Lord Dunsany's "How Nuth Would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles" of The Book of Wonders is the short story of a stealthy man, his unfortunate apprentice, and the dangerous gnoles whose treasure they attempt to steal. Although the gnoles are the obvious monsters of the story, Mr. Nuth is arguably even more monstrous than them. The story begins in the realm of reality and explores capitalism through Nuth's "business" of burglary; he has competitors, he makes contracts, and he gets an apprentice (likely not the first one, either). At this point, Nuth's behavior resembles what the reader later encounters in the gnoles. While customers for his stolen goods wait to be seen, they inspect his house, and he inspects them:
the caretaker used to praise the house in the words that Nuth had suggested. "If it wasn't for the drains," she would say, "it's the finest house in London," and when they pounced on this remark and asked questions about the drains, she would answer them that the drains also were good, but not so good as the house. They did not see Nuth when they went over the rooms, but Nuth was there.
In almost exactly the same fashion, the gnoles watch Tonker enter their home from "knavish holes that they bore in trunks of trees," unseen themselves, before pouncing on him. The parallel between the behavior of Nuth and the gnoles suggests the case that he, with his creeping ways, is as terrible as they are. But this alone is not enough to convict him. It is not until the reader sees Nuth's reaction to Tonker's abduction and presumably painful death at the hands of the gnoles that the true monster in him emerges: “Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin, for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him; then he stole nimbly away through the dreadful wood.”
Nuth is unfazed by the horror that has taken place before him. Only "mild surprise" crosses his face, and this is not directed at Tonker's fate, but at the ability of the gnoles. Nuth seems borderline impressedby the gnoles, takes note, and escapes as easily as he got there. Even the title hints that his view of the matter is as though it were a sport for him to "practice" his talents in this "art." In fact, the lack of reaction suggests that he has seen this happen to other apprentices of his before. Little description of the gnoles is presented in the story, besides that they come upon Tonker "with a grace." They destroy anyone that trespasses on their territory, but they do not hunt or allure or trap people to kill them. Intent is key, though, and the gnoles lack Nuth's intent when he trains apprentices for what he knows likely will be their doom.
When he is ready to see them, Nuth makes himself visible:
1. The protagonists of "The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind" and "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" are both caught and killed dreadfully for their attempts to steal jewels from fantastic beings. Thangobrind is hired to do the job and Alderic makes the attempt out of greed; for Nuth, the motivation is ambition. Why does Dunsany allow Nuth to survive?
2. Mr. Nuth and Thangobrind are described as having a "business" in "jewelry." Does Tennyson intend to have them reflect on their "trade" and/or the capitalistic system that his language places them in?
3. The gnoles of this story and the gibbelins of "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" are strikingly similar in that they possess a mass of wealth and are fearful beasts. Their attacks at the end of each story are also similar---two sentences of sudden abducting followed by an implicitly or explicitly horrific death for the abductee. To what degree are they responsible for the murders they commit? Are the beasts equally responsible for their respective acts? For reference, here are the two-sentence attacks of each:
But the gnoles had watched him though knavish holes that they bore in trunks of the trees, and the unearthly silence gave way, as it were with a grace, to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up from behind — screams that came faster and faster until they were incoherent. And where they took him it is not good to ask, and what they did with him I shall not say. ("How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles")
By a faint ray of the moon he saw that the water was green with them, and easily filling a satchel, he rose again to the surface; and there were the Gibbelins waist-deep in the water, with torches in their hands! And, without saying a word, or even smiling, they neatly hanged him on the outer wall Ñ and the tale is one of those that have not a happy ending. ("The Hoard of the Gibbelins")
Etienne Ma responds — and asks a few more qustions himself
It does seem curious that Dunsany chooses to let Nuth — the most despicable of the three thieves — live. One reason may be the fact that despite each of the three thieve's considerable egos and apparent abilities, Nuth is the most cautious and able to keep his ego in check. He is also the only one that takes into account that as accomplished as he is, failure is still a possibility, a fact that the others' egos apparently obscure.
Aldric is fairly cautious — "all folk knew he was a cautious man" — and he spends years studying the Gibbelin's Hoard. He isn't a thief by profession, but rather, a
Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King's Peace of Mind." His inflated self-perception means that he ignores, or thinks he doesn't need, others' advice — including, most crucially, that "the only use that is known for [the Gibbelins' ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food" — while Aldric's sole reason, "sheer avarice," plays right into the Gibbelin's hands. It appears that Aldric's ego is the reason for his downfall, as he is so confident that he can defeat the system that he doesn't even consider the possibility for failure.
Thangobrind is a thief of “very high repute, being patronized by the lofty and elect, for he stole nothing smaller than the Moomoo's egg, and in all his life stole only four kinds of stone — the ruby, the diamond, the emerald, and the sapphire.” His choices are fairly limited when it comes to what he is willing to steal, and the fact that he won't steal anything — less challenging, one presumes — "than the Moomoo's egg" suggests that his skill is so great that there is great demand for his services. What leads to his downfall, however, is this same limited mindset — "he refuse[s] to acknowledge that it might be what he feared" when he hears the spider-idol's pattering footsteps behind him, similar to him refusing to acknowledge before accepting the task that there is a good reason that the diamond has a "knack of coming back again to the lap of Hlo-hlo."
1. Dunsany dscribes Thangobrind as a thief of "high repute" but also as a jeweller of great honesty; Nuth appears to be a man of some social standing, with the "finest house in London" and anxious mothers seeking him for apprenticeships for their sons; Aldric is a "Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King's Peace of Mind." All 3 thieves seem to defy our stereotypes of criminals. Why does Dunsany create characters that are so different from conventional thieves?
2. Is there significance in Dunsany's choices for the names of the protagonists (and other objects/settings)?
Last modified 11 March 2010