Saturday, June 4, 2011

When the body refuses the soul's assignment


Edward Plunkett, known in society and to his vast reading audience as Lord Dunsany, was one of the masters of fantasy, producing more than sixty books in his lifetime at high speed, his publishers generally content to print the first drafts that he sent them exactly as they came in. He was an Anglo-Irish gentleman of the old school, a hunter, the chess and pistol-shooting champion of Ireland. But while he rode his fields, his mind was forever beyond the fields we know, in Elfland or in a Carcassonne of the imaginal realm, where a witch queen, terrible in her beauty

Swims in a marble bath through whose deeps a rive tumbles, or lies all morning on the edge of it to dry slowly in the sun, and watches the heaving river trouble the deeps of the bath. It flows through the caverns of earth for further than she knows and coming to light in the witch’s bath goes down through the earth again to its own peculiar sea….
When there is blood in the bath she knows there is war in the mountains
.

Somewhere between here and Elfland, Lord Dunsany came by an unhappy body engaged in a painful dialogue with its soul. “The Unhappy Body” (his title for the tale) is tired; all it wants is to sleep. The soul will not allow it to rest because it has an urgent assignment for this body. Everywhere, the soul explains,

People’s dreams are wandering afield, they pass the seas and mountains of faery, threading the intricate passes led by their souls; they come to golden temples a-ring with a thousand bells; they pass up steep streets lit by paper lanterns, where the doors are green and small; they know their way to witches’ chambers and castles of enchantment; they know the spell that brings them to the causeway along the ivory mountains – on one side looking downward they behold the fields of their youth and on the other lie the radiant plains of the future.

But people forget their dreams. From their dream awakenings, they go back to sleep, forgetting the realms of magic and enchantment, and the causeway from which they can see into past and future. The soul’s urgent assignment for the body is: “Arise and write down what the people dream.”

The body asks what reward it will receive for doing this. When told there is no reward, the body declares, “Then I shall sleep.” But the soul rouses the body with a song, and wearily the body takes up a pen and starts recording what the soul wants it to preserve: a vision of dreamers rising above the roar and distraction of the city to a shimmering mountain where they board the “galleons of dreams” and sail through the skies in their chosen directions. The soul goes on telling the dreams of all these travelers. But the body is tired and mutinous; it cries out for sleep.

“You shall have centuries of sleep,” the soul tells it, “but you must not sleep, for I have seen deep meadows with purple flowers flaming tall and strange above the brilliant grass, and herds of pure while unicorns…I will sing that song to you, and you shall write it down.”

The body protests, Give me one night’s rest.

Go on and rest, the soul at last responds, in disgust. “I am tired of you. I am off.”

The soul flies away. The undertakers come and lay the body in the earth. The wraiths of the dead come at midnight to congratulate the body on its happy estate. “Now I can rest,” says the body.

Ursula LeGuin once said that Lord Dunsany is the worst temptation for the novice writer of fantasy, and it must be conceded that his prose can be overly rich and faery-infused. Yet A Dreamer’s Tales, where you will find these two stories, is a book for the ages, and reminds us that in fantasy we can sometimes the truth of our condition more clearly than in the roar of the city.

Lord Dunsany, A Dreamer’s Tales [1910] reprint: Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2002

22 comments:

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I have to agree with Le Guin. His publishers could have urged him to do a second or third pass over some of those tales, some of which have put MY body to sleep. But as you say, there are rewards for reading Dunsany. As such, I've had more success reading his short stories than his novels. Plenty to choose from.

Sandy Jensen said...

Robert, Good Robin,
Your post lands in Eugene, Oregon where I am listening to the mythic music of Pan's Labyrinth, so in tune with Lord Dunsany and your 4:00am voice from between worlds. I dreamed there was a man sleeping on the floor underneath my husband's side of the bed. After months of gray and rain, I awoke to a day of sun, the contrast so intense that it seems an iteration of your struggle between soul and body. As always, your spirit awakes the waking dreamer in me; I love your confience and insistence that The World of Faerie is alive and gleaming in the interstices of our lives, right here, right now...

Robert Moss said...

Sandy - Lovely to read your sparkling post. If it were my dream, I would be very curious to know who is sleeping under my spouse's side of the bed. An astral double? A Faery lover? Lord Dunsany would be off and running with a story taking off from that once sentence by now, and I find it tempting myself...but am in the midst of writing a book just now and may spurn this tasty temptation...

Robert Moss said...

Justin - Oh, I think Dunsany deserves a second, and a third look, and sometimes touches on essential as well as mysterious things, because he was at home in the Commonwealth of Faeries and co-walkers. Against LeGuin, we have Yeats and Tolkien, Neil Gaiman and Michael Moorcock, all of whom admired Dunsany's work and were influenced for the good. I do agree that his prose is best consumed from small containers; reading a whole Dunsany novel (like "The King of Elfland's Daughter") can be like consuming a whole box of chocolates at one go.

Carol Davis said...

Exquisite! My heart sings when I read the paragraph that begins, "People's dreams are wandering afield..." through your section on how people forget the realms of magic and enchantment. Indeed I read it aloud several times savoring the truths therein. My heart delights in the soul's wisdom and I feel the energy pulse through the body when the connection is made. I also remember the times when I have been weak, succumbing to anmesia or pulling back disheartened rather than in stealth because I have been in the company of those who disregard what I treasure in the imaginal realm. It is then that any of us might be at risk for a bit of soul loss. So, it is essential to celebrate the soul's wisdom and to connect with the magic on the causeways and, of course, to share the magic with companions on the journey.

Savannah said...

Beautiful... I always did believe the truth is better told by fantasy. Many blessings to you for writing down what the people dream on your own path of sixty something books Robert, and for inspiring so many to stay awake to the soul's assignment (even at times when forgetting may be temptation greater than Lord Dunsany, or a whole box of chocolates :-).

Astrea said...

I found A Dreamer's Tales and other selected writings by Lord Dunsany at no charge on Sacred texts

http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/dun/adta/index.htm

Joanne Allison

Robert Moss said...

Carol - Thank you for evoking the magic so beautifully. Yes, we humans are serial amnesiacs, falling asleep and forgetting again and again. In dreams, we wake up, and the soul (as Dunsany knew) wants us to bring that awakening into our sleepwalk of ordinary life.

Robert Moss said...

Savannah - Thank you so much. Perhaps a better analogy for Dunsany's writing than a box of chocolates would be a decanter of imperial Tokay, the elixir (denounced as "syrupy" by the curmudgeonly elder Mr Fisk) that loosens the tongue of Dean Spanley until he is speaking AS the dog he seems to have been in a previous life.

I just watched the movie version of "Dean Spanley", made in NZ, based on Dunsany's short novel, starring four extraordinary actors: Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown. It's pitch-perfect - achingly funny, worldly-wise, knowing about dogs & people, going deep into the small matter of the transmigration of souls. See it where you can, and pray for big studios to learn from it what movies can be.

Robert Moss said...

Joanne - It's wonderful how much is available online, through Sacred Texts, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, etc, etc. However, I find that this adds to my constant book collecting (rather than diminishing it) since I don't want to read long texts online and don't want to print hundreds of pages.

nina said...
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Robert Moss said...

Nina - I feel instant resistance to the notion of "changing negative memories by using drugs". The shaman's way is to travel with a trauma victim through the forests and thickets of nightmare and "negative memories" and help them develop the resources to get through to a place of true resolution and healing. Still, I would be interested in some notes on specific findings. I won't be watching this program on June 9the because I will be at a retreat center in a cedar forest east of Seattle leading my training for teachers of Active Dreaming - the ones who can help people to find the true roads of their soul.

nina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Moss said...

Nina - Oh, I can certainly understand emergency situations where there is no immediate alternative to the use of medications. It was the bit about "changing memories" that triggered my response. There is a real risk that all the drugs prescribed (not to mention other drugs) in our hyper-medicated society have the effect of suppressing the dreams and memories that - if worked with - can be the key to true healing and the restoration of authentic memory and soul.

Carol Davis said...

Often, perhaps not always, it is the meaning or the interpretation we bring to a difficult memory that needs to be changed. Our natural amnesia can protect us at times until we have the resources to cope; it can also leave us without knowledge that can help us. We have much to learn. As we are able we must travel the causeways visioning past and future to bring healing gifts to our communities.

katyallgeyer said...

I RECEIVED THIS SOUL ASSIGNMENT JUST THIS MORNING BEFORE DAWN:

SKYWALKERS OF TIBET

i dreamed about tibet. i was looking down from a birds eye view and in awe at what i saw. there were skyscraper tall square structures that were about 50'x50' square and of varying heights but VERY high like buildings but without windows etc. on the flat tops were gardens of lush green plants. all around the edge of the square was a path about 2 feet wide, no bigger, and that went right to the edge of the building, there were no guard rails, fences, wires, or anything to hold one
back from falling off the edge if ones footing was poor or if a gust of wind took hold of you. on each one i saw one person walking around his garden on the path seeming to constantly circumnavigate his garden. the people i saw wore straw "coolie" hats like chinese but i knew i was seeing tibet. from this vantage point above i recall admiring them and wondering if i would ever be able to walk that path without fear and without falling off the edge the way these people were.
###
note i chose 50 x 50 when recalling the dream just to give a sense of the size/scale but that was not given to me in the dream

Savannah said...

Thank you for the film review... I will keep an eye out for it!

Seashore said...

Oh, to write like Lord Dunsany...!
The galleon of dreams is such an amazing visual. I would love to see a painting of that image. The body, (in my case), seems to be ready to accept the soul's assignment - the enigma to me, is ...what exactly "is" the soul's assignment?
Margie

Ro said...

Reading this-especially the ending- gave me chills. Very often I skip recording or even acknowledging my dreams because I'm tired and want to sleep- but that kind of black oblivion that comes is a little like a kind of death.

Robert Moss said...

Carol - Yes, I recognize that amnesia can be temporary protection against memories of trauma, until we are strong enough to reach back to succor and support that wounded younger self, and find new meaning in our lives as we do that. Thanks for your wonderful work of soul healing among survivors.

Robert Moss said...

Katy - What an intriguing image, of those roof gardens skyscraper-high. I would want to reenter that dream (in a conscious journey) and try walking those paths around the edges. I was just talking to an architect who designs hospitals about the need for gardens if these are to be places of healing, and how - in cities where open space is lacking - those gardens could be on the roofs.

Robert Moss said...

Margie - There is one version of a galleon of dreams on the cover of a recent edition of Dunsany's "A Dreamer's Tale". As for the soul's assignment, to remember that means to go to the place of knowledge we may have inhabited before we came into the body this time. How to go to that place is a major theme of my book DREAMGATES.