Friday, August 29, 2008

Lord Dunsany

I have just read the most perfect short story I have ever read, or can imagine ever reading. It's a lighthearted, frivolous tall tale. It has moments of arresting beauty. And it says as much about what it means to have faith in worldly things as any human creature could well bear to hear. It's called "The Charm against Thirst," by Lord Dunsany.

It's in a collection of "Jorkens" stories, from the 1920's. I'd never heard of them before. Jorkens is a world traveler who tells fabulous stories in his club, if you buy him drinks and promise to believe him; he's close kin to the tale-spinning clubmen of Wodehouse. But where Wodehouse was an entertainer, pure and simple (an honorable trade, and one that no one ever practiced better), Dunsany carries the numinous in everything he writes, like a faint electrical charge. I've read five of the Jorkens stories so far, and they've all delighted me. They work perfectly as entertainments, but there's far more than that running below the surface: the ache to be believed, the mournful sense of being stranded in the workaday world, after a sight of wonders that have left you forever unfitted for it, but which you can never return to or properly convey.

Or maybe you're just an old fraud, cadging drinks. Hard to tell.

If you haven't read The King of Elfland's Daughter or The Charwoman's Shadow, and if you have a taste for fantastical tales, you should read those. But don't try them if you don't like that sort of thing. The Jorkens stories, though, won't offend those whose sensibilities are wounded by archaic language, or by magic taken seriously. Jorkens is just a club raconteur. You're not asked to believe him -- the narrator doesn't believe him either. You're just there for a story.

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