Thursday, September 19, 2013

"A Tale of London" (1916) by Lord Dunsany, with Commentary


"A Tale of London"


© 1916




Lord Dunsany



"Come," said the Sultan to his hasheesh-eater in the very furthest lands that know Bagdad, "dream to me now of London."

And the hasheesh-eater made a low obeisance and seated himself cross-legged upon a purple cushion broidered with golden poppies, on the floor, beside an ivory bowl where the hasheesh was, and having eaten liberally of the hasheesh blinked seven times and spoke thus:

"O Friend of God, know then that London is the desiderate town even of all Earth's cities. Its houses are of ebony and cedar which they roof with thin copper plates that the hand of Time turns green. They have golden balconies in which amethysts are where they sit and watch the sunset. Musicians in the gloaming steal softly along the ways; unheard their feet fall on the white sea-sand with which those ways are strewn, and in the darkness suddenly they play on dulcimers and instruments with strings. Then are there murmurs in the balconies praising their skill, then are there bracelets cast down to them for reward and golden necklaces and even pearls.

"Indeed but the city is fair; there is by the sandy ways a paving all alabaster, and the lanterns along it are of chrysoprase, all night long they shine green, but of amethyst are the lanterns of the balconies.

"As the musicians go along the ways dancers gather about them and dance upon the alabaster pavings, for joy and not for hire. Sometimes a window opens far up in an ebony palace and a wreath is cast down to a dancer or orchids showered upon them.

"Indeed of many cities have I dreamt but of none fairer, through many marble metropolitan gates hasheesh has led me, but London is its secret, the last gate of all; the ivory bowl has nothing more to show. And indeed even now the imps that crawl behind me and that will not let me be are plucking me by the elbow and bidding my spirit return, for well they know that I have seen too much. 'No, not London,' they say; and therefore I will speak of some other city, a city of some less mysterious land, and anger not the imps with forbidden things. I will speak of Persepolis or famous Thebes."

A shade of annoyance crossed the Sultan's face, a look of thunder that you had scarcely seen, but in those lands they watched his visage well, and though his spirit was wandering far away and his eyes were bleared with hasheesh yet that storyteller there and then perceived the look that was death, and sent his spirit back at once to London as a man runs into his house when the thunder comes.

"And therefore," he continued, "in the desiderate city, in London, all their camels are pure white. Remarkable is the swiftness of their horses, that draw their chariots that are of ivory along those sandy ways and that are of surpassing lightness, they have little bells of silver upon their horses' heads. O Friend of God, if you perceived their merchants! The glory of their dresses in the noonday! They are no less gorgeous than those butterflies that float about their streets. They have overcloaks of green and vestments of azure, huge purple flowers blaze on their overcloaks, the work of cunning needles, the centres of the flowers are of gold and the petals of purple. All their hats are black—" ("No, no," said the Sultan)—"but irises are set about the brims, and green plumes float above the crowns of them.

"They have a river that is named the Thames, on it their ships go up with violet sails bringing incense for the braziers that perfume the streets, new songs exchanged for gold with alien tribes, raw silver for the statues of their heroes, gold to make balconies where the women sit, great sapphires to reward their poets with, the secrets of old cities and strange lands, the earning of the dwellers in far isles, emeralds, diamonds, and the hoards of the sea. And whenever a ship comes into port and furls its violet sails and the news spreads through London that she has come, then all the merchants go down to the river to barter, and all day long the chariots whirl through the streets, and the sound of their going is a mighty roar all day until evening, their roar is even like—"

"Not so," said the Sultan.

"Truth is not hidden from the Friend of God," replied the hasheesh-eater, "I have erred being drunken with the hasheesh, for in the desiderate city, even in London, so thick upon the ways is the white sea-sand with which the city glimmers that no sound comes from the path of the charioteers, but they go softly like a light sea-wind." ("It is well," said the Sultan.) "They go softly down to the port where the vessels are, and the merchandise in from the sea, amongst the wonders that the sailors show, on land by the high ships, and softly they go though swiftly at evening back to their homes.

"O would that the Munificent, the Illustrious, the Friend of God, had even seen these things, had seen the jewellers with their empty baskets, bargaining there by the ships, when the barrels of emeralds came up from the hold. Or would that he had seen the fountains there in silver basins in the midst of the ways. I have seen small spires upon their ebony houses and the spires were all of gold, birds strutted there upon the copper roofs from golden spire to spire that have no equal for splendour in all the woods of the world. And over London the desiderate city the sky is so deep a blue that by this alone the traveller may know where he has come, and may end his fortunate journey. Nor yet for any colour of the sky is there too great heat in London, for along its ways a wind blows always from the South gently and cools the city.

"Such, O Friend of God, is indeed the city of London, lying very far off on the yonder side of Bagdad, without a peer for beauty or excellence of its ways among the towns of the earth or cities of song; and even so, as I have told, its fortunate citizens dwell, with their hearts ever devising beautiful things and from the beauty of their own fair work that is more abundant around them every year, receiving new inspirations to work things more beautiful yet."

"And is their government good?" the Sultan said.

"It is most good," said the hasheesh-eater, and fell backwards upon the floor.

He lay thus and was silent. And when the Sultan perceived he would speak no more that night he smiled and lightly applauded.

And there was envy in that palace, in lands beyond Bagdad, of all that dwell in London.



COMMENTARY:  To really understand this tale, one should be aware that in 1916 London -- as the center of the civilized world (and especially its financial center) -- was pereceived as the most mundane place on Earth.  This is obscured to us today -- especially to non-British residents of the Anglosphere -- by the subsequent British decline, which lends a patina of vanished glories and old mysteries to the British capital.  To Lord Dunsany, however, London was the beating heart of modernity, sort of a combination of what New York and Washington DC mean to the world of the early 21st century.

By contrast, Baghdad was the heart of Oriental mystery, famed as the capital of the Baghdad Caliphate during the golden age of Muslim greatness, the home of the Caliph Haroun al-Raschid and the center of many of the tales of the Arabian Nights.  This goes against our modern instincts, especially after the Iraqi Rebellion of 1941 and the two wars we fought against Iraq in 1990-91 and 2003-08 -- to us today, Baghdad and Iraq symbolize not only the enemy, but a particuarly vicious and yet incompetent enemy at that.  (Neil Gaiman well dramatizes the transition in his "Ramadan" -- published in 1993 and hence only referencing Desert Storm, but the contrast is only the more obvious after the First Terrorist War).

In "A Tale of London," Dunsany inverts the usual order.  Instead of the inhabitants of a real and mundane London dreaming of a fantasy-Baghdad (for of course Dunsany knew full well that the Baghdad of The Arabian Nights was unreal), here we see the inhabitants of a real and mundane Baghdad dreaming of a fantasy-London.  What's more, allowing for some dramatic exaggeration, the main points of the hashish-eater's fantasy-London are true -- London is the center of commerce and power c. 1900 just as Baghdad was the center of commerce and power c. 800.

Which means that -- across a thousand years and more of time and a quarter of the planet's space -- the two cities are more allike than most realize.  They are both metropoles of their respective worlds -- and each is at once more fantastic and more mundane than the inhabitants of either realize.  Early 20th-century London was in the midst of a Golden Age every bit as real as the one enjoyed by early 9th-century Baghdad, and across the gulfs of space and time would look every bit as much a world of wonder to Baghdad as Baghdad looked to London.

This suggests reflections both exultant and melancholy.  Exultant, because it means that Dunsany's London was in the midst of a Golden Age.  Melancholy, since any scholar knows what happened to the greatness of Baghdad -- which implies that something similar might happen to the greatness of London.  As indeed it did, and the start of it was the very war in which Lord Dunsany was actively fighting.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Yet London was great, and so was Baghdad in its day, and both were wonderful achievements, of which all humanity may rightly be proud.  And when, someday, the greatness of New York and our other mighty cities has passed, we may still be proud that they were, and all Mankind will benefit from their achievements, just as we benefit from those of London, of Baghdad, and of Rome today.


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