Imagine lawns of ours just emerging from night, flashing early lights from their dewdrops when all the stars have gone; bordered with flowers that just begin to appear, their gentle colours all coming back after night; untroden by any feet except the tiniest and wildest; shut off from the wind and the world by trees in whose fronds is still darkness: picture these waiting for the birds to sing; there is almost a hint there of the glow of the laws of Elfland; but then it passes so quickly that we can never be sure.Originally published in 1924, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is one of the grandfathers of modern fantasy. It tells the story of Alveric, the son of the Lord of Erl, who’s told by the parliament that his people desire to be ruled by magic. As a result, Alveric travels to Elfland to marry Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. But unlike what you might expect, this quest for the Elf Princess isn’t the whole story, but merely its beginning. Alveric and Lirazel come back fairly early in the book, and become the new rulers of the Kingdom of Erl. But like all the magical brides and bridegrooms of legend, Lirazel has trouble settling in. Dunsany writes with surprising sympathy about her longing for home, and portrays as much more than Alveric’s prize – and it’s only when the inevitable happens that the story truly begins.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is only a little over two hundred pages long, but I read it over the course of two weeks. This is not a sign that I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s a sign of my firm belief that it’s quite possible to overdose on Lord Dunsany. Dunsany’s writing is quite distinctive, and it’s of a kind that has unfortunately become associated with all the stereotypes of fantasy. But as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it,
Dunsany mined a narrow vein, but it was all pure ore, and all his own. I have never seen any imitation of Dunsany that consisted of anything beyond a lot of elaborate made-up names, some vague descriptions of gorgeous cities and unmentionable dooms, and a great many sentences beginning with “And”.It’s possible that my knowledge that Dunsany was the first to write like this has something to do with my positive response to his work, but there’s also the fact that there really is a lot more to what he does that sentences beginning with “And”. The syntax is easy enough to mimic or to parody, but what he gets right (which, whatever it is, runs much deeper) absolutely isn’t.
Part of what makes his formal, elevated, descriptive and somewhat meandering style so successful is the fact that it isn’t in the least gratuitous. On the contrary, it’s a fundamental part of what makes The King of Elfland’s Daughter what it is. Those who believe that fantasy is all about the plot and never about the writing itself are cordially invited to read this book. But what, you’re probably wondering, is The King of Elfland’s Daughter? It’s a story about the passing of time; about mortality; about what separates “the fields we know” from Elsewhere, from everything we don’t know. It’s a story about wonder and mystery and longing and the imagination, and about how they’re a fundamental part of what being human is all about.
Whenever I write about fantasy, I do so from a place that is largely dominated by my desire to bridge the gap – to bring it closer to realistic fiction, to show that what it does is really not so different from what other books do. This is because I believe that the gap is much too wide; far wider than it needs to be. But on the other hand, there is something about fantasy that is distinctive, and, to fans like myself, distinctively appealing. The reason why I’ve yet to be able to write about this successfully is because I’ve yet to be able to properly explain to myself just what this distinctive quality is. But after reading a book like The King of Elfland’s Daughter, I feel that I almost can.
Alveric’s desperate quest for Elfland, whose borders keep retreating, told me so much about what it means to be human. It told me about why we tell stories, why we have myths, why we dive into the deepest ocean abysses, why we have gone to the moon, why science exists, and history, and religion, and literature too. There’s something so human about his longing for something just out of reach. Alveric’s mad journey, one of the progenitors of the fantasy quest as we know it today, is at its core about a feeling we can recognise in so much of what we do.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is clearly part of the same tradition as books such as Hope Mirless’ Lud-in-the-Mist, John Crowley’s Little Big, or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. It’s not that they’re similar, necessarily; it’s just that they seem to define Elfland in somewhat similar terms. Depending on what you love about these books, I think you could fall in love with Lord Dunsany too. Just approach him patiently, carefully, and try your best to forget everything you know about stereotypical fantasy prose. Dunsany can get away with it – he’s the real thing.
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