H.P. Lovecraft once attended a lecture given by Lord Dunsany during a speaking tour of the United States in November of 1919. L. Sprague De Camp reports that Lovecraft later commemorated the event in a 64 line poem written in his ponderous, 18th century style. Dunsany received a copy of this poem from another fan who attended the lecture. Next to Poe, Dunsany was one of Lovecraft’s principle idols. At least six of Lovecraft’s tales can be classified as clearly ‘Dunsanian’ in approach. Two of Lovecraft’s colleagues, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, (of the Conan stories) were also strongly influenced by Dunsany’s work.
Dunsany’s first book was a collection of closely related stories called The Gods of Pegāna (1905), which he published himself. The second, Time and the Gods, (1906), is another collection of stories utilizing the same mythology that Dunsany had created for the first book. S.T. Joshi notes that Dunsany was likely an atheist, (though not as avid as Lovecraft), and used the deities in his mythology to represent key philosophical beliefs. Characters are named but seem mainly to personify natural forces and religious or political ideas. Several of the stories in Time and the Gods are reminiscent of creation myths and pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena.
Despite the supposed atheism of both Dunsany and Lovecraft, it does seem that their fiction reveals a preoccupation with religious themes. Whether it is God, or gods, or vast impersonal cosmic forces, both authors address the question of what our relationship should be to the inexplicable and supernatural events that surround us. Both tackle such weighty themes as the problem of evil, idolatry, subversion, and humanity’s control over its own destiny.
Lovecraft’s response to cosmic fear and cosmic inexplicableness is typically one of cowardly retreat into endless anxiety. Basically, this was his response to the demands of adulthood and his dwindling finances sublimated and writ large. Dunsany on the other hand is much more engaging and empathic towards the often times fearful plight of humanity. He approaches the ‘big questions’ with a subtle and affectionate wit, as well as a sophisticated cynicism.
Examples of Dunsany’s cynicism may be found in two of his later stories. One of these is How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon The Gnoles, (1912). Nuth, an infamous burglar, apparently gave up writing lessons early in life “for he seemed to have a prejudice against forgery, and therefore considered writing a waste of time.” One of the minor characters, the mother of Nuth’s new apprentice, warns her husband that they must lock their own windows at night, now that their son is in training to be a burglar under Nuth’s tutelage. Nuth later sets up his hapless apprentice with some gnoles. He observes the young man’s ghastly demise while safely hidden, plotting a later heist.
The well known story, The Hoard of the Gibbelins, (1912), famously opens with: “The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man.” Because of their great wealth in jewels, they are able to attract a more than adequate food supply, typically by leaving trails of rubies that connect their abode to human cities.
So far, one of my favorite stories from Time and the Gods is “When The Gods Slept”. Bored with eternity and the worlds they have created, the gods fall asleep, allowing “Death’s three children” to run amok. This would be Famine, Pestilence and Drought. Meanwhile, three travelling Yozis, “spirits of ill”, try to take advantage of the situation by offering themselves as deities to various human societies. But as they travel around the world in search of believers, no one will take them seriously.
Dunsany uses this as a frame for considering various orientations to the gods: the sensual importance of incense and animal sacrifice, adherence to hallowed traditions, a theology of end times, and simple gratitude for “good things”. In return for worship, the Yozis offer immediate gratification of prayers, but it is still ‘no sale’. The various human societies remain loyal to their gods, even when the deities are sleeping and unresponsive.
In exasperation, the three Yozis must lower their evolutionary standards and offer themselves as gods to “a herd of great baboons”. One baboon complains that “prayers hindered the eating of nuts”. But the Yozis offer a compelling deal, and the baboons accept. In return for worship, the Yozis will make the baboons into men. Dunsany uses a deceptively simple and disarming fable to comment on much larger ideas about human societies and religion. There are many stories like this in Time and the Gods, a book well worth reading.