Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

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