Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dreaming Over Book Titles with Lord Dunsany

In his pithy 1917 introduction to A Dreamer’s Tales And Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, Padraic Colum tells of how the author’s sense of the fabulous could send him dreaming simply over the sound of certain words: “He would not judge a book by its cover but he would, I am sure, judge it by its title. I have seen him become enraptured by titles of two books that were being reviewed at the time. One was “The High Deeds of Finn,” and the other “The History of the East Roman Empire from the Accession of Irene to the Fall of Basil the Third”. Colum adds, with a glancing wit, (“I am not sure I have got the Byzantine sovereigns in right).”

These are indeed titles to beguile the connoisseur of rare and strange works. The first must have been The High Deeds of Finn, and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland by T.W. Rolleston, with an introduction by Stopford A. Brooke, and with sixteen illustrations by Stephen Reid (London: Harrap & Co, 1910). This was one of several books of heroic romance that Rolleston wrote for Harrap: there was also Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911), Parsifal; or, the Legend of the Holy Grail, Retold from ancient sources with acknowledgement to the “Parsifal” of Richard Wagner (1912), and The Tale of Lohengrin, Knight of the Swan, after the drama of Richard Wagner (1913), these last two with artwork by Willy Pogany. It is no surprise that Dunsany would have been drawn to the ancient Irish tales, but what of the other book Colum names?

The book in question must without a doubt have been A History of the Eastern Roman Empire, from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. A.D. 802-867 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1912) by John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927). It will be seen that Colum had indeed not got his Byzantine sovereigns “in right”, since the fall was that of Irene and the accession that of Basil, and not the other way about as he has it, and the Emperor Basil was the first and not the third of that name. But I wouldn’t put it past Colum to have juggled his potentates on purpose for greater euphony or peculiarity.

Further investigation of this historian’s catalogue reveals other titles of interest. Dunsany would perhaps also have known his edition of the early Irish chronicle of The Itinerary of Patrick in Connaught, according to Tírechán (1903). On the other hand, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (London: Macmillan & co, 1928) sounds just like an episode passingly told in one of Dunsany’s histories of fallen kingdoms and vanquished cities, when the gods happened to be looking the other way.

The same historian’s The Imperial Administrative System in the Ninth Century, With a revised text of the Kletorologion of Philotheos (London: Oxford University Press, 1911) may not at first glance sound quite so thrilling as the rise and fall of empires and emperors. Yet it certainly may lead us to wonder what exactly was or is a kletorologion and why we have not encountered one before.

It transpires that it is a document giving the order of precedence of all the office-holders in the Byzantine Empire, whether bearded men or eunuchs (such was the distinction made). It was compiled to assist in ensuring they were all seated with the dignity proper to them at the imperial table. It also offers advice on the procession of the banqueting year and other useful information related thereto. This sounds quite Dunsanyesque too, and it would be possible to imagine a tale in which some slight mis-ordering of the imperial guests results in strife and discord and the tumbling of dynasties.

This book is replete with recondite and rather rococo detail. In contemplating the elaborate Byzantine hierarchies, Mr Bury provides some diverting footnotes. For example, we learn: “The Protovestiarius descended from the old comes sacrae vestis of the fifth century. He presided over the private wardrobe (sacra vestis) of the Emperor, to be distinguished from the public wardrobe which was under the Chartularius.” Who could doubt it?

Also, “The Deuteros was the assistant of the Papias, and took his place when he was ill, but was independent of him, and had subordinates of his own. His special province was the care of the Emperor's chairs and thrones (and probably the furniture) in the Chrysotriklinos, as well as the curtains in those apartments, and all the Imperial apparel and ornaments which were kept there.”

We may look in vain, however, for such surely essential appointments as the acolyte of the imperial cats, and the Lord High Librarian. But, now, what was the Chrysotriklinos? Why, it was the great domed throne room of the Emperor, in which the golden throne was guarded by two golden lions and crested by a golden banana tree with bejewelled birds perched among its leaves. Even the many refulgent palaces of Dunsany’s tales could not perhaps quite compete with that.

Curiously enough, Dunsany's own book titles are rarely of the same resonance as those he apparently admired. The Gods of Pegana is perhaps not so far off the mark, but Fifty-One Tales might be regarded as somewhat plain, while even The Book of Wonder and A Dreamer's Tales itself are not exactly richly ornate. Instead, Dunsany reserved his echoing prose for his story titles, and certainly there are those, such as "The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth" and "The Fall of Babbulkund" which might indeed compete with the high deeds of Finn and the accession of Basil I.

Mark Valentine

Picture: T W Rolleston (with thanks to The Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society).


  1. As it happens, just yesterday I bought a second copy of the early Modern Library Edition, with the limp leatherette binding, of A Dreamer's Tales. It cost a dollar and I couldn't pass it up. When I got home, I glanced at Column's introduction, which I'd read before, but paused over it long enough to reread that last paragraph in which he mentions those two book titles. Bookman's synchronicity? I own a copy of the Bury book, by the way.
    Another book I picked up yesterday was Carmen Sylva, by Pierre Loti, almost entirely because of the first sentence of the title story. Translated by Fred Rothwell, it carries the date "November, 1887" and begins: "During my wanderings, I once chanced to spend a few days with a fairy, in an enchanted castle."--md

  2. Thanks, Michael, and it was a copy of the Modern Library edition in blue leatherette where I read the Colum introduction too. I like the insouciance of Loti's opening line! Mark