Lord Dunsany

 

CULT HERO: Anglo-Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany wielded an inestimable influence over the evolution of speculative fiction in the 20th century.

 His elaborate, whimsical tales inspired writers as diverse as pulp horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft; swords and sorcery doyen Robert E. Howard; and cerebral, new-wave authors such as Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock. Dunsany was among the first novelists to indulge in "world building", plucking vast romanticised universes from the furthest recesses of his subconscious. Tolkien's Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis' Narnia - even Terry Pratchett's farcical Discworld - owe a little to his feverish imaginings.

Born in London in 1878, the young Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (Eddie to acquaintances), cut a rather dashing figure. An accomplished cricketer, feted chess player - he penned a regular column for the Times - and renowned huntsman, Dunsany fought with distinction in the Boer War before settling in the family seat near Trim, Co Meath, in 1901.

The isolated countryside and gloomy weather kindled Dunsany's muse and he threw himself into writing, producing a slew of florid novels rooted in Celtic folklore and classical romance.

Dunsany's first published work, 1905's The Gods of Pegana, drew effusive praise from a literary establishment increasingly besotted with all things mystical and anachronistic. W.B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, James Stephens, Lady Gregory and Oliver St John Gogarty were among the admirers to frequent his mournful midlands demesne.

At Yeats's behest, he dabbled in drama, penning The Glittering Gate, which opened to great acclaim at the Abbey Theatre in 1909. In the following decade he carved a successful career as a playwright. At one point, five Dunsany plays were running on Broadway. He was also a patron and supporter of other writers, most notably poet Francis Ledwidge, who died in the first World War.

But it is his wistful fantasies that have enjoyed lasting appeal. Dreamy epics such as the The King of Elfland's Daughter, Time and the Gods and The Hashish Man marry languid surrealism, labyrinthine plotting and a depth of characterisation rarely equalled by later authors in the genre. Dunsany's books represent a vibrant link between ancient myth and modern speculative writing, an enthralling, life-affirming celebration of the otherworldly and unfathomable.

Edward Power

More on Lord Dunsany at www.dunsany.net