lashings of revenge on the other. It’s not saying anything new to note how gleeful fairy tales can be in not just righting wrongs, but in getting a downright over-the-top bloody revenge into the bargain:

“The evil mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.”


“‘The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside,’ said the old woman. ‘And then he should be rolled down the hill into the water.’”


“‘She deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.’”

…being just three examples. Cinderella may win your sympathy by being forced to drudge for her nasty step-sisters, but some fairy tale heroes and heroines have very little going for them, morally or empathetically, yet the stories only work if you’re rooting for them to lord it over everyone by the end — and not just their oppressors, but often their oppressor’s entirely innocent children, too.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame, published in 1967, is James Reeves’ retelling of “The Blue Light” from the Grimms’ book of fairy tales — certainly not one of the more famous ones, but not entirely a dud, either. The protagonist is (unusually, for these mostly coming-of-age tales) a long-serving soldier, dismissed after twenty-five years in the King’s service (“Five-and-twenty years, five-and-twenty wounds”) with only a silver dollar in pay. He falls into the hands of a witch, who makes him drudge for a couple of days, then sends him down a well to fetch a cold, blue, obviously magical light she dropped there. He refuses to hand it over till she’s helped him from the well, so she lets him fall back down to the bottom. Deciding to smoke one final time before he dies of starvation, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and thereby summons a little demon, who offers to do anything he demands. And so the soldier gets out of the well, is provided with riches, returns to the city where he was dismissed so off-handedly, and sets about getting his revenge by summoning the King’s daughter each night to clean up his room. He’s caught (on the third night, of course) and arrested, but thanks to his little demon turns the situation round, and by the end is not only king himself but getting inviting looks from the princess.

Perhaps it’s because the main character isn’t such an innocent as Cinderella or Snow White, but although the wrong to him is genuine (dismissed after twenty-five years with only enough pay to buy a single meal), having the tale expanded from short story to short novel only seems to emphasise how unfair it is that the king’s daughter — entirely innocent, as far as I can see — should be dragged into her father’s punishment. It seems even stranger in Reeves’ retelling, because he makes it clear that, for some reason, after being forced to drudge for him, she’s fallen in love with this raddled old soldier, whose only redeeming feature (as in so many fairy tales) is the fact he’s had the good luck to gain magical aid. But perhaps it’s just that, by being faithful to the rather uncompromising spirit of the Grimms’ version, Reeves has retained the essential character of the original, without pandering to any sensitive morals on my part. Anyway, it’s very well-written, if a bit distant from its rather bleak-souled characters. (The soldier is described as having an “almost habitual sardonic self-control”, and a “dedication to the virtue of despair.”)

One of the things that attracted me to the book wasn’t the story, but the illustrations. I think I must have come across Charles Keeping’s work first in Alan Garner’s Elidor. He mixes a sparse, telling line with a sort of random, squiggly-blotchy wildness that somehow works, and somehow fits these late 1960s/early 1970s books with their rather modernistic bleakness and understated, though deeply-felt, deeply-tried humanity — Reeves’, and Garner’s, and, I think, they’d suit the two William Mayne books I’ve reviewed recently, too.

Here are some examples of his work on The Cold Flame: