Monday, January 4, 2021

Lord Dunsany, Fantasy and Chocolate Magic

The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, Richard Dadd painted from 1855-64

 It’s over. 

As I reflect on the wreckage of 2020, I think of a world devoid of heroism and greatness run by venal, cowardly men -- a world teeming with hollow sociopaths who could care less that hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens will die needlessly because they won’t wear a damn mask. How did we get here? 

 In this dark, I reach toward the light of fantasy to disenthrall me from the waking nightmare of 2020.

Alan Moore

A few months ago I read a piece by the graphic novelist, Alan Moore   (who also wrote Jerusalem, a Brobdingnagian, multidimensional, thoroughly vertiginous novel I am crazy about).  In it, Moore was bemoaning the current craze for superheroes, “Several years ago I said I thought it was a really worrying sign, that hundreds of thousands of adults were queuing up to see characters that were created 50 years ago to entertain 12 year old boys.  That seemed to speak to some kind of longing to escape from the complexities of the modern world, and go back to a nostalgic, remembered childhood.  That seemed dangerous, it was infantilizing the population. Our biggest blockbusters are based on last century's cartoons written for adolescents .... It suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum”.  Moore felt the current leaders of the UK and US came out of that foetid, immature stew of the past decade.  He called Trump a "National Socialist satsuma" and continued, "Not to say that one causes the other but I think they’re both symptoms of the same thing – a denial of reality and an urge for simplistic and sensational solutions.”

I get the superhero conundrum, but I wonder, is fantasy infantilizing?  Are fairytales only for children?  Am I wrong to turn to fantasy?  


No.  I do it regularly for sanity. It recharges my batteries more often than not and these days, fantasy makes more sense that our reality which has become a big ball of delusions held together with  a sticky-tape web of alternative facts.

Neil Gaiman

In a piece for The Guardian a few years back, Neil Gaiman (who I wrote about HERE ) said, “Once upon a time, back when animals spoke and rivers sang and every quest was worth going on, back when dragons still roared and maidens were beautiful and an honest young man with a good heart and a great deal of luck could always wind up with a princess and half the kingdom - back then, fairytales were for adults.”

“Children listened to them and enjoyed them, but children were not the primary audience, no more than they were the intended audience of Beowulf, or The Odyssey. JRR Tolkien said, in a robust and fusty analogy, that fairytales were like the furniture in the nursery - it was not that the furniture had originally been made for children: it had once been for adults and was consigned to the nursery only when the adults grew tired of it and it became unfashionable…. The stories that people had told each other to pass the long nights had become children's tales. And there, many people obviously thought, they needed to stay.”

Ursula Le Guin

Thankfully, they don't stay there and are often a grownup antidote for our invertebrate-infested, slime trailed times.Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, "FromElfland to Poughkeepsie", said, "Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion ... It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence."

Fantasy is a coping mechanism in troubled times -- the writing of it, the painting of it, the filming of it  and the reading and watching of it. And maybe superheroes have their place if they help you to deal with a reality that is gorged with villains but starved for heroes.

Richard Dadd 1817-86

A rather dramatic illustration of this mechanism can be seen in the life and work of Richard Dadd who has been treasured by generations for his fantasy paintings done during his 40 years in madhouses (Bethlehem/Bedlam and Broadmoor) for killing his father. He was quite mad and violent at the beginning and probably paranoid/schizophrenic – but that violence abated over time.  

Small, insanely intricate canvases of fairy worlds were his salvation behind bars.  I can imagine he escaped from his nightmares into his beautiful canvas cosmos that often featured an oculus or portal to lead you into his world.  The in-person viewing of  The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke  at the Tate Gallery  is supposed to be remarkable (the painting is at the top of the page).  It took Dadd 10 years to do the painting. It’s is only 21” x 15” and has layers and layers of subtle detail but was never finished. It really is world creation.  I hope it brought him some peace and a few moments surcease of the torments of his madness.


Where did I go to escape?

After watching ALL the Harry Potter movies over the week before Xmas, I journeyed into youthful fiction and read Susan Cooper’s 5 book, Dark is Rising series of fantasy and adventure that Brit friends of a certain vintage remember fondly (she wrote the first in the series in ’73).  Her books surely inspired Rowling’s Harry Potter but I found them, well, juvenile fiction.  Nicely done but not richly satisfying.  I wanted more.

H.P. Lovecraft

Still searching, I chanced upon an H.P. Lovecraft   documentary (Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown).  Although I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the fathomless end of the fantasy pool and read Lovecraft’s nightmares, I discovered Lord Dunsany [accent on 2nd syllable – rhymes with ‘rainy’] had an enormous influence on Lovecraft. H.P. wrote of him, “No amount of mere description can convey more than a fraction of Lord Dunsany’s pervasive charm.” Dunsany is “unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world or iridescently exotic vision … Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty…”


Neil Gaiman wrote about his style an introduction to a new edition of Lord Dunsany’s work. He said, “…his words sing, like those of a poet who got drunk on the prose of the King James Bible, and who has still not become sober. Listen to Dunsany on the wonders of ink “…How it can mark a dead man's thoughts for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.”


It was time to visit Project Gutenberg  (which has much of early Dunsany for free if you don’t mind missing the feeling of a book in your hand). It is shocking that  Dunsany, a man whose work influenced so many and was so productive as a novelist, story writer, poet and playwright has quietly evanesced from the memory of all but his staunchest disciples and their followers in the rarest firmament of fantasy fiction. Ensorcelled, I wanted to meet him.

I read about the life of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957) to see what in his life drew him to fantasy aside from, well, living in a medieval castle built by his ancestors in 1180.

He was as a giant at 6’4” and educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He went into the military like his ancestors before him - first joining the Coldstream Guards to fight in Boer War (1899-1902), and again with the Innis-Killing Fusiliers in WWI (1914-18).  He wrote his first play in an afternoon and it was performed at the Abbey Theatre  in Dublin in 1909 (he almost never re-wrote anything which his friend, the poet William Butler Yeats, felt limited his artistry as he plowed full speed ahead).  At one point he had 5 plays going on Broadway – he was known as ‘America’s favorite peer’. He was a champion shot, an avid hunter but also a believer in animal rights and a chess master - Dunsany’s asymmetric chess game is still played – one side is only played with pawns.  I imagine his adeptness at anticipating moves in chess was a valuable asset in worldbuilding.  He saw the whole board and  you felt the logic of the world he made.

He was also a huge inspiration to many writers who followed him. Edward Power in The Irish Times believed, “His elaborate, whimsical tales inspired writers as diverse as pulp horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft, swords and sorcery doyen Robert E Howard…. Dunsany was among the first novelists to indulge in ‘world building” plucking vast romanticized universes from the furthest recesses of his subconscious.  Tolkien’s Middle Earth, CS Lewis’ Narnia – even Terry Pratchett’s farcical Discworld owe a little to his feverish imaginings.”  


Not all who read Dunsany are touched by the magic. Laura Miller at The New Yorker thought him shallow, “Dunsany … seemed to regard his own life as a most amusing game, made of equal parts theatrics and sharpshooting. He wrote with a quill pen in the tower of the castle that his family had occupied since 1190, and carried a gold-handled walking stick given to him by the Nabob of Rampur during a visit to India. He pursued big game in Africa, at a time when an ambitious expedition into the bush required having seventy-two African bearers and hiring a guide who, he wrote Beatrice, was sought “by the police of so many countries.” 


“The war precipitated a vast project of self-examination among European and British artists and intellectuals. The old ways of life, everyone felt, had vanished. Even those writers who preferred, like Dunsany, to set their fiction in wholly imaginary worlds—Tolkien is the best-known example—felt their work shaped by the war’s horrors.


“In 1919 Dunsany took out a new notebook in which he intended to answer the challenge of the day and pasted into it a line clipped from a newspaper: “It is a great responsibility to have survived the war.” The book remained blank.”

I don’t believe Dunsany was an empty vessel untouched by war. His time in 2 wars had an effect on his writing and his deep well of imagination - I think his dreams kept him sane, As I write it in August 1916, I am at Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry, recovering from a slight wound. But it does not greatly matter where I am; my dreams are here before you amongst the following pages; and writing in a day when life is cheap, dreams seem to me all the dearer, the only things that survive.… And now I will write nothing further about our war, but offer you these books of dreams from Europe as one throws things of value, if only to oneself, at the last moment out of a burning house.” It seems to me that is the writing inspired by that clipping.

Dunsany opened his mind palace – revealing imaginary worlds and inventions but also sharing times and places past -- things he absorbed from the treasures of his centuries-old library and  extravagant world travel. Then he brought it to life for his readers in that voluptuous prose of his, "When I learned Greek at Cheam  and heard of other gods a great pity came on me for those beautiful marble people that had become forsaken and this mood has never quite left me."  The forsaken gods, “the beautiful marble people”, were revivified and immortalized in his books.

Without Dunsany's quill scratching  out his dreams and inner worlds, all would have been lost from that burning house that is our life on earth.  

Illustrator Sidney Sime (1867-1941)

That was enough to make me crack his oeuvre. It was time to whisper ‘Dunsany’ to the gatekeeper and walk through, beginning with the mad, complex, other-world fabrication of The Gods of Pegana  (1905) – the fantasy that started it all (with magnificent illustrations by Sidney Sime (1867-1941).  It was dense – a crowded pantheon of gods that was utterly and completely exotic.

sidney sime illustration

Then I read a few wonderful collections – his Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder, again with Simes illustrations. 

From his preface to his The Book of Wonder, “Come with me, ladies and gentlemen who are in any wise weary of London: come with me: and those that tire at all of the world we know: for we have new worlds here.”

Finally, I read the book everyone talks about (written in 1924 with his collaborator Sidney Sime’s divine illustrations), The Elf King’s Daughter.


It is a tale from the man who said this, “Of pure poetry there are two kinds, that which mirrors the beauty of the world in which our bodies are, and that which builds the more mysterious kingdoms where geography ends and fairyland begins, with gods and heroes at war, and the sirens singing still, and Alph going down to the darkness from Xanadu  . The Elf King’s Daughter plays in both of them.



What is the story???  The Elf King’s Daughter is about a dull little kingdom that wants magic.  Their prince Alveric goes to get the Elf King’s daughter Lirazel. He woos and weds her and takes her back to his kingdom of Erl.  She has a son, but her Elf King father misses her and lures her back to him.  Alveric goes after her and searches for many years – but the king of Elfland has rolled back the boundaries of his kingdom through a magic rune so it can’t be found. “The fields we know” are as far as he can go (Dunsany uses the phrase ‘the fields we know’ to mean the world of men throughout the book).   In the end, the son Orion brings Elfland closer and the membrane between the 2 worlds becomes thinner. Dwarves and unicorns pass through.  Then, the people who wanted magic are afraid and want it gone.  But the genie can’t go back into the bottle and the two worlds are joined. In the end enchantment wins and the kingdom is protected by the light save for the darkness around a freer(friar) who would have no magic. 

Sime illustrations for Dunsany

Sime illustrations for Dunsany

It is the poetry of the words that fill the pages with magic and animate the story which is at once sensual and dreamlike .

If anything captured for me the best of Dusany, it would be a passage from the witch, Ziroonderel, who was asked to spell away magic from the stodgy little town. It is a Cri de Coeur for the need for magic to make life bearable. It keeps the darkness at bay, the darkness that comes upon men as they age and turns them into no better than animated corpses.  A consummation devoutly to be avoided by a man like Dunsany who advocated for magic for most of his life.

"No spell indeed!" she hissed. "No spell indeed! By broom and stars and night-riding! Would you rob Earth of her heirloom that has come from the olden time? Would you take her treasure and leave her bare to the scorn of her comrade planets? Poor indeed were we without magic, whereof we are well stored to the envy of darkness and Space." She leaned forward from where she sat and stamped her stick, looking up in Narl's face with her fierce unwavering eyes. "I would sooner," she said, "give you a spell against water, that all the world should thirst, than give you a spell against the song of streams that evening hears faintly over the ridge of a hill, too dim for wakeful ears, a song threading through dreams, whereby we learn of old wars and lost loves of the Spirits of rivers. I would sooner give you a spell against bread, that all the world should starve, than give you a spell against the magic of wheat that haunts the golden hollows in moonlight in July, through which in the warm short nights wander how many of whom man knows nothing. I would make you spells against comfort and clothing, food, shelter and warmth, aye and will do it, sooner than tear from these poor fields of Earth that magic that is to them an ample cloak against the chill of Space, and a gay raiment against the sneers of nothingness.

"Go hence. To your village go. And you that sought for magic in your youth but desire it not in your age, know that there is a blindness of spirit which comes from age, more black than the blindness of eye, making a darkness about you across which nothing may be seen, or felt, or known, or in any way apprehended. And no voice out of that darkness shall conjure me to grant a spell against magic. Hence!" XX

Sidney Sime illustration

"A man is a very small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders."  The Laughter of the Gods (1917) 

Do visit Dunsany’s many worlds and enjoy the journey.   I wonder now if we after so much death this year we will have a renaissance of fantasy to heal our hearts? I hope so, we need magic now more than ever.

SO, what to eat? I give you 2 things that have taken me though the dark times of 2020

They may not be elvish but they are magical.  Chocolate cookies and chocolate coffee beans - not my normal exotic fair -- but what is normal these days?  Medieval cakes can wait till another day.

I often make a sandwich of the beans in the cookie for the perfect dish.  I force myself to eat only one a day in a few pieces – save for baking day – they are amazing right out of the oven.

The beans are creamy and truffle-like – they need to be refrigerated or they melt when they get too warm. Use less cream if you want them to travel better.

I hope that 2021 brings you and yours, peace, hope, joy, fulfillment and prosperity. May the veil of enchantment become a little finer this year – and may magic flow to and through us once again.

Chocolate Cookies for Dark Nights 12


½ c plus 2 T flour

½ c cocoa

½ c sugar

½ t baking soda

1/8 t baking powder

1/8 t salt

½ to 1 t chipotle chili powder, to taste

5T softened butter

½ egg

1 T espresso


½ c chopped  Raaka Cacao Nibs or more to taste (I love the variety from Raaka in Brooklyn – they are not roasted but fermented and add a compelling tang to the mix - I got a giant chunk of their chocolate from a show and have been using it up and loving it.)

Demerara sugar 


Preheat oven to 375º


Sift the dry ingredients together and add the wet.


Make into 12 balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Press the balls to flatten somewhat (I usually moisten the back of a measuring cup and smush them down).


Sprinkle the top with chocolate nibs.


Bake for 10-12 minutes – turning once. Sprinkle with the Demerara.


Chocolate Coffee Beans


2 T sugar

¼ water

2 T-1/4c cream

¾ c chopped chocolate

2 T maple syrup

½ t chipotle chili

A few drops of Aftelier rose or jasmine essence   (optional but recommended)

1 c Espresso beans


Dissolve the sugar in the water over M heat.  Add the cream – the more cream, the softer and the more melty the chocolate.  Add the Chocolate and stir continuously.  It might clump if the mixture is too hot when you put it in.  Add the maple syrup and it will smooth out with whisking or a mixer.  Add the chili and the flower essence.  Put a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet.  Spread the beans around the surface and pour the chocolate over the beans – stir to blend and let cool.  Then refrigerate.  Store on the paper in a plastic bag.

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