[from April 2006]
The Gods of Pegana is such a short work -- little more than 30 pages long -- yet it holds astonishing significance. In the space of an ordinary author's short story, Lord Dunsany wrote an entire fictional mythology. More significant, the planet named in the mythology is Earth, but it is not our Earth. The gods, their people, and some of the strangest nomenclature in literature are utterly alien. The Gods of Pegana is not only one of the earliest works of fantasy fiction, but one of the earliest examples of the alien horror genre. Indeed, Lord Dunsany predates and inspired H.P. Lovecraft and all who followed him.
It may be inaccurate to call this a short story. It is a sort of free verse poem, but deeper than that, it is written with the alliteration and repetition of oral tradition, with a narrative voice reminiscent of the Bible. The bizarreness of Lord Dunsany's inventions ring true because they sound authoritative and familiar. And -- deeper still -- there is much that IS true behind these alien parables, timeless themes that will always resonate. Paramount among them is the fear of endings, whether it be personal death or the end of all that is. When Mana-Yood-Sushai (the creator deity of this alien pantheon) awakes, he will mock the smaller gods for their games with worlds and people and will end everything to start over, we are told. On a more personal level, human characters are introduced who come face-to-face with Mung, the personification of death. Which group has it worse, those who fear death or those who fear the mocking before death? This ties in with a statement made at the very beginning, that no one knows whether fate or chance controls the universe. Mung tells those whose lives he ends that it is fated it should happen, that they could take no other path in life other than the one that leads to Mung. Yet, if chance is the answer, then Mung is wrong or lying. Does Mung lie to console those whose lives are about to end? Mana-Yood-Sushai is fated, it seems, to eventually awake and end all that is, but if all is fated, then why does he mock the smaller gods? The fear of endings, then, is the fear that it IS chance
that governs us.
Another reoccurring theme is that wisdom means knowing that you do not know anything, ala Socrates. The wisest of the prophets, such as Yonath, knows this, but the hypocrisy of later prophets is borne out by their tales of knowing they tell their followers. Bad fates tend to befall these "false" prophets, or at the least an encounter with Mung. The Gods of Pegana does not speak well of religion, suggesting that it tells people not what is true, but what people want to hear (incidentally, there is in the introduction a comment about Allah that would seem
most politically incorrect in most areas of the world today, though it
was probably not intended as such).
The Gods of Pegana is a fast read, but a rewarding one, and something
everyone should try.
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