From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Edward Plunkett and the Dragon of Romance

Monday’s fantasy reprint, Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance, came from the pen of Edward Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany. Both writer and dramatist, Plunkett wrote primarily fantasy under the name Lord Dunsany, and remains a favorite of mine among those writers who I think of as “classic” fantasy. He produced over 80 books and hundreds of short stories during his writing career.

I came to Dunsany after reading H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath. I loved the fabulousness of Randolph Carter’s adventures and wanted more along that vein. Someone recommended Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. The book drew me in with its sense of dreamy wonder, and manages to have an “English” feel without, somehow, being stuffy or dry.

This is perhaps because Dunsany was a member of the Irish Literary Revival, also known as the Celtic Twilight. Dunsany and his fellow writers, including Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, and William Butler Yeats, wanted to create works that were firmly within the Irish tradition, rather than the English, as part of the effort to create an Irish national identity. Yeats selected and edited The Book of Wonder, from which “Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance” is drawn.

While today “self-published” is often a derogatory term, Dunsany’s success actually did start as a result of self-publishing. He’d written a few poems that had been published, but in 1905 he paid for the publication of The Gods of Pegana, a collection of short stories. The collection proved such a hit that Dunsany never had to self-publish again. His style and subject treatment varied throughout his career – once he felt he’d exhausted all the possibilities of a form, he’d move onto the next. Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance pokes gentle fun at standard fantasy trophes by juxtaposing them with the prim and proper upper class society of his time, and like many of the other stories in The Book of Wonder, is not above self-mockery, as is evidenced in the first lines: This tale is told in the balconies of Belgrave Square and among the towers of Pont Street; men sing it at evening in the Brompton Road.

Dunsany’s writing habits were often eccentric. He used quill pens he’d made himself, and almost never rewrote anything. His wife Lady Beatrice claimed that he wrote sitting on a crumpled hat and when the hat was stolen by a visitor, a crisis was precipitated. He would often direct servants and family members to carry out the actions of a story, so he could see them before writing it.

Dunsany did not confine himself to fiction and verse. His plays, which were even more successful, were performed both on the stage and the radio. Dunsany excelled in writing for the radio, relying on words and sound effects to create images in his listeners’ minds that would have been impossible to create on the stage at the time.

The works Dunsany produced have inspired many writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, who referred to his own work as “Poe” pieces and “Dunsany” pieces; Robert E. Howard, Jose Luis Borges, Peter S. Beagle, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman, who mentioned The King of Elfland’s Daughter as one of the inspirations for Stardust.

Beyond inspiration, Dunsany shaped one of the forms of the field. Perhaps his most famous character is Mr. Joseph Jorkens, featured in six books total. The Jorkens stories usually follow the London Men’s Club model featuring a beginning where a member mentions an odd experience, and the protagonist tops him with a tall tale of his own. Numerous other writers saw the possibility of this form, leading to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, Spider Robinson’s tales of the bar Callahan’s Place, and even Stephen King’s novelette, “The Breathing Method”, which appeared in Different Seasons.

Cat Rambo is the fiction editor of Fantasy Magazine. If you’ve got suggestions for a classic fantasy reprint, please send them to her at fantasysubmissions@gmail.com.

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