Details: Collection (c) 1972; material originally published 1906 – 1929; Pub 1972 Pan / Ballantine; Edited by Lin Carter; ISBN 0 345 09744 0
Verdict: Beyond the fields we know is original and contains some really stunning language.
Reasons for reading it: rysmiel quoted a really lovely sentence from Lord Dunsany at one point, and mentioned that he frequently does things like that with language, which seemed a very good reason to read him.
How it came into my hands: I picked it up when I was bookshopping in America last year; it's a bit of a random collection but I understand that anything by Dunsany is pretty hard to find, so I nabbed it anyway.
Beyond the fields we know definitely made me want to read Dunsany's substantial stuff, but whichever way you slice it, it is just a collection of minor esoterica. Dunsany's prose ranges from lovely to absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous (though funnily enough his poems are as banal as anything).
I don't normally care for invented sacred texts for fictional religions, which make up a large proportion of this collection, but Dunsany's ear for language, subtle humour and ability to evoke the King James Version without descending into bad pastiche makes up quite a lot for the lack of plot. Also, there are some quite interesting and genuinely original ideas about the relationships between deities and creation, and stuff with significance beyond the fantasy religion context about good and evil and mortality and so on. The trouble is that even with really superior writing, scriptures tend not to be terribly engaging unless you actually believe in them.
The unconnected shorts are a mixed bunch; The kith of the elf-folk is just about the loveliest fairy story I've ever read, it's sort of The Little Mermaid only with a contemporary (for Dunsany, ie inter-war) setting and without Anderson's awful theology. It's beautifully atmospheric and very touching and at the same time there's an undercurrent of really biting satirical humour. But some of the stories are little more than cheap mockery of certain kinds of religious attitudes. A story of land and sea is a kind of weird cross between Herodotus and a satire of Boys Own Adventure stories, which is well done but it didn't strike me as something particularly worth doing in the first place. I would summarize that Dunsany is best when he's being sincere rather than snarky.
Oh, and I found Carter to be a rather irritating redactor; the notes were rather necessary to understand the context of the rather disparate stories, but lots of Carter's entirely gratuitous opinions annoyed me. The long essay raving about Dunsany's ability to make up names in particular, mainly because I strongly disagree with Carter's opinion: I think Dunsany has an absolute tin ear for fantasy names and they spoil the flow of his otherwise wonderful prose.
I'm quite tempted to make a phonepost reading a couple of the shorter pieces (some are only a couple of paragraphs) or excerpts from the pretty descriptions. It's definitely reading aloud stuff, but I'm not sure how well that would work. Will ponder this some more, and in the meantime look out for anything else of Dunsany's I can find!