After reading about Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter I went in search of it and found it at my university library. Reading it was quite a different experience for me, but people who aren’t prepared for the style of writing like I was might be disappointed, confused or scorning of the slow, dream-like pace, archetype characters and poetical language. This might be especially true of fans of typical fantasy genre books (authors such as David Eddings or Terry Brooks) where a fantasy universe is deemed to be good only if it has a solid backing and an exhaustive array of facts and figures to add realism to the stories. Lord Dunsany however, expects the reader to take for granted the existence of Elfland, trolls, elves and will o’ the wisps, without trying to explain them. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is refreshingly free of geographies, biologies, cultures, or other infinite details that are so prevalent in other fantasy cult books.
The story goes that the Parliament of Erl approaches their king, eager for their small country to be known throughout the lands. The solution is for it to somehow imbue magic into its royalty, and to achieve this the king sends his son Alveric into Elfland to make the King of Elfland’s daughter his wife. Alveric is successful in this, and brings the beautiful Lirazel back to Erl, where they have a child Orien. The King of Elfland however desperately wants his daughter returned to him, and by use of three powerful runes, contrives to bring her back to her home.
Dunsany delves into several themes throughout the book, all framed by the contrasts of Erl and Elfland. Within this, he explores the differences between Paganism and Christianity, freedom and restrictions, the passage of times, mortality and immortality, male and female, parent and child — the list goes on. Running through these is the main story thread that makes clear that everyone desires what they cannot have, and although by the end of the novel their desires come to fulfillment, it is in an ironic resolution that no one (including this reviewer) could have ever wished for. The ending is thus happy, but contains a certain sense of something bittersweet, like a lost childhood that Dunsany continually likens Elfland to.
It was acknowledged by many later fantasy writers that they were inspired by Dunsany, including (obviously) Tolkien. It is no coincidence that Alveric and Lirazel have a certain resemblance to Aragorn and Arwen in way of their courtly love and somewhat ‘forbidden’ romance. However, I feel that Dunsany hits upon notes of inevitable discord between the two that Tolkien neglects. I wonder for example if Arwen ever felt: ‘the years that assail beauty, and the harshness that vex the spirit that were already about her, and the doom of all mortals hung over her head.’ It is something for devoted Tolkien fans to think about, as well as potent storytelling. (That wasn’t a dig at Tolkien by any means, just a thought to dwell on).
On the actual styles of storytelling, many people might feel frustrated at the continued use of ‘the fields we know’ to describe earth, and faery as a place ‘only told of in song’. However, as I went through the story, I found the repetition to become quite familiar and comforting, like a steady rhythm or heartbeat, and the final sentence making use of this repeated phrase made me take a deep sigh of contentment. Lord Dunsany’s other gift is his use of metaphor and imagery. For instance, his use of the priest likening Lirazel to a mermaid, and then later echoing this thought with “there was something in [the priest’s] voice as he spoke, a little distant from her, and [Lirazel] knew that he spoke as one that walked safe upon the shore, calling far to a mermaid in a dangerous sea,” makes this not just a book, but literature. Dunsany’s soft, poetical, vivid, mellow language is what makes this book so appealing, and used to unforgettable descriptions of Elfland, twilight, the countryside, and beauty in all its forms.
A couple of times he falters when he slips into what I’ve described above — trying to make story real. References to Tennyson and the infamous unicorn horn of Rome are jarring, and pull one out of the dreamy atmosphere. The archetypes are expected and unsurprising — the mighty king of Elfland, the elusive witch-upon-the-hill, the elfin beauty, the warrior-king, the hunter-prince, the trickster fey — we’ve encountered them countless times in one form or another.
But overall, this book has my recommendation, for a novelty to see how the fantasy-writers wrote before Tolkien, and for a wonderful escape into a glorious world. Plus, you can learn some little bits of trivia that you may of not known before, for instance — did you know that faeries hate dogs? That they cause clocks to stop? That their infants can talk?
Lord Dunsany‘s The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a classic fantasy novel that I’d been hearing of and reading good things about for years. Friends had recommended it, the book appears in Cawthorn and Moorcock’s overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, and one of my favorite authors of all time, H.P. Lovecraft, gushes about its author in his scholarly piece entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In that piece, H.P. famously writes that Dunsany is “unexcelled in the sorcery of crystalline singing prose, and supreme in the creation of a gorgeous and languorous world or iridescently exotic vision … Lord Dunsany stands dedicated to a strange world of fantastic beauty…” Anyway, now that I have finally read what is generally considered Dunsany’s finest novel, I can see what all the gush is about.
This is indeed a magical piece of writing, one that wraps a very special mood around the reader. In essence a fairy tale for adults, the story itself, although it is charming, does not strike me as being the main attraction; rather, it is Dunsany’s beautifully written prose, in places almost like poetry, that forms dreamlike images and that really transports the reader out of humdrum reality. First printed in May 1924, the novel presents us with a series of parallel story lines. As Rebecca mentions above, we follow Alveric, prince of the Earthly valley of Erl, in his quest for his lost wife, Lirazel, the eponymous daughter of the King of Elfland, after she returns to her fantasy realm. We learn of young Orion, their son, and see him grow up to become a great hunter and slayer of unicorns. We witness the tribulations of the members of the Parliament of Erl, which desperately wants to bring some kind of magic to their mundane valley, and follow the adventures of Lurulu, a troll from Elfland, who has wandered to Earth and discovers the wonders of fleeting time, talking pigeons and moving shadows. And we are there in Elfland itself, as its king attempts many magical acts to keep his daughter happy.
But, as H.P. went on to say in his piece, “no amount of mere description can convey more than a fraction of Lord Dunsany’s pervasive charm.” Just check out this passage, for example, in which Dunsany describes the borderland of light that separates Elfland from Earth:
It was made of the rarest lights that wander in air, and the fairest flashes of sunlight that astonish our fields through storm, and the mists of little streams, and the glow of flowers in moonlight, and all the ends of our rainbows with all their beauty and magic, and scraps of the gloaming of evenings long treasured in aged minds.
Whew … see what I mean about prose poetry? The entire book is like that, and has a cumulative effect of something truly fantastical. This is not a book to tear through, but rather one to read leisurely, so as to let Dunsany’s beautiful imagery wash through your mind and take you somewhere else. While at once using traditional fantasy elements such as magic, trolls, goblins and unicorns, the story also confounds expectations time and again. (For example, when was the last time you read a fantasy story in which the usually beloved and revered unicorn is hunted for sport and casually despised by all for being so haughty and aloof?) So all told, we have an exquisitely written story, featuring multiple story lines and unexpected plot twists, that truly does cast a magical spell. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, born in 1878 in County Meath, Ireland, supposedly wrote over 60 novels, as well as plays, essays, poetry and an autobiography. Based on The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and the remarkable qualities evinced therein, I’m certainly going to want to check out more…