Thursday, July 16, 2020

Dunsany's Leaves (Vaninskaya on Dunsany)

So, recently I've been reading the Dunsany section of Anna Vaninskaya's new book on Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien. It's rare to find really good criticism of Dunsany, so thought I'd share my critique.

Anna Vaninskaya's Fantasies of Time and Death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien (Palgrave, 2020) is particularly welcome in that while there are hundreds of books on Tolkien, we only have a half-dozen on Dunsany, and none at all on Eddison. This book in part redresses that imbalance. 

Vaninskaya asserts that modern fantasy "did not exist as a category in the British literary landscape, and the British authors under consideration did not know they were writing it." (.1). As she sees it, the genre was created by Ballantine as a 'fuzzy set' centered on Tolkien (.2): "[T]hese writers never constituted a school amongst themselves; each was independent and sui generis" (.3).  While she detects "the deep affinity of method and purpose amongst key early practitioners of the genre" (.8), she believes for most later fantasists, "Their main template was the quest romance rather than the creation myth" (.7). 

Following an exceptionally well-sourced chapter on Morris, MacDonald, and Mirrlees 
as precursors and contemporary dealing with the themes of death and time, she devotes the rest of the book to Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien, in that order.

Vaninskaya's critique of Dunsany is particularly welcome because unlike most previous Dunsany criticism she actually analyzes his work, rather than just summarize it (Schweitzer) or depict him as a sort of lesser Lovecraft (Joshi). She more than makes her case for the centrality of Death and Time as the unifying themes that recur again and again in Dunsany's tales, plays, and novels. In the process she also shows how this made him very much a man of his time, an heir to the Romantics (e.g. Shelly) and high Victorians (Swinbourne, Tennyson). She places particular emphasis on Personification, stating flatly that "It is impossible to overstate Dunsany's reliance on this device" (.27). He was "profoundly unoriginal" (.29) in his metaphors and symbolism, taking over traditional ones and making them his own, until by his persistence in repeating them they become central to what he has to say.

She finds this patterning essential to understanding Dunsany's work.

"while it wd not be true to say that once you have read one Dunsany tale, you have read them all—for the fecundity of his imagination was such that each . . . differed indelibly from the rest—it is true that his oeuvre resolves, in the final analysis, into a series of poetic variations on a single set of themes, images[,] and rhetorical devices (.24)

Her analogy is that of a tile-maker who crafts each individual tile by hand. Each resembles the rest but is unique unto itself.  For any Tolkienist it's a short hop from that to "LEAF: by Dunsany". Instead of Tolkien's tree we have in Dunsany no tree but a multitude of individual leaves, each lovingly crafted, each distinctive yet each recognizably Dunsanian. 

To conclude: 
This just may be the book on Dunsany Dunsany scholars have been waiting for.

The best thing about Vaninskaya on Dunsany is that she offers real insights into Dunsany's theme and method, including analysis of individual works, such as The King of Elfland's Daughter (45–51), Dunsany's most famous work, and The Blessings of Pan (51–55), the last of Dunsany's early novels. V's insights made me want to reread books I've not read for decades.

The worst is that there is not more of it (only forty-five pages out of a 262 page book). Obviously, this is a good problem to have. It's not that what we have feels truncated or incomplete. It's just that this is good enough that it leaves us wanting more.

—July 16th 2020

1 comment:

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear RIchard
It's great to hear from you again.
I'm not set up to receive email via the blog, but if you cd send me a message with your email address in it I'll be able to get back to you without posting the comment itself.
--John R.