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“Traction-engines!” he said with evident loathing. “I saw one scratching itself at the back of a haystack. I thoroughly barked at it.”

“They should be barked at,” I said, as politely as I could.

“Most certainly,” said the Dean. “If things like that got to think they could go where they liked without any kind of protest, we should very soon have them everywhere.”

On my first flight home from Australia I took Lord Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter to read on the plane. Until today it was the only other book by the author that I had read and to my mind, is one of the most perfectly written fairy tales ever published. Written with an extraordinary visual detail and a gentle good humour, it cheered me up immensely.

I am happy to say that this second visit to the fiction of Lord Dunsany was equally satisfying.

Our narrator chances upon an eccentric Dean whose views on the transubstantiation of the soul capture his attention. As they discuss such matters over a few glasses of Tokay, the elderly gent suddenly takes a turn and begins to speak of events that occurred before he was born. His listener is astonished, as the degree of detail employed by the Dean seems beyond the capacity of a drunkard’s imagination. If anything the man sitting beside him appears refreshed and quick-witted, speaking fondly of the good old days. When he used to be a dog!

Slowly the story’s narrator becomes convinced that the Dean has access to memories from a former life, but he is frustrated by the drip of information he is able to wrangle during these strange drinking sessions. He learns how dogs relate to one another and view the ways of their Masters, the joys of the hunt and the pleasure taken in teasing pigs (barking “Pig! Pig! Pig!” really annoys them). Strangely the Dean mentions romance, but avoids discussing it directly. His fascinated drinking companion sets about attempting to rigorously extract as much information as he can, even to the point of measuring how many glasses of Tokay it takes to transport this man of God back in time.

This is a wittily written and amusing little fable. The Dean’s experiences raise a veil on the mysteries of Oriental theories of reincarnation for the narrator. In many ways the book teases the reader with its notions on religion. Is it arguing that the Christian church is too removed from debating questions of spirituality? Or is it proposing a stronger relationship between Eastern and Western varieties of faith? The appearance of a Maharajah sadly fails to bring any more clarity to the protagonist’s questions relating to his unusual friend. Unfortunately he is more interested in polo than the mysteries of the soul.

The dog’s life, it would seem, is the good life and the Dean (speaking as a dog) even argues that the British industrial revolution has taken too great a toll on the English countryside. There is a rich nostalgia on show for the Victorian era here, one that speaks more to the values of the author than anything else. This is still a story written with great verve and warm wit that argues the greatest thing you will ever learn is –

“Never trust a teetotaller, or a man who wears elastic-sided boots.”

A film adaptation was released in 2008 starring Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. My edition of the novel also includes the screenplay by Alan Sharp and a series of set photos from the filming.

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