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

The Worm Ouroborous

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Worm Ouroborous
E.R. Eddison, 1922

It took me a little bit to get into this book. It starts with a weird frame story that vanishes after the second chapter, never to be seen again. Good Riddance, I say! I don't need any outside observer commenting on my tale of high adventure!

The language is thick, but not as bad as Morris' from last week, and not too bad to read once I got used to the cadences.
When the Red Foliot had spoken thus far his dirge, he was interrupted by an unseemly brawling betwixt Corinius and one of the sons of Corund. For Corinius, who gave not a fig for music or dirges, but liked well of carding and dicing, had brought forth his dice box to play with the son of Corund. They played awhile to Corinius's great content, for at every throw he won and the other's purse waxed light. But at this eleventh stanza the son of Corund cried out that the dice of Corinius were loaded. And he smote Corinius on his shaven jowl with the dice box, calling him cheat and mangy rascal, whereupon Corinius drew forth a bodkin to smite him in the neck withal; but some went betwixt them, and with much ado and much struggling and cursing they were parted, and it being shown that the dice were not loaded, the son of Corund was fain to make amends to Corinius, and so were they set at one again.

It's still mock-archaic, but underlaid here and there with a certain sardonic humor, and peppered with the most delightful descriptions. Much of the language is rich and beautiful, and some of the turns of phrase are wonderfully weird. Here's the line where I fell in love: the King of Witchland (the names take some getting used to) is preparing to do some powerful magic, and is testing the will of his would-be assistant:
The King muttered an incantation, and the powder moved and heaved, and was like a crawling mass of cheesemites in an overripe cheese.
Cheesemites! Fantastic!

This seems to be a world of what I might call 'Star Trek' fantasy races, in that they're all basically European humans, with perhaps a few superficial differences. Demons, Witches, Imps, Goblins and Pixies intermarry; the titles seem to be more along the lines of human nationalities than the separate fantasy races we may be used to.

The Worm Ouroborous is the chronicle of an epic war between the Lords of Demonland, who are generally honest, brave and mighty, if bloodthirsty, and the Lords of Witchland who are (with a few notable exceptions) weaselly and pompous, and quarrel amongst themselves.

Don't misunderstand from the short synopsis, though, because the story is full of characters who are both larger-than-life, and surprisingly complex. I very much appreciated the inclusion of powerful, politically minded women on both sides of the quarrel. For example, the lovely Prezmyra, Princess of Pixyland. By her marriage to Lord Corund she holds Pixyland and Witchland in alliance, but her brother the King of Pixyland is also close with the Demons. She is a fascinating character, at times perhaps on the “wrong” side, who still acts in accordance with her personal honor.

If there's a moral in this story, it is firmly in favor of seeking glory in battle. The whole thing is somewhat stereotypically Norse. The main characters, even the 'heroic' ones, think little of the many commoners squashed to obtain their victories, and most actions taken are those more appropriate to demigods than mortals. Even so, it is more complex in its politics than much of epic fantasy.

There is one very weird dated racist scene late in the book which involves an illusion and seems somewhat apropos of nothing.

Overall, I was carried away by the lush language and god-like exploits of complicated characters. Finishing this book was a somewhat intense experience. Now, I like almost all of what I read and I try not to read too many books that I know I won't enjoy.  But even given that, and despite (or perhaps because of) its many crazy bits, The Worm Ouroborous gets my highest rating: the “why have I never read this before now?”

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Next Week:  The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

The Wood Beyond the World

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Wood Beyond the World
William Morris, 1894

So, William Morris was a complicated guy.  He was a textile designer, part of the Arts and Crafts movement, a vocal socialist, interested in preservation of vintage architecture, and, on top of all that, ran his own small press.  Did I mention that was a translator and a poet who became obsessed with reviving the medieval romance?  The reason his work is on my early fantasy list is fairly straightforward.  Morris is regarded as “perhaps the first modern fantasy writer to unite an imaginary world with the element of the supernatural, and thus the precursor of much of present-day fantasy literature.”

In other words, his books aren't set in Fairyland, or a dream world, or on the Moon, or on the ancient Earth.  They're set on some world like medieval Earth, but not the same.  The characters aren't Earth people transported, but natives of these new lands.

Unfortunately, Morris' works are thick to trudge through.  In his effort to mimic the medieval texts he liked so much, he uses a great deal of imitation medieval English.  Sometimes I think he might be making up new uses for the words.
Yet soothly if there hath been a shift of wind, that is not so ill; for then shall we be driven to other lands, and so at the least our home-coming shall be delayed, and other tidings may hap amidst of our tarrying.
Most of it is clear in context, but certain words are used awkwardly, as if he did a partial find/change; sooth for true, wot for know, etc.  Don't forget, this is the 1890's.  He's copying this style out of older texts, trying to sound like he's writing in some earlier time.  For context, Sherlock Holmes was temporarily killed off in print the year before this was published.

I got all the way through The Wood Beyond the World, which I enjoyed despite the thick writing, and purposely archaic plot structure.  I read about a third of The Well at the World's End, and it was just too long for me this week.

Despite its trappings of chivalry, The Wood Beyond the World has a delightfully skewed morality.  The story opens with the hero, Golden Walter, having discovered his wife has been untrue to him, deciding to take a trip.  In a few chapters, we learn that after he left, his father threw Walter's wife out of their house, and was mortally wounded in the ensuing family feud.  Walter is upset by this, but not especially.  He's had a waking vision of a lady of some far-off land, and when opportunity strikes, he sets out alone in search of her.

When he finally meets and falls in love with the character called the Maiden, she is revealed to be a sorceress of a sort, in the servitude of a more powerful sorceress.  The Maiden has no compunction about using her powers and any wiles she can think of to carry them both safely from that land.  She is concerned as times that Walter will disapprove, but as his part in their deceptions includes pretending to be in love with, and sleeping with, the more powerful 'Lady', she knows he can't really throw stones. 
When we are free, and thou knowest all that I have done, I pray thee deem me not evil and wicked, and be not wroth with me for my deed; whereas thou wottest well that I am not in like plight with other women. I have heard tell that when the knight goeth to the war, and hath overcome his foes by the shearing of swords and guileful tricks, and hath come back home to his own folk, they praise him and bless him, and crown him with flowers, and boast of him before God in the minster for his deliverance of friend and folk and city. Why shouldst thou be worse to me than this?
All of this un-moralizing is especially amusing to me because these are the bones of Narnia.  The only reason anyone reads Morris nowadays is that Lewis and Tolkien wrote about his works and their enjoyment of them.  The Narnia parallels are especially strong in this one.

The Lady who is the villain of the piece is “so radiant of visage and glorious of raiment, that it were hard to say what like she was”.  We know that she is strong in magic, including illusion, although we see her do little directly.  She is subtle and deceitful, and toys maliciously with the men who come into her lands beyond the mountains.  And she keeps a dwarf.  And is afraid of a lion... (just an ordinary lion, potentially an illusion, this is a very unclear scene).  Hmmm..

Characters ask each other, in the wild and magic lands where most of the action takes place, whether they are “Sons of Adam”. 

In the section of The Well at the World's End that I got through, a different wicked sorceress forces a different young lady to sacrifice her favorite goat on a stone table in the woods.  (The young lady goes on to kill her oppressor and seeks out the Well of the title, which gives extended youth and health.)

So it's almost like a Narnia tale for adults, including sex and violence.  Only the plots are quite meandering, and the text clunky.

Side note: the Bear People, who live in the mountains, are introduced early on as a barbaric society to be avoided at all costs.  I really liked that they were given a fair shake later, during one of the semi-random plot-twists.

It does feel very much like what it is: a step towards what we would call a fantasy novel.  These works are mostly held back by the impenetrability of the language.

I do recommend The Wood Beyond the World if you'd like a taste of this writing or are a fan of Narnia, but don't be afraid to skim a little.   Read  or download for free at Project Gutenburg, Manybooks.

3 Stars - A Good book

Next Week:  The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison


Monday, June 7, 2010

Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women
George MacDonald, 1858

Free E-Book Link: Phantastes at Project Gutenberg,

Phantastes is very literally a fairy story.  It concerns a young man, Anodos, who finds a door to FairyLand in an old roll-top desk, and his adventures therein.  It doesn't have a lot in the way of coherent plot, and I sometimes had a hard time working through the slower bits without skimming too much.  Mostly the book consists of a loosely connected series of vignettes that carry the reader from one strange or gorgeous image or tale-within-a-tale to the next. 

Many moments from this work seemed familiar to me, although I am not a formal scholar of such things, so I could not say how much is like source.  However:
George MacDonald inspired many authors, such as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."   (Wikipedia)
One example: early on the main character is warned about the characters of various trees, and soon afterward a beech tree saves him from the wicked ash. 
A trembling went through the leaves; a few of the last drops of the night's rain fell from off them at my feet; and as I walked slowly away, I seemed to hear in a whisper once more the words: "I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree."
The entire scene is very poignant, and throws a new light on a similarly woman-like tree from The Last Unicorn.

Anodos spends much of the book following the trail of the “white lady”, whom he frees from various enchantments.  He is not, however, a fairytale hero.  There is a more subtle modern story layered in under all the fantastic happenings, about letting go of the idea of individual glory.  Anodos spends most of the time unreservedly accepting the dream-logic of FairyLand: believing people who seem good, not questioning the need (or lack of need) to eat or drink, following the path.  It is when he tries to apply his own ego, logic or stubbornness -- ignoring advice, straying from instructions, indulging his personal pride or greed -- that he gets into trouble.

Most intriguing in its symbolism is a sequence when daring to enter a forbidden passage in the house of an ogre saddles Anodos with a demonic shadow which then follows him for a good portion of the book.  His frustration with it reminds me slightly of Peter Pan's obsession with shadow, and how shadows are sometimes associated with mortality.  In any case, his shadow for a time drains the happiness and very magic out of anyone who ventures too close. 
Once, as I passed by a cottage, there came out a lovely fairy child, with two wondrous toys, one in each hand. The one was the tube through which the fairy-gifted poet looks when he beholds the same thing everywhere; the other that through which he looks when he combines into new forms of loveliness those images of beauty which his own choice has gathered from all regions wherein he has travelled. Round the child's head was an aureole of emanating rays. As I looked at him in wonder and delight, round crept from behind me the something dark, and the child stood in my shadow. Straightway he was a commonplace boy, with a rough broad-brimmed straw hat, through which brim the sun shone from behind. The toys he carried were a multiplying-glass and a kaleidoscope. I sighed and departed.
So either Anodos is hallucinating this entire adventure, perhaps stumbling around the village thinking he sees magic everywhere, or his (adult male) shadow is enough to squelch the magic in others, or there is magic everywhere if you do not prevent yourself from seeing it.   All possible theories, but none are fully confirmed.

There are many lovely stories nestled within the larger narrative, and although I enjoyed them individually, I did sometimes lose the thread of the whole.  (This can't have been helped by  the fact that I was reading this book on the computer in chunks.  I never needed an e-reader before...)  Many of the inner stories are of love misplaced, lost, or betrayed.  Anodos spends a few chapters 'retelling' books he found in a fairy palace, including a story with an almost early sci-fi feel about winged women living on a world where the seasons last for lifetimes.

What else to touch on?  The house of the four doors of Sighs, Dismay, Sadness, and Timelessness?  (I think of the spin given a similar idea in Phantom Tollbooth.)  The fantastic description of how the room initially blends into the forest? (It's like the only good scene I recall from the movie Troll.) The underground trip through the lands of the goblins (who respect humility) culminating in a literal leap of faith?  The propensity of Anodos to become a singer of magic songs when the spirit moves him?  The whole text is a surreal ride. 

Near the end it tries to wrap up, and MacDonald states his moral openly:
May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not.
Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.
After finding fulfillment in FairyLand by seeking to do good without the motive of personal gain, Anodos and the reader are dumped back out into the world of mortals.  I always like it when books or movies do such a story and then refuse to cop out with “it was all a dream”, so I give points for leaving in an unexplained absence of about a month. 

I enjoyed all the individual pieces of Phantastes, but it never fully coalesced into a solid whole.  It might have been better reading it all in one go, though.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Next Week: The Wood Beyond the World (and, time permitting, The Well at the World's End) by William Morris

New Theme: Pre-Tolkien Fantasy

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Because I've been doing too much re-reading lately, I'm starting a unit in which I'm not re-reading... well, only re-reading one book.

Some of these books I have heard of, some I haven't. Some I am pulling from the account in The Magician's Book of what Lewis and Tolkien read as kids.

I think I've put together a pretty decent list:

Phantastes by George MacDonald, 1858
The Well at World's End and/or The Wood Beyond the Worlds by William Morris 1894/1896
The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison, 1922
The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany, 1924
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, 1926
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E Howard, (Short story compilation, originally published 1932-36)

(FYI: Hobbit published: 1937)