Rory and Bran

So, that book written without the letter “e” was interesting, wasn’t it? I thought you might like to take a look at another book that is interesting in a different way. This is Rory and Bran, by Lord Dunsany, published back in 1937. Craig tracked down a copy and gave it to me. It’s pretty snazzy.

Some of you may be familiar with Lord Dunsany and therefore possibly with this book and aware of the, um, the thing. Most of you, I’m betting, don’t know the trick here. Let’s take a look at the first paragraphs! As you know there’s a trick, maybe you’ll figure it out before I tell you what’s going on. I’m going to start with the first lines, then snip my way forward to a section that I think does a good job showing the thing I want to show you.

***

By the great fireplace of an Irish cottage sat an old man and his wife. Logs had burned down to red embers, frilled with white ash; but their glow gave all the light the O’Cullens needed.

[Long discussion of whether their son Rory has the brains to be trusted to take twelve cattle to the fair, where they will be sold. They decide perhaps not, but that will be all right if Bran goes with him. In chapter two, we get to meet not only Rory, but Bran, so we have now met both titular characters of this novel. Then off we go, taking the cattle to the fair.]

The boy left the cattle to Bran, who not only drove them from behind, but ran on in front at crossroads for fear they should stray down little roads. But the cattle showed not wish to stray, plodding slowly on toward Ryan’s farm with the thought of deep grass they had known once in his meadows clear in their memories yet, for it was of a richer quality than any O’Cullen owned, greener, broader, and with better juice.

“What time is it?” said Rory to Bran.

And Bran took no notice. From which Rory learned that the time of day is not one of the essential matters. And thinking it over for a while, as he went down the road at the slow pace of the cattle, he saw clearly enough for himself that this must be so. What heed did the birds, for instance, take of our hours and minutes? Sunrise, noon, sunset and twilight were things of importance, not our trivial and tiny subdivisions of time. No, Bran was right. …

Suddenly there were no more hedges; suddenly trees ceased as though there were something here of which they were terrified; there were no more cottages, no more fields, nothing at all of man’s but the one white road; they were come to the red bog. Heather, not flowering yet, was on both sides of Rory, heather growing upon ten thousand islands, and a strange wide inland sea in which the islands stood. And over all that heather and moss and water, up in the blue sky, a sound he had never known before, a sound that seemed to him like a single harpstring vibrating. It was a snipe drumming, a thing familiar enough to all who have seen the spring coming to marshy lands, but to Rory it seemed it must be some musical angel, an idle angel leaning on clouds just out of sight and touching a single harpstring. Why only one string? He would not play, thought Rory, that anthem that thrilled Heaven, hear within the hearing of earth: he was listlessly touching one string and gazing down at the bog. And surely that was where the angels would come if they came near earth at all; surely those ruby and emerald mosses shining in placid water, ringed round with the calm small hills, were the scene that would keep the angels from getting homesick so far away from Heaven. …

“It’s the place an angel would come to, Bran,” said Rory. “Don’t you hear one of them now?”

But Bran had his work to do, and was interested in the earth most keenly, and though he sympathized with Rory and listened to him gladly, he was far too practical to give in this case the truest sympathy, by feeling about it as the boy did. So busy was Bran with the cattle, keeping them all together, driving on one that had stopped to graze upon one side of the road, then checking one on the other side, that by the time Rory had walked three miles, Bran had probably done five.

[You’ve got it now, right? Well, let’s read a little more anyway.]

Soon there began to appear ahead of them, where the road ran into the horizon, a long shadow upon the sky. It was the Drumlin mountains, the children of Slievenamona, at whose feet they lay, hiding all the peaks of the long range beyond them. During all the morning they altered not at all, but remained a long shadow, until by noon the light was so strong and merry that the shadow of the blue sky should have faded away, if it had been a shadow; but it strengthened; and, as the hours went by and the slow miles passed, the shadow began to take upon itself, one by one, some of the qualities of solids, and the third dimension gradually appeared, and outlines of hills, and hints of hedges began to be seen, till recognizable things were taking the place of magic.

“That’s mountains over there, Bran,” said Rory.

Bran looked up, but his interests were more intense than Rory’s, and confined to a narrower field; his keen observation was well satisfied with what the few square yards about him had to reveal, and he had interest enough in looking after twelve cattle, and incidentally Rory; so that he scarcely troubled to do more than glance where Rory’s arm was pointing, though he looked at Rory himself, more interested perhaps in the pleasure that the boy got from the mountains than in the mountains themselves. He watched for a while to see if Rory would say any more, but when he saw him still gazing quite entranced at the mountains, he went on with his work.

“I thnk it would be a good thing to have dinner,” said Rory next, pulling out a packet of sandwiches.

And Bran agreed at once.

So Bran stopped the cattle, and he and Rory sat down by the side of the road.

“You don’t like mustard,” said Rory. “Begob you should, for it gives a great taste to the meat. But you don’t like it, so you shall have this heap; they’re mutton; and I’ll have these, they’re ham. You see, there’s mustard on them, and you don’t like it.”

And that was certainly Bran’s view, and there was no altering it. Meat, in his view, was meat, and needed no disguising, and could not be improved by any flavouring, and certainly needed nothing to work up one’s appetite for it, provided that it was meat. So he took the mutton sandwiches that Rory offered, while Rory ate the ham. They were still by the side of the red bog; far out in it but for the road, the one solid thing in all those instable acres, the one thing made by man in all that ancient wildness; yet, solid and civilized ats it was, it trembled slightly whenever a cart came by, being quite unable to enforce the principles of solidity, where nothing of the kind had ever been known, where immobility was a thing strange and foreign, its illusory presence departing even under the step of a hare. Straight over their heads, a snipe was still drumming.

“Bran, Bran, the angels are nothing to you,” said Rory.

Which may or may not have been true, but with his mouth full of mutton, Bran had hardly been addressed at the right time and upon the right topic. Some perception of this may have come to the slower mind of Rory, for he returned to his ham in silence. The snipe flew on and on, far up, unseen by Rory, soaring and dropping; it was as it dropped that the sound called drumming came, and the sound that Rory thought was a harpstring touched by a finger was really a thread of air being twanged to music by the spread tailfeathers of an exultant snipe. The world is full of wonders, and all the wonders that our imagination paints are but the mirage of them.

***

That’s a good line, so I’ll stop there.

It’s obvious that Bran is a dog, right? Lord Dunsany NEVER says so, and NEVER includes any element of description that would conclusively identify Bran as a dog. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? Hasn’t he done a great job capturing the way a dog exists and experiences the world without ever saying, Oh, by the way, this is a dog? I think this is a great job.

Also, the description is marvelous.

Also, this was written in the bygone era during which people weren’t scared to use semicolons. Or long, long, long sentences.

I didn’t know much about Lord Dunsany, and this book made me wonder about him. If you feel the same way, here’s the Wikipedia entry. He was actually Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, which is a quite a mouthful. He wrote a zillion books. More than ninety, it says, and lots of shorter works and plays and whatever else. He wrote The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which I haven’t read, but at least I’ve heard of it. If you’ve read it, or something else by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, what did you think of it?

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16 thoughts on “Rory and Bran”

  1. I haven’t read everything by Lord Dunsany, but I’ve probably read most of his fantasy. And I think it’s marvelous. Such beautiful prose.

    Four of his books are available for free at Standard Ebooks, including The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

    Another novel worth tracking down is The Charwoman’s Shadow. Amazon has an eBook version for $1.99.

    One of my favorite stories is Idle Days on the Yann from the collection A Dreamer’s Tales. It begins:

    So I came down through the wood on the bank of Yann and found, as had been prophesied, the ship Bird of the River about to loose her cable.

    The captain sat cross-legged upon the white deck with his scimitar lying beside him in its jeweled scabbard, and the sailors toiled to spread the nimble sails to bring the ship into the central stream of Yann, and all the while sang ancient soothing songs. And the wind of the evening descending cool from the snowfields of some mountainous abode of distant gods came suddenly, like glad tidings to an anxious city, into the wing-like sails.

    And all the rest of the story is one amazing vivid scene after another.

  2. I love The King of Elfland’s Daughter! It has beautiful prose and also, as I recall, a satisfying ending. I believe I’ve also read, hm, The Gods of Pegana, which was a wild ride.

  3. I first came across Dunsany as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter which reprinted a lot of pre-Tolkien fantasy in the late 60s and early 70s after Ballantine’s authorized publication of Lord of the Rings took off– it’s a pretty interesting list including other early fantasy authors like E.R. Eddison, William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, and Evangeline Walton along with new original titles for the line like Katherine Kurtz’s first Deryni series.

    It looks like the Wikipedia article has the full list and also has a list of titles considered that didn’t make it out for whatever reason! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballantine_Adult_Fantasy_series

  4. Thanks for the links, Sandstone and Robert — I’ll need to pick up some of his books, in order to add them to the list of fine books I don’t have time to read.

    You know, I want a different name for that list. Not the TBR pile. I want to subdivide that into the TBR pile I really, no kidding, honestly intend to read kind of soon-ish and the (larger) TBR pile I would like to read someday, probably, maybe, if I can somehow fit that in. Neither category would be particularly static, I expect.

  5. Well, I didn’t get that Bran was a dog. At all.

    … This lack of understanding is probably why I never managed to get into Dunsany.

  6. Ditto, Heather.
    Once Rachel pointed it out it was obvious on rereading, but I’ve never been around dogs much, and have read a lot of fantasy.
    I just thought Bran
    1) was really taciturn, or maybe couldn’t speak (hence needing the youngster to come along and do the talking when they get to the fair),
    2) and he was very experienced at and really focussed on the task of herding the sheep,
    3) and patient with them and with the boy nattering on at him.
    That those three things added up to being a dog, rather than a taciturn shepherd or possibly a helpful farm-fae (knowing Lord Dunsany wrote poetic fantasies) wasn’t immediately obvious to me, though in retrospect the hints are clear.

  7. It might be about being around dogs. I have dogs, and have read books with dogs as characters, so I immediately thought that Bran was a dog.

  8. I agree it undoubtedly helps to have been around dogs. Bran is a great picture of how dogs think and focus differently than humans — in this case a do-the-job border collie.

  9. Oh, interesting! I did not get at all that Bran was a dog, and I am very much around them. It makes sense on a reread, but I’m an admin assistant and on the first readthrough I just identified strongly with Bran trying to do his job and get the faculty, er, Rory and cattle, safely where they’re supposed to go. (I am fairly certain a couple years ago I described myself to my boss as the department border collie, so there you go, I guess.)

  10. That’s kinda neat, Maigen — I’m interested it’s so easy not to pick up on this! I sort of wish I hadn’t known the trick before I started it.

    I’ve been reading along in the story, and I must say, it’s a darn good thing Bran is along to look after Rory.

  11. @Maigen, that’s a pretty funny, and apt, analogy!

    I’m not a dog person, and I did guess that Bran was a dog, but I think that’s only because I was actively looking for the “trick.” I noticed anomalies about Bran’s behaviour, but I might have continued thinking along Hanneke’s lines if I hadn’t been scrutinizing the sentences so closely. (When Rachel said, “You’ve got it now, right?” I certainly didn’t, and went back to reread, and still didn’t get it. It wasn’t until the meat conversation that I clued in.)

    This sounds like a very charming read! I did download The Elf-King’s Daughter, thanks for that link, Robert. I look forward to immersing myself in the beautiful prose—when I have enough dopamine to concentrate on it!

  12. Very near the end of the book, the author pretends to realize he’s never described Bran. He gives a description, still phrased so it could be a human or dog, and says more or less ‘but by now you have your own picture of him, forgive me, I should have given it sooner.’

    I don’t know how long it would have taken me to realize Bran was a dog if I hadn’t known going in . . . though honestly I probably wouldn’t have kept reading the book if I hadn’t been appreciating the trick, since excellent prose isn’t typically enough to keep me reading a boring mundane novel.

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