Lord Dunsany,
The Charwoman's Shadow
(1926; DelRey, 1999)

Reading James Stoddard's The High House inspired me to seek out some of the masters of fantasy who inspired Stoddard, and the first book I reached for was The Charwoman's Shadow by Lord Dunsany.

Set in the Golden Age of a mythical medieval Spain, The Charwoman's Shadow is the story of Ramon Alonzo, the son of the Lord of the Tower and Rocky Forest. The Lord is in need of gold for a dowry for his daughter, Mirandola, and he decides that Ramon Alonzo is to seek out a magician of whom he knows and to learn how to transmute metal into gold. Although he has some trepidation about this father's request, Ramon Alonzo complies and seeks out the magician, who gladly agrees to take him on as an apprentice.

During his first night in the magician's vast and shadowy house, Ramon Alonzo is visited by the elderly charwoman who warns him about the terrible prices the magician exacts. She, herself, has lost her shadow in exchange for an extended life, and she received the bad end of the bargain, for though she is immortal, still she ages. She is doomed to keep the magician's house forever, cut off from human society without her shadow.

At first, Ramon Alonzo resolves to keep his shadow, even when it turns out to be the price for learning to change metals into gold. He asks instead to learn to read -- truly, a form of magic in itself -- and resolves to find and liberate the charwoman's shadow.

But Ramon Alonzo receives word from this father that gold is needed sooner than expected, and he allows the magician to claim his fee. Soon, though, he resumes his quest for the charwoman's shadow as well as his own, for though the magician provides a false shadow for him, it has no value for him in comparison. What happens next is up to you to discover for yourself.

Twined into Ramon Along's tale is that of his sister, who, betrothed to an unpleasant, albeit wealthy neighbor, desires the Duke of the Valley of Shadow. Mirandola works a little magic of her own after the assistance her brother lends goes awry.

The narrative begins languidly, unfolding at a slow, tantalizing pace. It is a work to savor, to appreciate, to share with others while reading aloud. The language is rich, yet not overdone, seasoned with a light dry humorous undertone. It is easy to see where so many fantasy writers have drawn inspiration from Lord Dunsany, as Peter Beagle describes in his introduction to this reprint. For a glimpse of a Golden Age which is no more, read The Charwoman's Shadow and share in the enchantment.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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