Friday, 3 May 2013

Magical Classics: ‘The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’ by Lord Dunsany

This is the first of a series by me and a number of guests about magical never-to-be-forgotten books. The idea is to celebrate some wonderful older fantasy titles - with a wide definition of fantasy!  Some will be familiar, others I hope will be unfamiliar (so we can go and search them out!) The series is called 'Magical Classics' and there are only two criteria: each title will be at least 50 years old and it will have meant much to the person who has chosen it. Here is my opening piece, and I hope you will forgive a little autobiography...

Simpson's Cat - by Bill Wild

When I was about sixteen, we moved to a small village in Yorkshire, to live in a wonderfully rambling house with twenty rooms, three staircases and no electricity.  In winter, frost coated the insides of delicate windowpanes scrawled with the diamond-engraved names of previous inhabitants.  We couldn't afford to heat the house properly - indeed, apart from open fires, I don't suppose anyone had ever tried.  Draughts whistled under the doors, and the only warm place was the kitchen. 

In summer, the doors and windows stood open to let cats in, and stray bees, and the sounds of sheep bleating and curlews calling.  One day I brought my pony into the stone-flagged living room.  One night a bat flew into my bedroom through the open window and whirled around and around before finding its way out again.  Outside in the dark, I could hear the beck flowing quietly down the dale to join the Aire, and owls shrieking in the trees.

I was at that happy age when one is almost independent, yet with few responsibilities.  I was writing stories, about which I was blissfully uncritical.  And I could spend nearly all the rest of my time reading.  One day I borrowed from Skipton Public Library (yes, it’s still there) a drab, insignificant-looking little black cloth-bound book called ‘The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’ by Lord Dunsany, published in 1950.

I can’t remember now whether this was the first book by Lord Dunsany that I had read.  I may have already come across his full length fairytale ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ (to which Neil Gaiman pays graceful tribute in ‘Stardust’).  At any rate, ‘The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’ turned out to be something quite different: difficult to categorise: not your average fantasy at all.  I read it, adored it, borrowed and re-borrowed it, and then one day it disappeared.  I never saw it in the library again. Perhaps it had been stolen by some less scrupulous fan.  And it was only a few years ago, decades later, that I finally tracked down another copy.   (Thank you,!)

It begins in that most Edwardian of settings, a gentleman’s club.  The eponymous hero, Colonel Polders, objects to the election of a new member, Pundit Sinadryana, ‘on the grounds that he was by several thousand miles outside the circle that was intended by the original founders…’  The colonel is stiff, racist, conservative, and aggressively disbelieving of the Pundit’s claim to possess the power of transmigration, to send a spirit travelling ‘to other lives’. 

“I should like to see you do it,” said the colonel…
“I will show you,” said Pundit Sinadryana.  And after what the colonel had just said it was difficult for him to decline the invitation; much as he wished to do so, not from any fear of the adventure, but because he did not like Pundit Sinadryana.
            “When?” said the colonel.
            “Tonight, if you like,” said the Pundit.

The experiment is tried.  The Pundit burns various powders, and chants a spell ‘low and musical right into the colonel’s face, of which we heard no clear word, nor did we wish to… “Well”, said the colonel, “I don’t seem to be doing much travelling.”’ 

But the next moment he falls asleep.  And shortly after that he’s snoring.  And when, moments later, he wakes up: ‘he stood up at once and walked out of the room without saying a word.’

By Janet's Foss - by Bill Wild
It’s left to the narrator and his friends, with the aid of many a glass of Malmsey wine and many a cigar, to coax from Colonel Polders the stories of the lives he has lived during the space of those few moments.  The poor colonel has been a fish, a fox, a dog, a moth, a pig, an eel, a tiger.  He has been a cat, a butterfly, a flea, a goose: a bat, an antelope and a mouse. At the end of each life, the colonel has died in his animal form, only to be reincarnated in the next.  In each life he has experienced sensory revelations, which of course are lost to him now he has returned to his own body.  And he recounts his experiences with a mixture of rapture and resentment at ‘that damned fellow Sinadryana’, that is both lyrical and extremely funny.  As a pig, he explains:
“…I couldn’t see very well what was going on, because of the high walls of the sty, but fortunately I had a very wet nose.”
            “A very wet nose?” exclaimed Charlie Meakin.
            “Yes,” said the colonel.  “One cannot smell anything without a good wide area that is always damp… No, it is very ample life that is led by a pig.”

As a fox, he lies in his earth waiting for evening, when he can hunt:

“And it is a curious thing, and you may possibly not believe me, but I waited without impatience.  One can hardly imagine waiting two or three hours for one’s dinner when one is hungry, without any impatience whatever.  But such was the case.
            “I lay there just enjoying the sound of the wind going by, and the quality of the air that I breathed, and the rounded shape of the smoothed earth where I was lying, which was so exactly suited to my needs…  A fern grew at the edge of the earth, and whenever the wind blew, it waved over across my view of the sky.  I watched it doing that while the sky’s colour changed slowly; and I felt no impatience with time.”

And as a hummingbird hawk-moth, he beats against a window:

“The glory of that light…was calling to me with music as well as beauty.  I darted towards it, and there was no barrier, no window I mean: nothing between me and that unearthly light glowing amongst melodies and irresistible calls.”
            “And it was a candle?” asked Charlie Meakin. 

“The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’ is a supremely happy book that celebrates the marvellous diversity of life.  Dunsany writes as though he knows himself what it’s like to be an eel or a moth or a pig.  I don’t suppose for a moment that a book like this could be published today.  It breaks all structural rules. There is only the slightest of plots, with one little twist at the end to round things off.  The book is barely more than a linked series of short pieces.  But in this case, for me, it doesn’t matter.  It’s the journeys that count, along with the semi-comical insights of the poor colonel, forever exiled from the abundant delights he has known. 

For years and years, while the book was lost to me, I remembered the image of the Colonel as a fox curled in his lair, watching ‘the white light at the end of that long earth turn to a glowing blue…’ 

I read this story at a golden age, and for me it is a golden book.

Moonlight in the Dale - by Bill Wild

All artwork by  Bill Wild (1903-1983) whom I knew. He lived and worked for many years in Malhamdale. Copyright: St Michael the Archangel, Kirkby Malham.


  1. This sounds wonderful - and what lovely pictures! At a similar age I read lots of ghost stories, and they too often began in a gentleman's club...

  2. I believe Lord Dunsany used the same idea in My Talks With Dean Spanley (although I don't know which came first).
    Your description reminds me somewhat of Arthur's education in The Sword In The Stone, too.

  3. I think you're right - that one was written in the 1930's, I believe, and the Dean experiences life as a dog. There was a film based on it, recently, with Peter O'Toole. (I haven't seen it - can anyone recommend?)

    I think this book is richer, though - and you are quite right, it does bring the Wart's transformations to mind. I love that too! And in John Masefield's The Box of Delights. young Kay is transformed into various animals by Herne the Hunter. Was it something in the air of the first half of the twentieth century? An escape, perhaps, from the wars of humanity into the innocence of animal lives?

  4. I loved the film of Dean Spanley - it's very peculiar but funny and charming and in the end quite moving - especially if you like dogs (or Tokay)! I haven't read the original story though. The King of Elfland's Daughter is a favourite book of mine.

    that Yorkshire house sounds AMAZING - lucky you.

  5. Thanks, Lily, I must see that film! And yes, we were so very lucky to live in that house. It had been empty for three years since the old lady, the last of the family who built and owned it, had died. It was full of bits and pieces, old furniture no one wanted, and one one room which had had a hole in the floor and was too dangerous to enter, was full of junk - a Victorian birdcage, old knife grinders and floor polishers, a Jacobean table with one leg rotted off... It's still the house of my dreams.

  6. I read this book recently -- a wonderful experience. It was reprinted recently.

  7. I'm pleased to hear that! Thankyou.