Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany, writing in the early years of the twentieth century, was a pioneer in the fantasy genre. His stories of the fantastic, in the tradition of writers like George MacDonald and William Morris, set the stage for Tolkien & Lewis & Peake and the other writers that would follow.

Prolific as he was, Dunsany wrote few actual novels. He was a master of the short form and wrote a number of plays, as well as poetry, essays, a travelogue of Ireland, and several autobiographical collections. Dunsany remains most well-known for his short stories, many of which – thanks to Del Rey & Wildside Press & a plethora of anthologies – remain in print.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is his best-known novel. It was reprinted in 1969 by Ballantine Books as part of their Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and again in the late 1990’s by Del Rey and Gollancz. I have the most recent Del Rey version, sporting a lovely Pre-Raphaelite cover depicting La Belle Dame Sans Merci and an introduction by Neil Gaiman.

“…trust the book,” Gaiman says. “Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly.”

Gaiman is right. Here be poetry and strangeness and magic. Dunsany’s language, so wonderfully poetic in his short stories, can quickly overwhelm the reader if it’s swallowed whole. Sentences can last a page. Paragraphs can last two. Drink slowly, indeed.

The lushness of the prose is an end unto itself. It distills the beauty and magic of Dunsany’s “Elfland” into human language without diluting its wonder with the dull light of the everyday.

    And so it became a magical sword. And little magic there is in English woods, from the time of anemones to the falling of leaves, that was not in the sword. And little magic there is in southern downs, that only sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and a chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendour of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of may. (6-7)

That is just a small sample of it, like a tangle of rose bushes through which the reader must press forward, receiving a prick or two, snagging one's clothing. But smelling the flowers too. And feasting eyes on the blossoms.

The brief (and terribly simplified) overview is this: Alveric, the King’s son, travels beyond the twilight border of the mundane world into Elfland, bringing back the King of Elfland’s daughter as his bride. They have a child, Orion. Lirazel, his innocent bride, is ill-suited to her new role as mother and wife. She returns home. Alveric tries to follow her, but the way to Elfland is no longer open to him. “This is no country for old men,” as Dunsany’s friend W.B. Yeats would write two years later.

There are two distinct problems with the novel, and they are intertwined. Problem A is the plot. Or, I should say, the lack of one.

Problem B is the glacial pacing, which is partially due to Dunsany’s rich writing style (which I do not find fault with and thoroughly enjoyed), but mostly due to Problem A.

Let me clarify. I am not a reader that requires continual action, or a linear plot, or even complete resolution of a tale. Slow pacing in itself is not necessarily a problem, if a book has other redeeming qualities, as this one obviously does.

The problem is a lack of direction. Main characters – specifically Alveric – disappear for long portions of the narrative, wandering aimlessly in quest of faerie. There is one short chapter, “Lurulu Watches The Restlessness of Earth” where nothing happens. A character sits in the pigeon loft and watches things going about their course. For seven pages. We’re not even talking about a main character here.

What the novel felt like to me was a short story drawn out to novel length. Dunsany’s short stories are often dressed in finery and elegant language, but they are rarely lacking in substance. The King of Elfland’s Daughter seems to be exactly that. Mostly frosting, with only a little cake beneath.

This has often been my experience with pre-Tolkien fantasy novels. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example. Or E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. They lose themselves in a swamp of language and imagery that drowns the story.

Many post-Tolkien novels, on the other hand, exhibit an opposing problem, where subtlety and elegance and nuance are discarded at the expense of plot, often to the detriment of the story.

Despite its obvious flaws, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is well worth reading, especially for those interested in the roots of the fantasy genre, and those who enjoy prose edging toward poetry. Many authors have written of Elfland. Dunsany is one of the few to have obviously visited. His words on Elfland, and on magic, ring true.

I’ll leave you with a little sample cup of Dunsany’s “rich, red wine” (as Gaiman so aptly calls it). It has aged well. Whether or not to buy the bottle is up to you.

    And as the hunt went on, the daylight faded away, till the sky was all prepared for the coming of stars. And one or two stars appeared, and a mist came up from streams and spread all white over fields, till they could not have seen the unicorn if he had been close before them. The very trees seemed sleeping. They passed by little houses, lonely, sheltered by elms; shut off by high hedges of yew from those that roamed the fields; houses that Orion had never seen or known till the chance course of this unicorn brought him suddenly past their doors. Dogs barked as they passed, and continued barking long, for that magical scent on the air and the rush and the voice of the pack told them something strange was afoot; and at first they barked because they would have shared in what was afoot, and afterward to warn their masters about the strangeness. They barked long through the evening. (127)


  1. I love that last passage you chose, and that was one heck of a review!

    1. Thanks, Mike. The book is full of wonderful little passages like this. There were enough quoteable snippets that it was difficult to choose just two.

  2. Adam, ref your comments on Phantastes - have you read Lilith?

    1. I have not. My George MacDonald experiences are limited to "The Golden Key" and PHANTASTES. Your thoughts on LILITH?

  3. Adam, I move in geological thoughts on Lilith? For me the best of the three. But subjective. Hope you are well!

    1. Hi Mike! Doing well here, but we apparently move at the same speed, judging by my maintenance of this blog. Thanks for the suggestion on LILITH - I will definitely be putting into my TBR pile. Hope you are well also.