The Curmudgeon


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Curse of the Wise Woman

The recent film Dean Spanley, based on Lord Dunsany's novella, may possibly help to bring his other work a wider readership. If so, that will be all to the good, for Dunsany deserves to be far better known. Even today, he is probably remembered mainly as an influence on H P Lovecraft; and even Lovecraft, his most famous admirer, scarcely did his achievements justice.

Dunsany shot to fame at the beginning of the twentieth century with half a dozen books of short fantasy tales. The first volume, The Gods of Pegana, purports to contain the theology and cosmogony of a fictitious race of people, and is notable for combining a very simple prose style (derived partly from the King James Bible) with superbly sophisticated metaphor and such unsettlingly modern ideas as the infinity of space and time and the indifference of the universe to human endeavour. These were the works which earned Lovecraft's reverence; but after about the fourth volume Dunsany ran out of ideas in this vein and started camping it up - something for which Lovecraft does not seem ever to have really forgiven him.

But Dunsany was far from finished. He was born in 1878, published The Gods of Pegana in 1905 and kept on writing stories, novels, plays, memoirs and poetry until his death in 1957. He achieved immense popularity with his first fantasy stories and remained a well-known literary personality all his life; but almost none of his varied and voluminous output - which incorporates fantasy and supernatural fiction, humour, satire, drama and tragedy - is now in print. Somebody really ought to do something about it.

The Curse of the Wise Woman came out in 1933. It is set in Dunsany's native Ireland, and is written in a very different style to his early books; and different also from the deadpan conversational idiom which he adopted for his more humorous works. Narrated as the first-person memoirs of Charles James Peridore, a Catholic landowner's son, the book is written in an easy, flowing prose which makes it seem much shorter and simpler than it really is.

The possible presence of the supernatural is only one of several themes which are seamlessly interwoven throughout the story; and, this being an Irish story, religion and politics are naturally among them. Almost the first thing that happens is an intrusion into the Peridores' home by four armed men, who have come to kill the teenage Charles' widowed father. As they leave, having failed in their mission, one of the terrorists gives Charles a bit of friendly advice about shooting birds and men. His father's escape means that Charles is left to play truant from Eton (with the help of the obliging local doctor) and explore the bog with Marlin, the half-pagan peasant whose mother is the eponymous Wise Woman. Marlin believes himself damned because he cannot stop thinking about the pagan heaven at the expense of the Christian one - a religious difficulty which causes Charles considerable unease.

Though an Anglo-Irish landowner and a staunch Unionist (as a soldier in Dublin in 1916, he was wounded in the face during the Easter Rising), Dunsany resists any temptation he may have had to use his novel for the purposes of narrow propaganda. The political affiliations of Peridore père's would-be assassins are left deliberately vague; the men themselves turn out to be honourable after their fashion, and Charles ends up as an ambassador for the Irish Free State - certainly an ironic conclusion, but remarkably untainted with authorial ill-feeling, given Dunsany's low opinion of the Irish Free State as compared with the United Kingdom. Similarly, despite the scorn for conventional religion which Dunsany shows elsewhere, his handling of Charles' Catholicism, as set against the old ways of paganism and, later, the Protestantism of his fiancée, is tactful and touching.

There are a number of passages, especially at the beginning, where Charles discusses his hunting and shooting expeditions, which modern readers may find either tedious or distasteful; and I confess to a certain queasiness at the fox-hunter Charles' boast that he was "blooded" in his pram; but it soon becomes clear that the narrator's addiction to blood sports is part and parcel of his attachment to the Irish countryside, and specifically to the Lisronagh bog, which is soon to be raped by British industrialists. At the very least, Charles' sporting reminiscences are a good deal more poetic than the verbose obsession with big-game hunting which prevented my getting through Rider Haggard's She many years ago.

The novel's major theme, which incorporates and unites all the rest, is its lyrical vision of the Irish landscape and the lives and ways of its people - ways which are dying out as "progress" and industrialisation take their course; or perhaps they are merely subsumed, like the pagan beliefs which underlie the peasants' Catholic piety, or the fathomless layers of former lives beneath the surface of the bog, where Marlin finally goes to seek his pagan paradise and where, as Charles observes, a man's body can last as long as that of an Egyptian pharaoh. The climax, in which a great storm causes the bog to swell and overwhelm the machinery that is ripping out its heart, is a superb set-piece, and all the more effective for Dunsany's continued subtlety in the telling: it is impossible to say whether the storm is a natural phenomenon or whether the Wise Woman has, as she claims, brought it about by calling on the spirits of the wind.


  • At 12:14 am , Blogger michael greenwell said...


    dont know if i should comment on this one or a few previous.

    I left a few comments here i would quite like to be lost.

    Anyways, hope your feeling better and check your email.

  • At 10:53 am , Blogger Philip said...

    Much better, thanks, although thoroughly shagged out from having spent the best part of two weeks in various states ranging between discomfort and agony, and still dreading the extraction to come.

  • At 8:12 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

    From: Sophy Topley

    I very much enjoyed your account of the Curse of the Wise Woman. It is my favourite book, and I too am surprised that it isn't better known. Even specialists on the subject of Irish and Anglo Irish literature are not aware of it - Professor Roy Foster had never heard of the novel.
    It describes far better than any history text book the contradictions and endless shades of grey in the relationship between the Irish and the Anglo-Irish; there is a telling comment when on Charles's return to Eton he gives up trying to answer the other boys questions about his father as 'only the Irish boys understood.'
    I suppose the shooting and hunting descriptions might not find favour with some of today's readers, but Charles and Mrs Marlin's horror at the desecration of the bog is enviromentalism way ahead of it's time.
    Anyway, thank you for a interesting piece.

  • At 8:45 pm , Blogger Philip said...

    Thanks; glad you enjoyed it; I've now got The Blessing of Pan in waiting. I'm not exactly surprised at Dunsany's present obscurity - he's a "genre" author (though he probably wasn't thought of as such when he was alive), he achieved fame during his own lifetime (as with Blackwood and others, this can be at least as bad for the posthumous reputation as starving obscurely in a garret), he wasn't an Irish patriot after the fashion of Yeats, Joyce and the rest, and he wrote supernatural stories. All these things count against him in today's culture; and even those who come to him through Lovecraft often start and end with the early fantasy stories, partly no doubt because there isn't much else available. But as you say, he was well ahead of his time in some respects, and if he could be re-branded a Magic Realist and someone could revive the best of his plays, he might begin to gain some of the attention he still deserves.

  • At 2:28 pm , Blogger blaithingr said...

    I just finished reading this novel and loved it. The innocence of Charles, the superstitions, the nostalgia, the Irish ways, but most fascinating was Charles's relationship with the man in the black coat. This exceptional magnanimity for the man who tried to kill his father, and the strange loyalty between them thereafter was fascinating and heartwarming.


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