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Fifty-One Tales Paperback – January 31, 2003
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by at least an entire generation of readers, if not more. While Dunsany is an oft overlooked author and not nearly enough people are familiar with his masterpiece; "The King of Elfland's Daughter", the works contained here are not his best. This is also not a book for children as the vocabulary will be beyond the grasp of most and the oft wry humor as well. Even the humor often falls short of the mark although the reader can almost always tell it is aimed. An example would be the retelling of the fable about the tortoise and the hare in which the outcome is changed to include a fatal forest fire. I would venture to say this is not the best place to begin with this author but can be appreciated after reading other, finer works.
He only wrote relatively few novels and novellas, but loads of short stories. And "Fifty One Tales" compiles the shortest of those stories, often meditations on death, joy, life and time. They're less like short stories than long vignettes, but they are striking.
In this collection, Dunsany writes of sunken ships, of Fame's prediction to a young poet, the ghost of a workman, Death trying to frighten the legendary hero Odysseus, a king dreams of a beautiful queen who has been dead for forty years, and a Spanish pirate whose evil deeds mean that he isn't allowed to die.
There is some dark humour in these stories as well, such as when Time comes across a man "antiquing" a wooden chair, and is a bit put out that his work is being done unnaturally. "Charon" is perhaps the most striking of these: the ferrymen of the dead is told by a dead passenger that "I am the last," and finally breaks a smile.
Not many authors could have such an impact with such short stories. Most of them are less than a page long, and sometimes they only focus on a minute or two. Despite this, Dunsany's excellent use of words paints some very, very vivid pictures.
Usually Dunsany either made up his own legends, or sort of coopted vague Eastern myths as they were to the Victorians. "Fifty Tales" isn't quite the same; Greek mythology has a strong presence here, with Odysseus, Pan, Pegasus, Charon, Homer and Helen all either appearing or being referred to.
Dunsany always had an excellent command of language, and he does a great job with "grey and watchful mountains," "glaring factories," and a world being choked by modernity. In one story, flowers cry out: "Great engines rush over the beautiful fields, their ways lie hard and terrible up and down the land," and in another a poet cries out in sorrow because "the progress of modern commerce" has made his songs unwanted.
Bittersweet and beautifully written, these fifty-one short stories leave behind the impression of a magical land that has faded away. Though not Dunsany's best work, it's still a classic.