Mythic form and mythic function: Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods


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Lord Dunsany, an Irish peer and prolific author of fantasy who lived from 1878 to 1957, wrote in the midst of the Irish Literary Renaissance. Compared to such contemporaries as Yeats and Synge, however, Dunsany has received relatively little critical attention. Much of the Dunsany criticism that does exist over-subordinates the content of Dunsany's work to its beautifully ringing style. This emphasis produces criticism that tends either to praise his writing as merely lyrical and charming or to condemn it as mere escapist fancy devoid of any deeper meaning. But the mythological themes of Dunsany's early short stories demonstrate both high style and a strong, underlying message of human self-empowerment; they merit closer attention. Because Dunsany is little known, in my Introduction I provide a brief biographical sketch. In Chapter One I summarize Joseph Campbell's theories on myth to provide a context for my analysis of Dunsany's short stories. Campbell identifies four basic functions of myth: 1) the cosmological, which enables humanity to form a universal scheme; 2) the metaphysical, which helps humanity cope with the often harsh realities of such a scheme; 3) the sociological, which establishes an unimpeachable social order; and 4) the psychological, which provides the means to transform subconscious dream images into an understandable form. In this way, according to Campbell, myth has always served as an interpreter of reality; therefore, a myth system can reveal much about the world-view of the group or individual that holds it. In Chapter Two, I apply Campbell's theories to Dunsany's world-view as revealed in his first volume of short stories, The Gods of Pegana (1905). The stories in The Gods of Peoana, a set of interdependent fragments, read much like myths both in style and in content; each story represents a passage from the "bible" of Pegana's world. By performing the functions of mythology, especially the creative psychological function, the stories in The Gods of Pegana become mythological themselves, and thus provide insight into Dunsany's own world-view. Reading the stories as myth reveals that for Dunsany, even in a universe that seems entirely under the sway of fate and chance, humanity can at least partially control its own destiny. In this chapter, I demonstrate how Dunsany associates this control with the creative power of myth. In Chapter Three I turn to Dunsany's second volume of short stories, Time and the Gods (1908). In Time and the Gods, Dunsany returns to the world of Pegana and to his theme of mythic self-empowerment. But the stories in Time and the Gods are more fully developed than those in The Gods of Pegana and the message more emphatic. In The Gods of Pegana. Dunsany offers a prophetic message of empowerment that his characters mostly ignore; in Time and the Gods the prophecy begins to be realized, and some of the characters gain a kind of spiritual control over their tyrannical gods. I compare the two volumes and discuss the progression of Dunsany's theme from The Gods of Peoana to Time and the Gods. A failure to recognize this humanist theme in Dunsany's work, along with an unwillingness to acknowledge fundamental similiarities between Dunsany and contemporaries like Yeats, has kept previous criticism from placing Dunsany in the literary context his work merits. In my concluding remarks, I summarize Dunsany's mythological world-view as it appears in these first two volumes of short stories, and classify it as essentially Romantic.



Irish literary renaissance, Joseph Campbell, Lord Dunsany, Literary criticism