The King of Elfland's Daughter

Monday, June 28, 2010



Lord Dunsany, 1924

I don't quite know how to talk about this book.  Dunsany infects my mind with such glorious poetry that my words feel flat and dull on the page.  Also, even though this is a classic of fantasy literature, from 1924, I know many people have missed it in their travels, and so I am wary of giving too much away.

So first off: Read this book.  If you care anything for fantasy, if you care anything for fairytale, if you care anything for style, if you care anything for literature, read this book.  The story is lyrical and gentle and deeper than it seems.  The prose is just breathtaking.  Dunsany manages the balance that the earlier writers didn't; he doesn't withdraw into archaic language to convey fantasy, instead inventing evocative new turns of phrase.

Also I think Dunsany manages well the difficult trick of describing the indescribable, without either wimping out with the word 'indescribable', or cheating by saying 'indescribable but also exactly like this'.
And the colour of Elfland... may yet be told, for we have hints of it here; the deep blue of the night in Summer just as the gloaming has gone, the pale blue of Venus flooding the evening with light, the deeps of lakes in the twilight, all these are hints of that colour.
Now on to the premise, but I will steer clear of most details of the plot.

In the kingdom of Erl, a delegation of the people come to the King.  They ask to be ruled by a magic lord, for the glory and fame of their land.  The King calls for his son:
“Go forth,” he said, “before these days of mine are over, and therefore go in haste, and go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that clearly pertain to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”
“It is far from here,” said the young man Alveric....
“Even so,” said his father.
“What do you bid me do,” said the son, “when I come to that palace?”

And his father said: “To wed the King of Elfland's daughter.”

The young man thought of her beauty and crown of ice, and the sweetness that fabulous runes had told was hers. Songs were sung of her on wild hills where tiny strawberries grew, at dusk and by early starlight, and if one sought the singer no man was there.  Sometimes only her name was sung softly over and over.  Her name was Lirazel.
The story which follows this scene is not a roaring adventure, nor a fairytale-style quest of strife before triumph.  Those looking for some sword-and-sorcery style high adventure fluffery will be disappointed.  I enjoy that style, but this is something different, more subtle and complex, because in short order Alveric has wed the Princess Lirazel, and most of the book concerns the consequences which follow, for them, for Elfland and for Erl.

I love this book even more on this rereading.  I love the glory and whimsy of the Princess Lirazel, I love the mystery of how or whether her son Orion will come into his lineage.  I love the humor of the narrator, who lovingly details Lirazel's confrontations and confusion with human things, and has gently snide things to say about readers who want their books to be historically accurate.  I love the uneasy cunning of the witch Ziroonderel, and the boundless love the King of Elfland holds for his daughter.

Erin told me that he used to wonder why no one had written a fantasy version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then read this, and said, “Oh, someone did, and it's awesome, and predates Tolkien.”  The King of Elfland's Daughter is not nearly as sprawling, or as long, as ...Solitude, (about which: I personally appreciate why it's good but don't really like it) but it certainly deserves to be held at that level of classic.

Are you still here? Read it.  This influenced everyone, it's the headwaters of modern fantasy.  Read Dunsany's short preface, skip Gaiman or whoever has written the useless intro for the edition you find, and read this book. 

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Next Week: Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

1 comment:

Erin Snyder said...

Just to clarify: I actually meant a medieval/high fantasy version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As opposed to a general fantasy version, like, oh... One Years of Solitude.

Just because English teachers like it doesn't mean it's not fantasy. "Magical realism" indeed.

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