I decided to start the challenge by going back to the beginning of the 20th century by reading Lord Dunsany’s The Sword of Welleran. Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, is considered by many the father of modern fantasy and credited as a major influence by Lovecraft, Tolkien, Howard, and even contemporary writers like Neil Gaiman.
The Sword of Welleran is his most popular short story and hands down one of the best, if not the best fantasy short stories I have ever read. These past two weeks I went back and re-read it several times and even listened to an audio version. Lovecraft said that Dunsany was the greatest prose writer of the day, after reading this story I agree.
The Sword of Welleran is about a magnificent city, a city of pure beauty, the city of Merimna.
I have never seen a city in the world so beautiful as Merimna seemed to me when first I dreamed of it. It was a marvel of spires and figures of bronze, and marble fountains, and trophies of fabulous wars, and broad streets given over wholly to the Beautiful. Right through the centre of the city there went an avenue fifty strides in width, and along each side of it stood likenesses in bronze of the Kings of all the countries that the people of Merimna had ever known.
It was a proud city built by war and protected by its ferocious and honorable heroes, Welleran, Soorenard, Mommolek, Rollory, Akanax, and young Iraine. Heroes that now are long dead and the current inhabitants have become ignorant about the art of war. They wonder the magnificent streets dreaming about the ancient ways, dressed like the warriors of the past, but in fear of the outside world.
But there was one young boy,
He was five years old, and they stood before the great glass casket wherein lay the sword of Welleran, and his mother said: “The sword of Welleran.” And Rold said: “What should a man do with the sword of Welleran?” And his mother answered: “Men look at the sword and remember Welleran.” And they went on and stood before the great red cloak of Welleran, and the child said: “Why did Welleran wear this great red cloak?” And his mother answered: “It was the way of Welleran.”
He dreamt of Welleran and the heroes, and he dreamt of a time when men were brave and defended Merimna.
Outside the city walls, the old enemies congregated, they began to realize that the heroes were gone, that no real men lived in Merimna that could stand up to their hordes. So they came, they came in the night.
Then the sun set, and it was the hour when the bats and the dark creatures are abroad and the lions come down from their lairs, and the desert robbers go into the plains again, and fevers rise up winged and hot out of chill marshes, and it was the hour when safety leaves the thrones of Kings, the hour when dynasties change.
Check out that line, wow, it sent chills down my spine. The short story ends in with a magnificent and moving climax that left me feeling completely inadequate about my writing.
But most of all it made me think about heroism, honor, duty, home, country, and family. This short, 10,000-word story moved me. Published in 1908 yet completely applicable today. Merimna, a beautiful culture built by honorable strong men whos descendants enjoy its glory but have forgotten how to lift a sword in her defense from the hordes of barbarians outside ready to plunder.
The theme of a magnificent martial civilization in decline is all over Tolkiens work. Gondor is Merimna, and the theme of having to embrace the violence a hero abhors to protect your home.
At the end of Welleran you have this amazing line, one of the greatest in all fantasy literature:
And Rold said: “O sword, sword! How horrible thou art! Thou art a terrible thing to have come among men. How many eyes shall look upon gardens no more because of thee? How many fields must go empty that might have been fair with cottages, white cottages with children all about them? How many valleys must go desolate that might have nursed warm hamlets, because thou hast slain long since the men that might have built them? I hear the wind crying against thee, thou sword! It comes from the empty valleys. It comes over the bare fields. There are children’s voices in it. They were never born. Death brings an end to crying for those that had life once, but these must cry for ever. O sword! sword! why did the gods send thee among men?” And the tears of Rold fell down upon the proud sword but could not wash it clean.
This line is echoed years later in Lord of the Rings, spoken by Faramir:
“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
I honestly came to the challenge and expected to read a few fun stories, sword and sorcery types. Instead, I read Dunsany and everything I thought I knew about fantasy was demolished. I’ve spent the last two weeks devouring his work and won’t stop until I’m done with everything I can find. Reading modern fantasy without going back to Dunsany is like eating just a bit of frosting and some sprinkles instead of the whole magnificent piece of cake.
So, stop what you are doing, put on some headphones, turn some music on, and read Sword of Welleran.
But I’m warning you, once you dive into greatness modern junk becomes unbearable. Trying to read shit like Crapfuss after Dunsany will feel like a teenager listening to Britney Spears after discovering The Ramones.