There are many kinds of rebels. One of the oddest and most delightful is the establishment figure who, not seeming even notice what he's doing, subverts with his dreamy left hand all that his powerful right hand continues to uphold.
Lord Dunsany was just such a figure. The 18th holder of a barony created in 1439, he behaved much like any other British peer. He went to Elton. He loved fox-hunting. He married an earl's daughter. He lived in a castle. He and his whole family fought for whoever happened to be the king or queen. He served in the Coldstream Guards and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. His younger brother, Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernie-Erle-Drax--a name that P.G. Wodehouse himself would hardly have dared to invent--commanded a good part of the British Navy. How can you be more establishment than that?
But all the time Lord Dunsany was leading a separate fantasy life, and in that he did not uphold the established order at all. Sometimes, as in The King of Elfland's Daughter, he merely ignored it. And sometimes, as in The Blessing of Pan, he dreamily turned it on its head.
The book is laid in a quiet English village called Wolding, sometimes in the late 19th century. At first it seems to be a continuation of Anthony Trollope. The main character, you realize right away, is to be the Vicar of Wolding, a quiet man of fifty named Elderick Anwrel. As the book opens, he is just nerving himself to write a letter to his bishop. Then he does write it, causing himself to be late for tea, so that the hot buttered buns that Mrs. Tweedy the cook had made, and Marion the maid has brought in, are cold. Augusta, his wife, is mildly reproachful. Aha, you think, one of those cozy books about the gentlest of breezes in teapots that England is famous for. All that's needed is for Lord Peter Wimsey to drop in for sherry, or Mr. Pumblechook to come eat a dozen or so of the buttered buns.
How wrong you are. What Anwrel is writing his bishop about is trouble in the parish a very strange kind of trouble. There is a big wooded hill above the village called Wold Hill, and almost every evening all spring a weirdly beautiful flute-like music has come down from the hill. There's something pagan about it. And it has such an allure that all the young girls in Wolding steal out of their houses at dark and go to the hill. They will not say what happens there.
The bishop's response to this letter is to conclude that one of his clergymen has gone bonkers. He writes back ordering Anwrel to take a two-week vacation at the shore ("the air of Brighton is particularly invigorating," his lordship writes), and in fact has his chaplain make all the arrangements. He fancies that Anwrell will come back free of these musical delusions.
Anwrel comes back to find that things are worse. He has known for some time where the music comes from; it's a young farmer's son named Tommy Duffin who is out there playing a reed pipe he made himself. But now Anwrel begins to realize what power it is that has entered Tommy. And he returns to find that now the young men of the village are stealing out at night, too.
The young men (who also know it's Tommy) had originally gone out planning to catch him, smash his pipes, and get their girls back. It didn't work out that way. Instead they fall instantly under the spell of that pagan music and now that Tommy has all the young people of the village with him, things can begin to happen. The night the boys come is the first night that Tommy goes back behind the hill to what are known as the Old Stones of Wolding.
There are 13 of the Old Stones: 12 standing in a circle, the 13th lying huge and flat int he middle. That first night, all that the boys and girls do is to dance a strange dance somehow they just know what steps to take in and out among the stones. But soon the music gives them a new thought. "It has an empty look, the old flat stone," one of them muses. They begin to feel they must get a bull, and perform a blood sacrifice on and for the stone.
The vicar realizes clearly that he is up against the power of the god Pan. His bishop having failed him, he turns this way and that, looking for help. He goes to a colleague in the ministry who is a great classical scholar, and must understand Greek gods. Sturdy Protestant though he is he goes to the reputed grave of St. Ethelbruda, who back in Saxon times is said to have driven the last pagan out of that part of England. Both fail him.
Meanwhile, the power of the music continues to grow. Eventually, everyone in the village, to the oldest granny, is going to the Stones. Even Anwrel's wife defects, as does the great lady of the neighborhood.
The climactic scene comes on a Sunday. Anwrel is preaching to a full church (his parishioners are still conventional Victorians by day), when Tommy boldly comes right into the churchyard, playing his pan-pipes. The whole connngregation tiptoes out. It is that night, sun day night, that Anwrel himself defects, and it is he who sacrifices the bull at dawn on moon day, with a paleolithic stone axe. It is he, furthermore, still shepherd of the flock, who becomes leader of the pagan, nature-worshipping, low-technology community that now comes into being (and that presumably still exists) in the remote country around Wolding. That makes a powerful ending. For most of the book the reader has waited to see how Anwrel will finally defeat the forces of subversion, and it comes as a shock when he instead joins them.
This is not an anti-Christian book. Lord Dunsany specifically brings in St. Ethelbruda herself (there is a madman named Perkin who sees her in visions). She in heaven knows what is happening in Wolding, and doesn't mind a bit. To her Pan is not an enemy any longer, but another of the great powers. It is just anti organization, centralization, and "progress."
It is not consciously a proenvironmental book, either. Lord Dunsany could hardly have had that concept in 1928 as we now use it. He managed a pretty good prophecy of the rural counterculture, though.
And finally it is not a great book. Lord Dunsany was a baron among writers as among peers, not a lofty duke. But it is a literally enchanting romance.