Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, March 4, 2021


 The Charwoman's Shadow by Lord Dunsany (1926)

Ramon Alonzo Matthew-Mark-Luke-John of the Tower and Rocky Forest in a long-ago and magical Spain is tasked by his father, Gonsolvo, the Lord of the Tower and Rocky Forest, in bringing gold for Ramon Alonzo's sister's dowry.  The girl is now fifteen and needs to be married soon, as was the custom, but her father never learned the art of getting gold (he was more interested in hunting boar) so the casket of silver and oak that was to contain young Mirandola's dowry was empty.  And the nearest person -- basically the only person -- who would be a "suitable" husband for Mirandola was the fat and unpleasant Gulvarez, who own a small estate and raised wonderful pigs.

At one time, Ramon Alonzo's grandfather was hunting in the dense woods by the slope of a mountain a day's walk away, when he met a strange man, a magician.  The two talked and the grandfather told the magician about hunting boar, which was the great joy in Ramon Alonzo's grandfather's life.  The magician felt that this information about boar hunting was of great import and was one of the few things that he had not known before.  On parting, the magician gave the grandfather a scrap of paper upon which he had written something.  It was a letter of friendship inviting the grandfather or whomever he should send with the letter into the magician's home in the deep woods.

Magician's are well-known for their alchemy and can easily transmute dross into gold.  And Mirandola's dowry needed gold.  Ramon Alonzo was told to find the magician, show him the letter of friendship, and have the magician teach him the secret of making gold.  Easy peasy.

The magician's home was large and very old, perhaps as old as the magician himself who, once every thirty years, takes a draft from the elixir of life to remain immortal.  The magician agrees to tutor Ramon Alonzo in the ways of magic, although he poo-poos the idea of transmuting gold as something minor and not really worth studying.  Ramon Alonzo, however, insists on learning to make gold and the magician finally agrees,,,for a fee.

The fee is simple.  The magician will take Ramon Alonzo's shadow.  Ramon Alonzo objects and the magician vows to replace it with a false shadow so that Ramon would hardly know the difference.  It turns out that this false shadow -- the bad shadow -- is fixed; it does not grow as the sun lowers as normal shadows do.  On the earthly plane, shadows follow humans and do what the humans lead it to do.  In the afterlife, though, shadows lead humans and humans must follow the shadows wherever they go.  And bad shadows go to damnation.

The only other person living at the magician's home is an old, bent, withered charwoman who had also given her shadow to the magician.  Ramon Alonzo is a courtly and gallant youth and feels pity for the charwoman, who regrets giving up her shadow.  He vows to get the old charwoman's shadow back for her.

The Charwoman's Shadow is a wonderfully inventive fantasy told with a glorious acknowledgement of the wonders of nature and with a sly appreciation of human ingenuity.  When villagers of a nearby town see Ramon Alonzo and his "bad shadow," they turn against him and hunt him.  Meanwhile at home, Mirandola cleverly plots her future.  The magician uses the shadows he has collected for evil purposes and as messengers to dark beings across the cosmos.  The forest is filled with fairies, elves, imps, and other supernatural creatures who may be forced to do the magician's bidding.  Although much of the ending is telegraphed, the book remains a masterpiece of the imagination.

Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, 1878-1957) was a man of many parts -- writer, successful playwright, sportsman, peer of the realm, chess expert, campaigner for animal rights, cricketer, and supporter of the Boy Scouts and other organizations -- who wrote some of the most engaging fantasies of the early twentieth century.  Scion of the second oldest title in Irish peerage, Dunsany was a major donor to the Abbey Theater and was friendly with William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Rudyard Kipling and he socialized with Padric Colum, "AE" (George William Russell), Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells.  

Lord Dunsany created his own literary pantheon when he published the story collection The Gods of Peguna.   He made a major contribution to the "club story" with his character Joseph Jorkens who appeared in some 150 short stories.  His crime story "Two Bottles of Relish" is one of the most reprinted stories in the genre.  His first novel, Don Rodriguez:  Chronicles of Shadow Valley was set in the same Spain that never was that The Charwoman's Shadow is.  Other important fantasy novels include The King of Elfland's Daughter, The Curse of the Wise Woman, and The Blessings of Pan.

Lord Dunsany has been a major influence on the modern fantasy.  Writers who have acknowledged him include H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Jorge Luis Borges, Talbot Munday, Donald Wandrei, Guillermo del Toro, C. M. Kornbluth, Manly Wade Wellma, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Margaret St, Clair, David Eddings, Gene Wolfe, M. J. Engh...I could go on.

Dunsany published a wide variety of work, from short stories and novels to play and poetry to essays and autobiography.  If you have never read Dunsany, you owe it to yourself to start.

Dunsany was also a bit of an odd duck.  He wrote his stories with quill pens that he would make himself and he usually wrote while sitting on a white hat.  He like coarse salt -- and lots of it -- and would bring his own supply while traveling or visiting.  


  1. Finally strikes me that one of his closest correspondents in US literature is Fritz Leiber. The fiction is similar enough, and I don't know to what extent they read each other during the overlap, but beyond the fiction, the other interests...

  2. Clark Ashton Smith "borrowed" some of Lord Dunsany's style in some of his stories. And Fritz Leiber was open in his admiration of Dunsany's work. I have enjoyed all the Lord Dunsany stories I've read so I obvious need to read more! Excellent review on your part!