Read an Excerpt
Lin Carter's original introductions to the Dunsany books published by Ballantine Books in the 1960s and 1970s unwittingly perpetuated an error. From the writings of a colleague, Carter picked up the datum that the barony was established shortly after the Norman Conquest; a scholarly reader, Dr. John Boardman, an instructor in English literature at Brooklyn College, delved into Burke's Peerage and Landed Gentry, Cockayne's Complete Peerage, etc., and passed along the fruits of his researches into Dunsany's ancestry, which he felt might be of interest to the new generation of readers.
Carter was correct in stating the family was founded by Norman conquerors. The family in Ireland was founded by a Norman adventurer named John Plunkett. (Dr. Boardman suggests the old family name was Hibernicized to its present form Plunkett, from something typically Norman French, like "Plounquette.") But this occurred somewhat later than Carter's previous introductions suggested. The Norman Conquest of Ireland was in the 12th century, in the reign of Henry II, not back in 1066.p
John Plunkett held lands at Bewley (or "Beaulieu") in county Meath. This is north of Dublin, in that area of Ireland first to be seized by the Normans. Meath is also, as Carter noted in his original introduction to The King of Elfland's Daughter, the ancient demense of the ard-ri, the emperor of the Celts. Tara of the Kings, the legendary capital of the High King, was in county Meath.
The descendents of John Plunkett became noblemen; the baronies of Louth and of Fingall are branches of Dunsany's family. The first Lord Dunsany, Christopher Plunkett,was the great-great-great-grandson of John Plunkett. Christopher, Lord Dunsany, came to the title in 1439 or 1449 (the reference books disagree on this point). Thus our author's title was not a thousand years old, as had erroneously been reported, but "only" five centuries old.
Our Lord Dunsany was born in 1878 and died in 1957. His son, Randall, succeeded to the family title as 19th baron. The ancient and honorable line, incidentally, seems in no present danger of extinction; the present Lord Dunsany has a son, born to his Brazilian wife in 1939. There is also a cadet branch, descending from the writer's brother, an Admiral in the Royal Navy, who died in 1967, leaving a son who had since fathered three grandchildren. Should the present direct line die out, the eldest male of the cadet branch would inherit the title.
Burke's Peerage also yields a description of Lord Dunsany's coat-of-arms. Dr. Boardman, whose many hobbies include the ancient science of heraldry, has also passed along a technical description of the crest, motto, and supporters of the Dunsany arms. To quote Dr. Boardman precisely:
CREST: a horse, passant, argent
SUPPORTERS: Dexter, a pegasus per fesse or and argent; Sinister, an antelope argent, collared, chained, armed, and hoofed or
MOTTO: Festina lente.
"Sinister" and "dexter" are heraldic terms for "left" and "right", while argent means "silver" and or means "gold". Dr. Boardman translates the motto as "Hasten slowly." And he adds, parenthetically, as regards the sinister supporter, "The antelope, incidentally, is not the timid and graceful beast of our modern zoos. The heraldic antelope was a mythical beast, horned, tufted, and carniverous."
His full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, eighteenth Baron Dunsany (which rhymes with "un-rainy"). He stood four inches over six feet, was once chess champion of Ireland and had been affectionately called "the worst-dressed man" in that country. He was many men rolled into one -- peer, soldier, novelist, poet, sportsman, globetrotter, playwright, translator, essayist. To quote our colleague, L. Sprague de Camp, who met the late Dowager Lady Dunsany and saw the family home, "When not roaming the world, hunting foxes in the British Isles or wild goats in the Sahara, or serving as a British officer in the Boer and Kaiserian wars... he alternated between a Regency house in Kent and a twelfth-century Norman castle in County Meath." Twelfth-century castles are inclined to be somewhat less than comfortable according to modern standards; Castle Dunsany was thus modernized about two hundred years ago. (Apropos of this, the Dowager Lady Dunsany once remarked to Mr. de Camp, "If you're going to modernize a castle, the 18th century is the best time to do it").
Most fantasy enthusiasts consider Lord Dunsany one of the most significant forces in modern fantasy; his influences have been observed in the works of Fletcher Pratt, H.P. Lovecraft, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, and many other modern writers.
The Book of Wonder is, simply put, Dunsany at his peak of his talent. The stories here are a lush tapestry of language, conjuring images of people, places, and things which cannot possibly exist, yet somehow ring true. They are, in short, full of wonder. Together with Dunsany's other major collections -- which include A Dreamer's Tales, Time and the Gods, and Gods of Pegana--The Book of Wonder is a necessary part of any fantasy collection.
If this is your first encounter with Lord Dunsany, you will be delighted, moved, amused, and caught up in the sheer poetry of his words. If you are a return visitor to the Lands Beyond the Fields We Know, you are already aware of what sort of treat awaits you. Enjoy!
-- Lin Carter &
John Gregory Betancourt
Copyright © 2002 by John Gregory Betancourt