Lord Dunsany and The Blessing of Pan (1928)

Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan (1636) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

N.B. This is an old post from the previous iteration of this site. I’ve tweaked a few things here and there in the entry, but they are mostly unchanged. My previous website was more of a jobs site, so a lot of the entries are Classics-centric, and that won’t necessarily be the case going forward.

Warning: if you’ve never read Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan (1928), there be spoilers within! Caveat lector/lectrix!

I normally write about exclusively Classics topics on here, but this is Classics-adjacent, so let’s go with it. It’s been awhile since I’ve written on here. I picked up Lord Dunsany’s novel The Blessing of Pan (1928), which I’ve had on my shelf for ages. I have what I consider a nice little collection of Dunsany’s works — mostly books of short stories, but a couple of novels and other works as well. The venerable Wildside Press has been kind enough to reprint and keep in press a number of his short story collections; most of these are available on Internet Archive as free PDFs, but there’s something about having physical books in your hands, you know?

A little backstory on Lord Dunsany, then, if you don’t know much about him. Lord Dunsany, aka Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), wrote many lovely, dreamlike, fantastic, and terrifying tales. He created his own pantheon in a land called Pegana, among other things, and was both an inspiration to and a contemporary of H. P. Lovecraft. I personally think he’s a better writer than Lovecraft, even though I do enjoy my Lovecraft (despite the utterly reprehensible racism and xenophobia writ large throughout his stories). Dunsany revels in the wonder of things marvelous and strange, in the mysteries of cosmos, but also looks inward and microcosmically. He delights in the dark depths of a wood, the daily habits of its creatures seen and unseen, and finds beauty in the rustic and sublime alike. Dunsany fought in both WWI and WWII (in the former to a greater extent), and his experiences in WWI are chronicled in story-form in the collections Tales of War and Unhappy Far-Off Things, inter alia. They are definitely a counterpoint to his more ethereal work.

My first introduction to Dunsany was through a small, well-worn volume printed in the early 1900s, a double-bill of The Book of Wonder and The Gods of Pegana. My ex-girlfriend procured it at some point, and wasn’t interested in reading it, so she gave it to me. I started reading it and was immediately hooked. I was already a fan of Lovecraft, so once I found out that Dunsany was an inspiration, I was even more interested. I still have that little volume, even after 15 or so years, and it’s wrapped up in green bubblewrap to protect it from the elements; it’s been through at least 2 or 3 moves since I first received it. Eventually I came across Wildside Press and their reprints, and started to build my Dunsany collection. The most recent addition to my Dunsany collection came a few years ago, Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer and Other Fantasms (1980), a posthumous collection of stories, essays, and even a play or two. I think I am going to read that next after I finish the novel Alice Isn’t Dead. Since there is but a finite amount of Dunsany’s work left for me to read, I’ve tried to savor it and thus haven’t read it as quickly as I might other authors.

In any case, another highlight of Dunsany’s literary output is The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), a novel which both supposedly inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and, much later, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Dunsany’s novel just sings off the page, a story about a hero who travels and meets an elf-princess and tries to win her heart. Pretty simple story, but so elegantly told. Here are a couple of wonderful quotes from it:

The witch approached it and pared its edges with a sword that she drew from her thigh. Then she sat down beside it on the earth and sang to it while it cooled. Not like the runes that enraged the flames was the song she sang to the sword: she whose curses had blasted the fire till it shrivelled big logs of oak crooned now a melody like a wind in summer blowing from wild wood gardens that no man tended, down valleys loved once by children, now lost to them but for dreams, a song of such memories as lurk and hide along the edges of oblivion, now flashing from beautiful years of glimpse of some golden moment, now passing swiftly out of remembrance again, to go back to the shades of oblivion, and leaving on the mind those faintest traces of little shining feet which when dimly perceived by us are called regrets. She sang of old Summer noons in the time of harebells: she sang on that high dark heath a song that seemed so full of mornings and evenings preserved with all their dews by her magical craft from days that had else been lost, that Alveric wondered of each small wandering wing, that her fire had lured from the dusk, if this were the ghost of some day lost to man, called up by the force of her song from times that were fairer.

Very prolix, but how wonderful is that, full and rich with detail and imagery. This quote has stayed with me for many years. Here’s a battle-scene from the book that is equally wonderful:

And the sword that had visited Earth from so far away smote like the falling of thunderbolts; and green sparks rose from the armour, and crimson as sword met sword; and thick elvish blood moved slowly, from wide slits, down the cuirass; and Lirazel gazed in awe and wonder and love; and the combatants edged away fighting into the forest; and branches fell on them hacked off by their fight; and the runes in Alveric’s far-travelled sword exulted, and roared at the elf-knight; until in the dark of the wood, amongst branches severed from disenchanted trees, with a blow like that of a thunderbolt riving an oak tree, Alveric slew him.

It comes off like a Homeric epic almost, but look at the shades of Tolkien in that “smote” within. Another quote has stuck with me for a long time, one which evokes the power of the written word and the magic of books:

And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man’s thought 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.

Just wonderful. And that’s just one book of his. I could probably pull many more quotes out that would dazzle, but that’s enough for now, at least from that book.

I remember hating poetry and purple, prolix prose in high school, but then eventually embracing it. I like authors who luxuriate in the power of the written word, who paint a picture with words. I just love that. Dunsany’s works do that wonderfully, and there is just so much joy, but also sadness, in his work. Sadness for things lost, for the old ways that used to hold sway, for forgotten grandeur. Dunsany’s work is full of the numinous allure of antiquity, and he also really evokes the holiness of a place; you can almost see the genius loci haunting the wood or whatever old, forgotten place he’s writing about.

All that said, it was a joy to return to Dunsany’s world when I picked up The Blessing of Pan. The book opens with a vicar, Elderick Anwrel (what a name!), who lives in a small, rustic corner of Britain called Wolding, and he is perplexed by a strange music he hears late at night. Dunsany spends a lot of time flitting about the village, showing us the different locales and reveling in the beauty of nature. Eventually the “culprit,” if we can call him that, is discovered: a youth, Tommy Duffin, a farmer’s boy, is apparently going to a hill not far from the center of town and playing panpipes he cut from reeds himself. Tommy is as perplexed by his playing as the vicar is, but while Tommy finds it benign, dreamy, and wonderful, the vicar, being Christian, finds it to be terrifying anathema.

Largely the novel is about the vicar’s terrified, confusing “battle” of Christianity vs. paganism as he is increasingly saddened by his congregation’s slow descent into paganism. The vicar keeps reminiscing about the “old ways” steeped in Christianity, but honestly, which are the “old” ways? Arguably, the paganism to which the village seems to be returning would have been “older” still. Wolding even has a mini-“Stonehenge” on the aforementioned hill, a circle of stones with a long, flat slab in the middle, strongly implied to have been a place of sacrifice long ago.

Much of the novel focuses on Anwrel’s anguish at the encroachment of paganism on his parish and everything he knows, and he shrinks and shudders at its foreignness, even as everyone else, including his wife, seem to acquiesce and be lulled by the piping. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it’s well worth reading.

One part I wanted to mention in particular is that, of course, ancient Greek shows up in the novel, as it’s about Pan and his presence being felt in this small village. Anwrel asks a fellow clergyman, Hetley, for help in vain; Hetley was a Greek scholar, but really only began his studies “at the Peloponnesian War,” unfortunately, so he claims ignorance about anything before then. Anwrel hears the schoolmistress and the children of the village chanting one day, and eventually pieces it together as Greek: ἐγω Πᾶν πάντων τῶν λόφων Ἀρκαδίου [sic] βασιλεύς, which he translates as “I Pan, of all the Arcadian valleys, King.” It’s almost correct. λόφος means “ridge,” which is close enough, but Ἀρκαδίου means “of Arcadios.” A better word would be either Ἀρκάδων to modify λόφων, or simply Ἀρκαδίας, “of Arcadia.” But I’m nit-picking, and honestly it was cool to see Greek show up in the story at all.

I wanted to get my thoughts down after reading the book and share them with you all, so I hope you enjoyed this. I am excited to pick up that other Dunsany book, Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer and Other Fantasms, soon, but not quite yet. In the pipes are a couple more blog entries, hopefully sooner than later, on Herodotos: on forms of government and their virtues, a discussion by the Persians, and also ruminations on the death of a sibling. I’ve been thinking about these for awhile, but haven’t gotten to writing them yet. I need to work on translating the Herodotean passages in question, and I am really rusty on my Herodotos, so it may take a little while. Otherwise, thanks for reading, everyone!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *