The Wondrous Orientalism of Lord Dunsany: Traditional and Non-Traditional Orientalist Narratives in the Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder

By House-Thomas, Alyssa | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Wondrous Orientalism of Lord Dunsany: Traditional and Non-Traditional Orientalist Narratives in the Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder


House-Thomas, Alyssa, Mythlore


I AM CERTAINLY NOT THE FIRST SCHOLAR TO NOTICE Orientalist elements in Lord Dunsany's fantasies, (1) but I believe a focused study of the different kinds of Orientalism employed by Dunsany in the construction of his literary corpus has so far been lacking. This paper will examine two main categories of Orientalism, traditional and non-traditional, as they appear in two representative collections of Dunsany's short stories: The Book of Wonder, originally published in 1912, and Tales of Wonder, also known as The Last Book of Wonder and first published in 1916. As we shall see, some of the tales in these two collections include Oriental themes and language which fall directly under Edward Said's explanatory model of Orientalist cultural discourse. These occurrences of Orientalism I label traditional, and their structural functions include the building of adventure drama, the creation of humor, and the evocation of a textual aesthetics of exoticism. Others of Dunsany's "Wonder" tales, however, demonstrate an Orientalism which seems more postcolonial than colonial, ahead of its time in inviting readers to reflect on such issues as how social narratives about the cultural Other are constructed and deployed, and how the perspective of the cultural Other may inform us about our own way of life. These manifestations of Orientalism in The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder I label non-traditional, and they are the ones I particularly wish to draw attention to in considering how Dunsany's Orientalist literary fantasies by turns lie in continuity with and transcend Western Orientalism, as that system of thought and discourse is commonly construed by the postmodern academy.

Orientalism: Definition and Context

First: what is Orientalism as construed by the postmodern academy? Edward Said wrote the foundational work on the subject, describing the word "Orientalism" in his 1978 book of the same title as a multivalent term which has been used to designate the academic project of area studies on Africa, Asia, the Near East or Middle East, dealing with such aspects as language, mythology, and geopolitical relations; or, alternatively, a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and [...] 'the Occident,'" a way of defining the West in contradistinction to the East and vice versa (Said 2-3). In addition, Said argues that a third meaning for "Orientalism," which comes historically from the confluence of the other two, is "a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient" which consists of Westerners "making statements about [the East], authorizing views of it, describing it [...] teaching it, settling it, ruling over it" (Said 3). This "corporate institution," according to Said, has been operative since the end of the Enlightenment, most actively since the growth of Western imperialism in the late eighteenth century. Thus it is fettered to European, and to a lesser extent, American, colonial interests in Oriental geopolitics. Orientalism in the academic and hemispherical senses feeds a cultural system which, as "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (Said 3), cannot be divorced from political issues. Nor, it is Said's argument, can this cultural institution of Orientalism be divorced from the processes of thought itself, because the way human beings think about the world is conditioned by the sociocultural structures they are born into. It is Said's contention that Orientalist discourse, a system of received Western thoughts and ideas about the Orient, places such "limitations on thought" that "no one writing [...] on the Orient" could possibly remain unaffected by it (Said 3).

So, who writes on the Orient, and what do they write? Along with academic and more purely political texts dealing with the Orient, such as encyclopedias of Western knowledge about Islam or reports on colonial uprisings, Said identifies a distinctly literary brand of Orientalism which includes creative works and travel guides by such canonical Western authors as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, Gerard de Nerval, Gustav Flaubert, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Said 99-100). …

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