‘Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn’

This story by Lord Dunsany is remarkable in that it is not a story. It is building up to a story that is never told, but in the build-up it creates a fantastic world out of the ordinary–the Ancient Company of Milkmen. We see some of Lord Dunsany’s sense of humor in the rivals to that great company–the Company of Horse-Drivers, the Company of Chin-Barbers, the Company of Whiskerers, and the Company of Powderers for the Face.

They key line is this one: “You also, O my reader, give not yourself up to curiosity. Consider of how many it is the bane. Would you to gratify this tear away the mystery from the Milkmen’s Hall and wrong the Ancient Company of Milkmen? Would they if all the world knew it and it became a common thing to tell that tale any more that they have told for the last four hundred years? Rather a silence would settle upon their hall and a universal regret for the ancient tale and the ancient winter evenings.”

After creating a desire in the reader for the story, Dunsany asks him to give it up and let it go, which, of course, the reader is forced to do, since the tale is never told. The reader is left with an unfulfilled longing for the story, which is in this context a longing for something secret and ancient and hallowed and even sacred. At the same time the reader must accept the authors judgement that he is not worthy to hear the story, nor is the author worthy to tell it. Thus, the humility that the reader must accept–his own unworthiness–is softened by the humility first expressed by the author.

The title of the story we never hear is also evocative. Does the milkman shudder at what the dawn brings, or in remembering what he has happened in the night, now over? I am inclined to the latter interpretation. The dawn is the boundary between night and day, darkness and light. The coming of the sun at dawn is symbolic of the coming of light, goodness or even the divine, and the shudder of the milkman suggestive of evil and sin, or of horrors witnessed in the night. Unless, of course, the milkman shudders at his own judgement, of which the dawn reminds him.

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About Joseph Burke

Economist
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