Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The magic of Lord Dunsany

I think of myself as having been a fantasy fiction fan in my youth, but really I was more in love with the idea of fantasy. Starting with Ray Bradbury when I was about 11 years old, I immersed myself in, to give it a more inclusive name, speculative fiction, which pretty much covers fantasy, science fiction, and anything that takes place in a world that isn’t quite ours. Bradbury is generally thought of as a sci-fi writer, but really most of his work is fantasy, with scientific concerns only secondary to his poetic explorations of nostalgia, childhood, and social issues. The Mars of The Martian Chronicles is much more like an earthly fantasy world than, let’s say, the harder action/sci-fi Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

But when I started reading traditional fantasy, I realized I wasn’t really such a big fan. In high school, the perfect time to discover Tolkien, I read The Hobbit twice, but could not get more than about 150 pages into the first of the Lord of the Rings book (and I tried three times). I dipped my toes in sword and sorcery, Tarzan, fairy world books, and spiritual fantasy (George MacDonald, CS Lewis) but never really took to any of those genres like I thought I should. Now, with the preponderance of trilogies and wizard children and the like, most things labeled "fantasy" don’t appeal to me at all--except for Lovecraft and his kind, whose writings are more horror than fantasy.

However, while reading a new book called Electric Eden, about the quasi-psychedelic folk-rock movement in the England in the 60s, I came across a reference to Lord Dunsany, a fantasy writer of the first half of the 20th century (pictured). I went down to the basement and, sure enough, there was a old Ballantine paperback of one of his novels, The Charwoman’s Daughter, which I'd bought used many years ago and never cracked open. I did so that night and am quite glad I did.

Despite the dragons on the cover of the paperback, the world of The Charwoman’s Daughter is not too far removed from the real world; it's set in Spain during a time referred to as "the Golden Age." The Lord of the Tower and Rocky Forest has come upon hard times and is trying to arrange a good marriage for his daughter despite having no money in her dowry, so he sends his son Ramon Alonzo to be tutored by a old magician who lives deep in the woods, alone except for an old cleaning lady, the charwoman of the title. The father, who did a favor for the magician many years ago, hopes the magician will teach the boy the art of alchemy so he can create some gold for the daughter's dowry.

At first, the magician seems kindly, but soon Ramon Alonzo discovers that the price for such learning is his shadow. The charwoman sold her shadow to the magician in her youth and has regretted it ever since; she is shunned for not casting a shadow (the townsfolk assume she has struck some kind of demonic deal) so she hasn’t left the magician's house for years. Despite the warning, Ramon agrees to give the magician his shadow and comes to regret it. Out of a sense of chivalry, he vows to get the charwoman's shadow back, and ideally his as well.

This is not a fantasy novel full of swords or magical creatures, though the magic of the magician is indeed real; there is a strange and evocative scene in which the magician communes with the various shadows he has taken over the years, sending them into deep space to faraway planets. The magical world is vague and mysterious; there are imps in the background, and a love potion plays an important role in the last half of the book. The spell this book casts is largely through language. As in an epic poem, there are certain almost incantatory phrases used throughout; the magician's secret room in which he keeps the box of shadows is always referred to as "the room that was sacred to magic." There is a character known as the Duke of Shadow Valley (almost sounds like a superhero). There is some beautiful writing: twilight is described as "the hour when Earth has most reverence, the hour when her mystery reaches out and touches the hearts of her children." A romantic relationship develops between the young Ramon and the old charwoman which is predictable (if you know your fairy tales) but still satisfying. And the last few pages, which involve the fate of the magician, and the Golden Age itself, are almost hallucinatorily beautiful.

In short, this is the fantasy novel that I was hoping to find in my youth, that might have kept me a fan of the genre for a long time. I’m hoping to spend much of the summer in the company of Lord Dunsany.