Pan: Lord Dunsany’s “The Blessing of Pan”
“What concerns Pan is fit to be sung before all mankind. Indeed his doings are most honourable.”
Lord Dunsany Alexander & Three Small Plays 1925
I ‘discovered’ the writings of Lord Dunsany in my early twenties, initially through reading HP Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and, almost at the same time, coming across a collection of Sidney Sime’s illustrations of Dunsany’s fiction. Together, they put the hook in me, and after devouring The King of Elfland’s Daughter I was from that point on, always on the lookout for collections of his short stories. Back in 2000, I came across the anthology Time and the Gods from the Gollancz “Fantasy Masterworks” series and its never been far from my bedside since. One of my all-time favourite of Dunsany’s tales is The Beggars (online here)with its theme of finding the sacred and the mysterious within the outward signs of London’s industrial landscape:
And all the while the ugly smoke went upwards, the smoke that has stifled Romance and blackened the birds. This, I thought, they can neither praise nor bless. And when they saw it they raised their hands towards it, towards the thousand chimneys, saying, “Behold the smoke. The old coal-forests that have lain so long in the dark, and so long still, are dancing now and going back to the sun. Forget not Earth, O our brother, and we wish thee joy of the sun.”
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878-1957) – the 18th Baron Dunsany was a man of many talents – poet, novelist, playwright (he has the distinction of having five plays running simultaneously); traveller (across Europe, Africa and India) and soldier (he served in the Boer War, was at the War Office in WWI and in the Home Guard in WWII). He ran for parliament (unsuccessfully) and had a reputation as one of the finest chess players of his day. His first major work of fantasy was The Gods of Pegana, published in 1905 to widespread critical acclaim. Over the next fourteen years he produced classics such as Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), The Book of Wonder (1912) and The Last Book of Wonder (1916). By 1916, according to S.T. Joshi (1995), Dunsany was one of the most critically acclaimed authors in Britain – and the United States (he made his first literary tour of the US in 1919). In 1909, his first play The Glittering Gate (the writing of which was prompted by Yeats) was performed at the Abbey Theatre. It was followed by King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior and The Gods of the Mountain, both in 1911.
Pan appears in three of the vignettes in Dunsany’s Fifty-One Tales (1915). Both “The Death of Pan” and “The Tomb of Pan” are concerned with pointing out that reports of Pan’s “death” are premature, whilst in “The Prayer of the Flowers” the flowers, lamenting the loss of the woods under the spread of “cancrous cities” are comforted by Pan – “Be patient a little, these things are not for long.” The encroachment of industrialisation over the natural (and fantastical) world – and the idea that nature looks forwards to the demise of industrial man – is a recurrent theme throughout Dunsany’s work. In “How Ali Came To The Black Country” this sense of conflict between industrial modernity and the retreat of the fantastical is made present: “Now it is clear,” said Ali, “that the chief devil that vexes England and has done all this harm, who herds men into cities and will not let them rest, is even the devil Steam.” The constraint of “devil Steam” will bring a return to romance: “And Ali said: “When we have cast this devil into the sea there will come back again the woods and ferns and all the beautiful things that the world hath, the little leaping hares shall be seen at play, there shall be music on the hills again, and at twilight ease and quiet and after the twilight stars.” Similarly, in “A Narrow Escape” the magician, about to curse London says: “”Let them all perish,” he said, “and London pass away, tram lines and bricks and pavement, the usurpers too long of the fields, let them all pass away and the wild hares come back, blackberry and briar-rose.”
The Blessing of Pan (1927) has quite a different style to Dunsany’s earlier work. There is no sign of the archaic, quasi-biblical style that Lovecraft refers to as “crystalline singing prose” familiar from works such as Time and the Gods. Gone is the sense of the blurring of the everyday with the fantastical – I’m thinking here of the story of The Bird of The Difficult Eye wherein the master thief Neepy Thang reaches fairyland via “the purple ticket at Victoria Station”. Although The Blessing of Pan is at its heart, concerned with the conflict between industrial modernity and the “romance” of nature, its unfolding throughout the novel is not overt – there is a quiet inevitability in Pan’s spreading influence over the community.
The Blessing of Pan is told from the perspective of Elderick Anwrel, the mild-mannered reverend of the community of Wolding. Anwrel is increasingly disturbed by a haunting, compelling tune played by a boy, Tommy Duffin, who has fashioned a pipe made from reeds. The tune, as the story unfolds, exercises an unwholesome influence on the population of Wolding – first the young women, then the young men, and then the other inhabitants – even Anwrel’s wife, are compelled to dance to the tune of the pipes on nearby Wold Hill, atop which is a megalithic site – the “Old Stones of Wolding”. Finally, Anwrel himself joins the people in their revelry, performing a pagan sacrifice. Anwrel is portrayed sympathetically – he is neither a bigot or a fool, but very much a part of the local community, and who is tormented over what is happening to his flock. Yet although Anwrel feels increasingly estranged from his community, this is not reciprocal – rather, the people of Wolding, if anything, are sorry for his lack of understanding. Towards the end of the novel, for example, he has an exchange with his wife:
“Augusta,” he said. No other words came to say to her.
“I stayed till you finished,” she said.
He looked at her and did not speak; so she spoke instead.
“I thought…” she began.
“What did you think?” he said at last.
“I thought you would have come too,” she said.
“I?” he asked.
“We all thought so,” she answered.
Was everyone and everything driving him to the old stones beyond Wold Hill? He remained silent.
“You wouldn’t come?” she asked.
“Never,” he said.
“It’s almost a pity,” she said.
“A pity!” exclaimed Anwrel.
“Only,” she said, “because they were thinking of sacrificing a bull. And you would have done it so well.”
Perhaps Anwrel’s flaw is that if anything, he places too much trust to others to resolve the problem of what is happening in Wolding – he places a touching (although entirely misplaced) faith in the worldliness of his superior, the Bishop; in the presumed Classical learning of The Reverend Hetley (who is entirely deaf to the music of the pipes) and the power of Saint Ethelbruda, who is credited with driving the last pagan out of England, and whose reputed resting-place he visits. The only person who seems to understand, is Perkin, a “crazed wanderer” although Perkin does not offer the kind of support which Anwrel desires. Perkin’s peculiar advice to Anwrel is “Keep your illusions, man; keep your illusions”. Perkin, through knowing “too much” has lost his illusions, and when Anwrel tells Perkin that it is Pan who is troubling him, he tells Anwrel that his illusions – if they are strong enough – will keep Pan out. But when Anwrel poses the question “But what if they’re weaker than he?” Perkin says: “…Pan was always friendly to Man. That’s you and me you know. We may have changed a lot this last two thousand years; but that’s you and me still. Why, I’d let him come nosing in.”
As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly plain that Anwrel knows that his “illusion” is his faith – and for that faith to be effective, it needs to be communal:
“But what shall I do? What shall I do?” cried Anwrel.
“Why, what does one need but illusions?” answered Perkin.
“They’re gone. I’ve lost them,” said the vicar.
“One can’t hold them all alone.” He spread his hands to the emptiness of his room. “I’ve none to help me now.”
“Plenty of friends over there,” said Perkin, pointing to Wold Hill. “Plenty of illusions.”
“But,” gasped Anwrel, “but they’re the enemy’s!”
“They’re yours if you want them,” said Perkin.
Dunsany’s satire is directed towards Anwrel’s superiors in the church. The novel opens with Anwrel pondering how to communicate to his superior his suspicions about the effects of the unearthly music – and who replies that Anwrel should merely take a holiday (he recommends Brighton as “particularly invigorating”). On his return, Anwrel finds that the situation has worsened – and he begins to suspect “what kind of power” in inspiring Tommy Duffin – the power of the God Pan. Later, Anwrel visits the bishop in person to air his worries – but receives a friendly chat about hobbies, whilst the bishop’s assistant reccomends encouraging the village boys to take up cricket. Similarly, the reverend Hetley, who stands in for Anwrel when he takes his vacation, is portrayed as being deaf to both the lure of the pipes and their effects on the community. Although Anwrel turns to Hetley for support – for Hetley is a “Classical Scholar” whom Anwrel hopes can give him advice about Pan – he too can only recommend “cricket” as a way of turning the young men of Wolding towards healthy pursuits.The church is too caught up in its own self-satisfaction and convention to even recognise what is going on in Wolding, let alone make any effective response.
As Pan’s influence grows over the people of Wolding, the daily routines and habits of life break down; a farmer no longer bothers to gather in his hay; the postman no longer brings the mail, and Anwrel’s maid neglects her cleaning duties. In one scene, Anwrel overhears the schoolmistress giving a lesson. It sounds to him as though she is saying “Egg, oh, pan, pan, tone, tone, Iofone….” but she is, Anwrel realises, teaching the children the phrase “ego Pan panton ton lophon Arkadiou basileus” (“I, Pan, the king of all the Arcadian slopes”).
Quite why Pan should select Wolding is never really made explicit. Anwrel has vague suspicions about his predecessor – the mysterious Reverend Arthur Davidson – spreading a malign influence, but he never really investigates this fully – there are vague hints that Davidson could have been an avatar of Pan – or Pan himself. Anwrel wonders why Pan has chosen Wolding for his attention, and Dunsany’s answer is that Wolding, unlike many other English communities, is less touched by the forces of modernity, such as factories and mining.
The novel climaxes on a Sunday, with Anwrel preaching to his parishoners in church. Tommy Duffin enters the churchyard playing his panpipes, and the whole congregation quietly tiptoes out. There is a delicious irony, particularly for a Pagan reader, in Anwrel’s sermon here, as he exhorts his parishoners to recall the “old ways” of their fathers – he doubtless intending to conjure a vision of Wolding’s Christian past – but he forgets, seemingly, that there are of course, older ways than Christianity. That night, Anwrel himself succumbs to the lure of the pipes, and sacrifices a bull at dawn with a paleolithic stone axe. Once more, he rejoins his community, and the people of Wolding, content in their recovery of the “old ways” sink into a quiet retreat from modern life, becoming increasingly self-sufficient – a kind of invisibility, broken only by visits of gypsies and the occasional world-weary wanderer who finds their way to Wolding.
Tommy Duffin’s curious music that lured one away from the present, and that then seemed to wake up old memories that nobody guessed were there, seems to have come at a time when something sleeping within us first guessed that the way by which we were then progressing t’wards the noise of machinery and the clamour of our sellers, amidst which we live today, was a wearying way, and they turned from it. And turning from it they turned away from the folk that were beginning to live as we do (chapter 35)
It’s clear, in The Blessing of Pan that Dunsany is firmly on the side of the return of Pan; but the novel, in its depiction of a conflict between the modern and the pagan, is without antagonism or any sense of overt challenge between the two. Christianity – or at least the mild-mannered Christianity embodied in Anwrel, is far too feeble to put up any kind of resistance to the lure of Pan. The only person who is challenged; who struggles – is Anwrel himself. His superiors in the church are heedless to any sense of “danger” and the people of Wolding only express vague misgivings which are soon lost in the music of the pipes. Anwrel, just before he performs the bull sacrifice at the stones realises this:
A fight, as he looked back now over all these weeks, had been fought by himself alone, a fight utterly vital to the Church, and one such as she had not had to contend in since the very earliest centuries. With any support he would have won. … And what had happened? His own bishop by kindness, by tact and by superior ability had merely avoided a scandal. Upon that alone he had concentrated. Then learning had failed him in Hetley. Then all that was busy and practical, in Porton. Then Heaven and Earth. He knew not which of these last had been the bitterer blow, Heaven, when Ethelbruda had failed him, or Earth, when all the simple folk that he loved had gone out of his church and over the hill to the enemy.
After Pan’s triumph, it seems that there is a tacit agreement that Wolding be left alone – it becomes a place where people don’t go – but not out of some vague, brooding sense of horror or malignity as one finds, say, in a Lovecraft tale, but just the feeling that it is somehow “queer”. We are left with Wolding’s continued existence according to the cyclic changes of season – “ploughing and sowing and harvest all went their round as of old … they seemed to find amongst silent unfoldings and ripenings, that are the great occasions of Nature, enough to replace those more resounding changes that are the triumph of man’s ingenuity, and which we have gained and they lost.”
Lord Dunsany, Alexander & Three Small Plays (GP Putnam & Sons, 1925)
Lord Dunsany The Blessing of Pan (Wildside Press, 2003)
ST Joshi, Lord Dunsany: master of the Anglo-Irish imagination (Greenwood Press, 1995)
HP Lovecraft Supernatural Horror in Literature