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Vivid fantasy beyond Middle-earth

In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales Lord Dunsany Edited by S.T. Joshi Penguin: 400 pp., $14 paper

June 27, 2004|Ursula K. Le Guin | Ursula K. Le Guin is the award-winning author of more than 30 books, including "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Lathe of Heaven," "The Dispossessed" and, most recently, "The Wave in the Mind."

When people ask me about a book that changed my life, one of the several hundred honest answers I can give them is "A Dreamer's Tales." (Then they look blank, which is too bad.) I was about 12 when I picked it up, one of those nice little leather-bound books the Modern Library used to do, and from the first sentence I was a goner:

"Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain."

I described this moment also in the first essay in my first book of essays, "The Language of the Night," how I stood with the book in my hands there in the living room, silent upon a peak in Darien.

I'd read all the children's classics of fantasy, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "The Wind in the Willows," and myths, legends, folk tales, a cleaned-up-for-kids Arabian Nights and so on -- but this was different. It was an adult writing for adults, and it wasn't ancient or ethnological or anonymous. There was a picture of the author, Lord Dunsany, a dapper fellow in a British army uniform, alert and quizzical. I fell in love with him at once. (I fell in love a lot at 12.) That didn't go far, but the book took me a long way. It opened up to me the whole range and realm of fantasy literature -- imagined countries, invented histories. I beheld that vast landscape not only as a reader but also as a writer. I could not only go there with Dunsany, I could also go exploring on my own.

This great discovery may sound quaint, now that fantasy is a familiar commercial genre. It wasn't then, nor was it often recognized as a form of serious literature. What Dunsany did for me in 1942, J.R.R. Tolkien did for everybody 20 years or so later. The shrieks of Edmund Wilson and the shudders of academe couldn't prevent Tolkien from putting a new country onto the literary map -- not a tiny Liechtenstein-Fairyland but a large and powerful region to be reckoned with, Middle-earth.

Fantasy is, of course, an ancient form of literature; in fact, it used to occupy most of the map. Revitalized by Tolkien and others, then reformulated as a genre, fantasy has become a sort of modern capitalist nation, supporting its publishers by the assembly-line production of trilogies. In fact, magic has lost a good deal of its magic lately. This is a good moment to republish and rediscover Lord Dunsany. S.T. Joshi, a biographer of Dunsany and an expert in the Weird, has given us an excellent introduction and notes and an only slightly disappointing selection from a long and varied output of stories -- beginning in the Celtic twilight of 1905 and ending with a few wry, dry tales written around 1950.

Even when I was in love with Dunsany, I found his first book, "The Gods of Pegana," pretty tough going. Yeats praised it, but the high biblical diction hasn't worn well. I wish Joshi had included less of that and more of Dunsany's best work, which was written -- not coincidentally, I think -- between the Boer War and the end of World War I. He saw action in the first and served in the second, as well as being wounded in the Dublin Riots of 1916. We know now how elements of Tolkien's huge invention took shape during his war service and why "The Lord of the Rings" is so relevant to the central moral issues of its century. Middle-earth and the Inner Lands are not bolt-holes, places to escape to from the trenches. They are not a denial but an answer, not a refuge but a redoubt.

Among the fine stories from this period of "A Dreamer's Tales" and "The Book of Wonder," Joshi includes "Idle Days on the Yann," arguably Dunsany's masterpiece. I love it not only for its effortless invention and beauty but also because it so amiably refutes all the Creative Writing Program dogma about "conflict" and "plot line" and "character." It leaves out all that stuff, setting you adrift on the river of pure story. No guts are wrenched, no issues of Good and Evil are settled. It is as innocently, artfully beyond question as a Mozart sonata.

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