The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth

I have really been struggling to think of something to write about, after my two-post splurge back in January. This, though, is little excuse for my lack of February posting. However, there is nothing to get one’s creative process working like several margaritas, watching part of a murder trial, and having a friend message you about a good short story. These secrets of the creative process have worked together to reveal to me the topic for my new post: Lord Dunsany’s short story The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth (a title which I really felt should have ended at ‘unvanquishable’ – a much catcher title).

So, firstly, Lord Dunsany. He was an odd fellow, an Irish lord, I believe he served in the First World War, and have no idea what he happened to do during the Irish Revolution (or War of Independence, but I always feel that’s just an awkward attempt to cover up the embarrassment of saying one was revolting). He wrote many novels and plays and short stories, most of which are rather odd fantasy, such as the subject of the post. Strangely though, he was popular enough that one of his plays was a massive hit in the 30s, and either Waugh or Fitzgerald had a character quote from it in one of their novels. A strange level of success for someone no one really knows. I myself only discovered Lord Dunsany from the days of my extreme-er youth, in which I was obsessed with obscure fantasy.

Anyway, the story. I believe I should preface it by saying that Lord Dunsany has a very strange style. All his writing feels like one is being drawn into a strange, mediaeval romance, but far more bizarre, where all sorts of Lovecraftian horrors lurk at the background, and the paucity of description of wicked creatures creates a far more horrifying feeling (if intrigued, you should read his story The Hoard of the Gibbelins — the advantage of writing about older authors is all their work is now in the public domain, and easily reachable through Project Gutenberg and other such internet things). So, Sacnoth, as I shall now refer to it for ease. The plot is simple, an evil castle arrives near a village, ruled by a wicked sorcerer and infested with evil beings, and plagues the village with evil dreams of Hell, and so a brave young man of the village finds the blade Sacnoth, the only weapon which can kill the sorcerer.

A picture of the said fortress, by Sidney Sime, illustrator of many of Dunsany’s works and a variety of rather creepy and great images, which can be found here.

The young man, Leothric, enters the fortress, and slays a variety of evil creatures, before finally defeating the sorcerer, Gaznak, himself. There are two main points I want to discuss: firstly, the writing itself, and, secondly, the wonderful ending.

The writing is purposefully archaic, hence the feeling of being lost in a strange, poetic, mediaeval romance, filled with horrors and danger, but heroes and sweet fairies around every corner, behind all the trees. Yet it is the few sentences, strewn throughout, that make the story. When describing a giant spider, Dunsany writes that its hair “hid everything except the sin of the little eyes which went on gleaming lustfully in the dark.” I love that line, the old world-esque feeling, yet the image of utter evil that it presents. All the great part when he walks through the great abyss, surrounded by stars, and the hordes of vampires pass alongside the thin walkway praising Hell and evil. The whole writing conjures this amazing feeling, depicting this strange, fantasy world, a mixture of mediaeval and modern fantasy, yet not quite either, but rather its own, strangely fascinating beast.

I know it is not the absolute best of all books, but there is something beautiful about Dunsany’s writing, especially this story. What is most fascinating about the story, though, is the end. Dunsany himself states that perhaps this was nothing, just a myth, or perhaps it happened long ago; the truth is unascertainable, since, when Leothric slew Gaznak, “And the abysses closed up suddenly as the mouth of a man who, having told a tale, will for ever speak no more.” Perhaps, just perhaps, this whole thing was a story, and nothing more. I was reading about the story once, a while ago, and the author of that review had an interesting thought. Maybe, it was worse than just a story — it was a nightmare, and, as Leothric comes further and further into the nightmare, he emerges from the dream into the marsh, the whole events some strange dream. It is an interesting thought, but I am a little sceptical of it. Nevertheless, I thought it worth mentioning.

So that is The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth. It is a fascinating story, definitely worth reading. While I would not feel that there is anything profound in the story, it is a remarkable piece of fiction. Also an important part of fantasy literature, if you are interested in the genre. Writers as varied as Tolkien and Lovecraft were inspired by him, and he thus plays an important role. Since it is free, and rather short, you should take the few minutes required to read the story, and be lost in a strange world.

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