1905 – The Gods of Pegana

1905. In Ireland, The Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”) party is founded with the goal of uniting the various nationalist groups. The Irish dream of self-government and the revival of cultural nationalism was slowly gaining momentum. Two home rule bills had already been submitted and defeated. The Gaelic Irish Language was being revived (around the same time Eliezer ben Yehuda started his revival of the Hebrew Language), Irish sports were becoming popular. Artists and writers were also doing their part by reviving interest in Celtic culture.

The Celtic Revival was a variety of movements and trends that sprung up during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Artists and writers drew upon Gaelic, Welsh and Celtic traditions, to produce their works. The best known incarnation of the Celtic Revival is probably the Irish Literary Revival, which brought about a new appreciation of Irish literature and Irish poetry. Some of the more prominent writers of the Irish literary revival were W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and also Lord Dunsany, who burst onto the literary scene with his first book, The Gods of Pegana, in 1905 (illustrated by Sidney Sime).

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), AKA Lord Dunsany, was an Anglo-Irish author best known for his many works in modern fantasy. During his lifetime, Lord Dunsany wrote and published hundreds of novels, plays, short stories and essays. During the 1910s, he was considered one of the greatest living writers in the English speaking world.

Lord Dunsany is perhaps best known for pioneering modern fantasy before it really became a recognized genre. He was one of the first modern authors to create separate fictional fantasy worlds in which his characters could reside. His most famous novel is The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which some critics consider to be on par with Lord of the Rings.

The Gods of Pegana is a series of short interconnected stories about a fictional pantheon of deities who reside in Pegana and their interactions with the mortal world. The stories begin with how MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI (MYS), the first god, creates all the other gods and Pegana. Skarll the drummer then proceeds to create a drum, and beats on it to lull MYS to sleep. MYS will sleep so long as Skarll beats on his drum. When Skarll stops beating, MYS will awaken, destroy the gods and start the creation process over.

The Dreams of Mana Yood Sushai – illustrated by Sidney Sime

To while away the time until the end when they are destroyed, the gods create the worlds, the sun and the moon, the comet and star of the north and finally the Earth. Later Kib, one of the gods, creates animals and then man to play with. While Kib is creating life, Sish the god of time is following him and making things old. After Sish comes Mung the god of death whose goal is to bring death to Kib’s life.

After the stories of the gods who reside in Pegana, come stories of the thousand home gods, a lower order of gods who reside in people’s houses. And after these are stories of the interactions of mortal men, priests and prophets, with the gods. The book emphasizes that men are incapable of knowing the will of the gods, just as the gods are incapable of knowing the will of MYS (why he created them and what is his purpose). But men expect the priests to chant to them all the same.

The influence of the Irish Literary Revival can be felt in the writing style of the book, which is strongly reminiscent of an oral tradition being set down in writing. The language has an archaic feel to it, written in the style of a religious text, and has a dreamlike quality to it. Another influence is the creation of a fictional pagan pantheon, which echoes the work of other Irish revivalists who looked to pre-Christian pagan Ireland as a period in which both the Catholic and Protestant communities were united. However, The Gods of Pegana is also separate from other Irish revival books in that it does not draw at all on native Irish folklore. Pegana is an entirely fictional location. Its gods are not Western gods or Eastern gods. They are something wholly different and unique, which helps make the book stand out from all the other literature produced during that period.

Mung and The Beast of Mung – illustrated by Sidney Sime

I enjoyed reading the Gods of Pegana. The stories are very short, even bite-sized (most are less than a thousand words), but they carry a lot of weight. The stories felt like Greek Myths written in the language of the Arabian Nights. Initially, I attempted to map out the Peganan cosmos and the relationships between the various gods and beings in my head, but I gave up quickly. It was like trying to map out Neil Gaiman’s dreaming. Instead, I focused on what the stories were saying instead of where they were happening. How they made me feel and think, and this greatly enhanced the experience for me.

The omer today is grandeur in kindness. In The Gods of Pegana, we have plenty of grandeur. Lord Dunsany created an entirely fictional universe and populated it with a cosmology of his own making. However, kindness is lacking. MYS is indifferent to the gods he created, and the gods themselves don’t really care about humanity. We were created as a game for Kib. Humans, on the other hand are not gods. We are capable of kindness. If the Gods of Pegana lack this attribute, humans can help fill the void by spreading kindness throughout the world.

The Gods of Pegana

Author: Lord Dunsany

Illustrator: Sidney Sime

Publisher: Elkin Mathews

Published: 1905

Pages: 94

Format reviewed: Kindle