The Fantastic Dreams

Poet, playwright, and master of fantasy, LORD DUNSANYhas been writing for nearly half a century, and in that time he has helped more than one young writer to find his way into the Atlantic, the latest being Mary Lavin. the Irish novelist. Of his many and delightful books, we remember with special thanks The Book of Wonder, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and My Talks with Dean Spanley.

by LORD DUNSANY

SHORTLY before the war, while I was living in London, I remember getting a letter from a young man, asking me if I would give him advice about several stories that he desired to write the subject and plots of which he had very clear in his mind, for he had dreamed them all. He was obviously a young man, his letter was so full of hope; and there was a gay carelessness about it that I did not notice at the time, but which we should all notice now: he wrote only on one side of the paper. And he used several sheets. The advice he wanted was not about how to write, concerning which I might have told him a very very little — holding still what I learned at school, that the poet is born, not made — but advice about what publishers to approach, of which I could tell him nothing. He wanted to know what kind of publisher would like the kind of tale that he was going to write.

How could I tell him that? I might form some kind of estimate of his tales, if he told me them, but I could not peer into the mind of a publisher, or of any other man. I gathered from his letter that the dreams were many and long; and just as I was wondering what to write to him, I glanced at his address on the letter, and found he was also in London, and not very far away. The difficult task of giving him any advice that could be of any use to him would be so much easier in conversation than it would be if I had to sit at a table and write it. So I wrote him a brief note asking if he would come and see me, and tell me about his dreams. And in a day or two he came round.

I forget his name now; but his face I remember clearly, a dark fine-featured face, with eyes lit up by his dreams and what he was going to do with them. He had the eagerness of all young writers, and indeed of the followers of any of the arts, whatever their age, for without it no work of art can be carried through. His eagerness did not differ from that of Tennyson in his youth, or Keats, or Chaucer, for it did not come from the quality of the work that he was going to do, but only from his great keenness to do it. He did not appear to have any more money than was needed to keep him sheltered and fed and alive, and he had fine hopes of earning some.

It was indeed a saving of labor for me to be able to talk to him instead of having to write, for, knowing that he could not expect me to listen to the stories of all his dreams while he sat there and talked, he told me merely their tenor, not the plots of any of them, not even the themes. He only said they were fantastic and terrible; and in fact the only thing that seemed to fasten them, with however thin a cable, to this world of ours at all was that they were of the present day, or thereabouts.

I soon saw the kind of thing that the young man was proposing to write about, and was able to give him some negative advice. I thought I had got from him a fairly clear idea of the kind of dreams he had had. And the advice I gave him was this: “Don’t write fantastic tales. There may be as much beauty in them as in anything that you get from the life all round you; but readers, as far as I know them, will judge your stories and their trueness to life from the life that they know themselves. Therefore let the surface of the world that you write of always be pavement. More people live upon pavement than in the fields; and, if you put your story there, they will say it is true to life. The ideal way to judge a story is to look out of the window from which the author is looking, and see the view of the world that he has to show you. But that is not how you will be judged, for the reader will look out of his own window, and if your story describes nothing he sees from that window, he will say it is untrue to life. Remember that. All publishers know that better than I do, and will be less lenient to you than I. Write of the world that you see in company with the greatest number of people, and leave fantasy alone, whatever you dream.

He was kind enough to thank me for my advice, although it must have depressed him, and he left without showing at all, in his face or his manner, any fading of the eagerness that I must have done so much to dim.

I did nol forget him, though that was in the summer of 1939 and so much happened soon to make us forgel the little quiet events that occurred in those calm clays. I saw him again in 1940. So young he was that he had not yet been called up. I met him accidentally in Regenl Street, walking on gray glass. He was wearing a haggard look, as though he had not been sleeping. I stopped him and asked him how he was. And the very first thing he said to me was that he had been missing his sleep.

“That fellow Goring?" I asked.

“No, not him,” he said. “Worse, really.’

“What’s the matter?" I said.

And then he told me. And from the way he blurted it out, I got the feeling that he had not till then said a word about it to anybody. “It’s those dreams,” he replied.

I remembered his dreams, and told him so. And I got the idea that, instead of taking the advice I had given him, which in any case he was not likely to do, he had been trying to make tales of them all, and had been overworking. “Been writing too much?” I asked.

“No, it’s not that,” he said. “But those dreams have been coming true.”

“Why,” I said, “I remember your telling me they were fantastic and terrible things; and I advised you to write instead about things from the life all round us.”

“But they are coming true,” he repeated.

“Coming true!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, all of them,” he said. “And the thought of it keeps me awake. Apart from the fact that I can’t bear the idea that if I get to sleep I may have more of them.”

Well, sometimes it’s hard to dismiss an idea of one’s own, but to brush aside somebody else’s idea is easier said than done. I didn’t know what to say. In the end I think I said something about perhaps their not coming true after all.

“But they are, he said, and went away with a most haunted look on his face.

I did not see him again for years. The war was over and I met him again in London, quite by chance. The haunted look was no longer upon his face, but it had left its mark.

“Did you have any more dreams?” I asked him.

“I had one more,” he said.

And so solemnly did he speak, that I felt he would rather not tell me what that dream was. So I asked him about the others, and whether he had written them in the end.

“No, you see,” In’ replied. “They all came true. They are commonplace. There’s nothing for me to write of them now . They are what you call history.”

. I walked beside him then for some while in silence. And in the silence the words of the other tale seemed to well up in him, and he spoke of it as his dream, but very briefly and haltingly, seeming to feel the weight of a great responsibility, the responsibility of telling the world his dream, or holding it back. I could see that, after the strange experience that he had had with all his other dreams, he was convinced that this one was true. And he spoke of some ominous feeling he had, though he did not tell how it came, which made him think that it would happen quite soon. It concerned our cities and railways and bridges, and in fact all our inventions, and all that by means of them we have raised on the face of the earth. “Ought I to write it?” he asked me.

Well, I did not know what to say. I did not even know how he wrote. It would depend a good deal on the power of his pen whether he would be able to convince anybody who read him or not. For some while I said nothing.

“Sheep, sheep,” he said. “We are going back to keeping sheep.”

He didn’t say exactly why. He had told me very little. Yet he was looking up at me for advice. What could I give him? I saw that he really wanted to be a writer. Surely he had not come to me for me to dash all his hopes. So I said to him, “Yes, write it. Write it and send it lo a literary agent, and see if he can’t get it printed.”

For one moment his eyes lit up. Then his eagerness all died down in him. “No,” he said. “No, they are so fond of their cities. I will never tell them that.”