Monday, January 26, 2009


So, given that I've taken the name for my blog from a Dunsany story ("The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth"), and given how few people read Dunsany nowadays, I thought from time to time it might be good to post here some of his work to give a feel for what his work is like. Luckily in addition to the short stories he's famous for he also sometimes wrote very brief little pieces that are more like parables or fables than short stories or prose poems, a number of which are collected together in the accurately but unimaginative named book Fifty-one Tales (1915). So, here's one of those pieces in its entirety:

"The Sphinx in Thebes (Massachusetts)"

There was a woman in a steel-built city who had all that money could buy. She had gold and dividends and trains and houses, and she had pets to play with, but she had no sphinx.

So she besought them to bring her a live sphinx; and therefore they went to the menageries, and then to the forests and the desert places, and yet could find no sphinx.

And she would have been content with a little lion but that one was already owned by a woman she knew; so they had to search the world again for a sphinx.

And still there was none.

But they were not men that it is easy to baffle, and at last they found a sphinx in a desert at evening watching a ruined temple whose gods she had eaten hundreds of years ago when her hunger was on her. And they cast chains on her, who was still with an ominous stillness, and took her westwards with them and brought her home.

And so the sphinx came to the steel-built city.

And the woman was very glad that she owned a sphinx: but the sphinx stared long into her eyes one day, and softly asked a riddle of the woman.

And the woman could not answer, and she died.

And the sphinx is silent again and none knows what she will do.

--Edward John Drax Moreton Plunkett, Lord Dunsany


David said...

Here's the latest uninformed complaint that Dunsany is boring.

He should read stories like this one.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks for the link, David.

For those who might be curious, but not curious to read the whole piece, it comes from Lev Grossman's review of Laura Miller's THE MAGICIAN'S BOOK: A SKEPTIC'S ADVENTURES IN NARNIA. The relevant line is

"(Plus Miller reads people like William Morris and Lord Dunsany and tells you what they said, so you don't have to. Which is great because they're unbelievably boring.)"

--though to give him credit Grossman has since added a note at the end "[p.s. a reader writes arguing, vehemently, that Lord Dunsany isn't boring at all, and that more people should read him. so YMMV. I couldn't get into it, but maybe you can.]" -- which seems to indicate a fair-mindedness remarkable in a reviewer.

I think the problem is that while I have no doubt that Dunsany is the single greatest fantasy short story writer, bar none, he's not a great novelist. And most people, when they want to try a new author, pick up one of his novels, not a collection of short stories. He also wrote far too much (sixty-two books by my count), and the odds that you'll pick up his best by random are fairly small.

Anyway, more Dunsany to come soon, so y'all can judge for yrselves.


Jeff_Grubb said...

I find the sphinx a curious creature, in that she was a powerful image at the end of the 1800s. I was reading a book, Fin de Cycle, which talked about how centuries ended, and in the 1800s writeup, there was a passing mention of how the Sphinx, particularly the sphinx in the city, was a common motif.

I know nothing about the reason for the Sphinx's popularity or why he was a powerful force of that age (and now mostly forgotten). But the idea of great, ancient power also evokes the Lovecraft story Nyarlathotep.

Anything in your literary studies covers the power of the Sphinx in this age?


John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Jeff
Martin Bernal has a lot of interesting things to say about the remarkable explosion of interest in Egyptian motifs in the 19th century -- for example, pointing out that it's rather odd how many older U.S. cemeteries have obelisks for headstones -- something we're so used to that it doesn't really register. Bernal's theories are pretty controversial, of course, but it's my impression that consensus is slowly swinging in his direction. But even if he's wrong that doesn't mean he hasn't gotten ahold of an interesting idea here. In any case, his extensive (70-page) Introduction to volume one of BLACK ATHENA is well worth reading. Pity that he never delivered on his promised final volume devoted to Egyptian mythology's influence on the Greek pantheon.
Oh, and this isn't Dunsany's only sphinx story either -- there are at least two others, both with female sphinxes (i.e., drawing on Greek tradition here rather than Egyptian) and both illustrated by Sime.


Magister said...

Excellent project! More Dunsany to the people! (says the guy who just got My Ireland and hasn't stopped making happy noises over it.)