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The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
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Book Name: The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Author: Lord Dunsany
Publisher(s): Del Rey
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: 1924

The King of Elfland’s Daughter tells of how Alveric, son of the Lord of Erl, armed with a magic sword given to him by the witch Ziroonderel, ventures into the perilous realm of Elfland. He finds the King’s daughter, wins her love and flees with her. Fighting his way through magical traps and dangers, he wins his way back home to Erl and weds his elven princess.

This takes us as far as page 30. The rest of the novel is, in essence, about the problems of a mixed marriage.

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was born in Ireland in 1878 to one of the oldest continuously held titles in the British Isles, to which he succeeded in 1899. Members of his family included St. Oliver Plunkett, the 17th century Catholic martyr, and Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. He grew up in Castle Dunsany, County Meath, and Dunstall Priory in Kent, entering Sandhurst and serving in the Boer War, and later World War I.

Dunsany lived a full life, mixing a literary life with passions for activities diverse as big-game hunting and chess. He was a professor of English in Athens when Hitler invaded and had to be evacuated at the last minute; he was associated with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in running the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and he undertook many speaking tours of the U.S.

Among these activities, he wrote numerous novels, plays and volumes of short stories and poetry, many of which were fantasy – all allegedly written with a quill pen, sitting on an old, crumpled hat. His early stories were set in a world called Pegana, and his first volume, The Gods of Pegana, was essentially an account of its mythology, not unlike Tolkien’s Valaquenta (included in The Silmarillion). Later volumes included tales varying from poetic to whimsical to scary, set either in the Land of Dreams or in fantastical extensions of our own world – “beyond the fields we know” as he often put it.

His influence on other writers has been extensive, ranging from H. P. Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman, and taking in more unlikely figures such as Arthur C. Clarke and Jorge Luis Borges. A large proportion of the fantasy short stories written today can trace their lineage to Lord Dunsany.

Of his many novels, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is probably his best known (although a film version of My Talks With Dean Spanley, starring Peter O’Toole, was released a few years ago) and brings together many of the features found scattered around his short stories.

In his brief preface – very brief, quoted here in its entirety – Dunsany feigns to reassure the reader:

“I hope that no suggestions of any strange land that may be conveyed by the title will scare readers away from this book; for, though some chapters do indeed tell of Elfland, in the greater part of them there is no more to be shown than the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.”

There’s a very obvious parallel here with a later work, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, where an ordinary, if old-world village stands near the wall that divides the mundane world from the world of magic. There the similarity ends, though, because Stardust takes place almost entirely within the world of magic, whereas The King of Elfland’s Daughter, as Dunsany “reassures” us, is mostly about the effect of Elfland on the fields we know.

At its heart, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about the incompatibility of the magic and the mundane. Neither is presented as right or wrong, but mixing them can’t end well. Elfland is a dangerous, beautiful place, and time passes there at a slow, dreamy pace, with none of the restlessness of mortals.

At a crucial moment of the story, Lirazel recalls, “her ageless childhood beside the tarns of Elfland, by the deep forest’s border, by those delirious lawns, or in the palace that may not be told of except only in song…Little queer sounds of elfin creatures came to her, scents swam from those miraculous flowers that glowed by the lawns she knew, faint sounds of enchanted songs blew over the border and reached her seated there, voices and melodies and memories came floating through the twilight, all Elfland was calling.”

On the other hand, she has originally been attracted by the tales she’s heard of the fields we know, “for she had heard how life beautifully passes there, and how there are always in those fields young generations, and she thought of the changing seasons and children and age, of which elfin minstrels had sung when they told of Earth.” Tolkien was later to touch on this idea, in the Elves’ belief that the human ability to grow, change and die is a blessing, not a curse.

Nevertheless, both realms are shown as having serious drawbacks. The woods of Elfland can crush the intruder, and the King jealously guards his daughter with enchanted soldiers. Perhaps the most telling moment, though, comes at Alveric’s meeting with Lirazel. At first, he assumes her crown is “carved of great pale sapphires” but when he looks more closely, he sees “that her crown was not of sapphires but ice.”

The fields we know, too, are not what Lirazel has expected. Mortals prove to be hidebound by rules and traditions, and most of all by religion. It perhaps reflects Dunsany’s Irish background (the novel was published in 1924, in the midst of the Irish troubles) that it’s religion that tears Alveric and Lirazel apart.

The problems raise their head right from the start. Alveric takes Lirazel to the Freer (priest) and asks him to marry them. The Freer agrees – using “a form of service for the wedding of a mermaid that had forsaken the sea, though the good book told not of Elfland” – and bids her “forsake and forswear and solemnly to renounce all things pertaining to Elfland”. Lirazel is very dubious about this, but uses the form of words for Alveric’s sake, though clearly without any conviction.

Nevertheless, she attempts to learn how to worship, since this appears important to Alveric, but she chooses to give her worship to the things she finds loveliest – as anyone from Elfland would – such as the stars, or beautiful stones. It’s Alveric’s anger at this “heathen” practice – his people “feared most the arts of the heathen, of whom they knew nothing but that their ways were dark” – which finally drives the couple apart.

Lirazel’s attempt to integrate into the mortal world is a failure, but worse is to come for the people of Erl. It’s they who originally initiated the action, demanding to be ruled by a magic lord; but one magic thing leads to another, and eventually all of Erl is swamped by more magic creatures than they can handle.

Only two characters in the book seem able to straddle the two worlds, and even then not perfectly. One is the witch Ziroonderel, who gave Alveric the magic sword of thunderbolt iron that enabled him to triumph in Elfland, and who later acts as nurse for Alveric and Lirazel’s child. “For,” Alveric says, “none but you in all these fields knows ought of the things of Elfland, except the princess, and she knows nothing of Earth.”

The other is the child himself, Orion. Lirazel has named him for the stars she finds most beautiful, while Alveric is delighted at the boy having the name of a mighty hunter. Orion does indeed grow up obsessed with hunting: in particular with hunting unicorns. In pursuit of this, he brings one magic thing after another into Erl: first the troll Lurulu – Dunsany’s trolls being small, gnome-like creatures – and then the People of the Marshes. Finally, the folk of Erl, who wanted magic, find that they should have been more careful what they wished for.

Lord Dunsany was both a dreamer and a practical man, and this dichotomy permeates The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Alveric too is a dreamer who can’t quite let go of the practical, and this is his downfall. Having lost Lirazel by his folly, he seeks to return to Elfland and win her again, but he can’t find his way a second time. The dilemma is simple: his enchanted sword, forged of the thunderbolt iron that can dominate magic, is the only thing that can keep him safe in the perilous realm; yet, after once tasting its blade, Elfland retreats from the sword. And Alveric searches year after year over the disenchanted plain it leaves behind, not having the strength to abandon the sword and risk being lost.

The two sides of Dunsany’s nature can be found throughout his work, where the fantastic and the ordinary often exist side by side. In the short story A Day at the Edge of the World, a traveller who seeks the Edge in search of a lost song from his childhood makes a long journey through the Gap of Poy and the Hills of Sneg to the town of Tong Tong Tarrup; but, to start out, “he took the ticket at Victoria Station that they only give if they know you”.

Similarly, in the story A Shop in Go-by Street, and its sequel The Avenger of Perdóndaris, the narrator travels to the Land of Dreams by going through the back of a magical shop in the middle of London. “Among so many streets as there are in the city it is little wonder that there is one that has never been seen before: it is named Go-by Street and runs out of the Strand if you look very closely.” Having spent much time in central London, I know as well as Dunsany that there are many little streets, which are there only if you look very closely.

This habit of putting the magical and the everyday side by side is seen clearly by the descriptions in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. He describes the wonders of Elfland, where there are “colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water…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…”

He puts as much precision, though, into the opening sentence: “In their ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees the men of Erl appeared before their lord, the stately white-haired man in his long red room.”

In the end, it was the practical side of Lord Dunsany that wouldn’t allow him to accept the conventional happy-ever-after, but sent him exploring what might have really happened next. He could see that, whatever might be achieved between nations or races or religions, the gulf between human and faerie is too wide to be just patched over, and the two realms can’t co-exist. Once the Shining Line between the realms is crossed, one or the other must ultimately swamp the other.

Although this article is about the novel, I must also recommend the concept album of the same name from the 1970s, written and produced by Bob Johnson and Peter Knight of Steeleye Span to tell the story in songs and narration. Ranging between folk, hard rock and semi-operatic, the album features wonderful performances by Mary Hopkin as Lirazel, P.P. Arnold as the Witch, sounding not unlike the Acid Queen from Tommy, and Alexis Korner as the Troll (I recall a contemporary review describing him as sounding like the Incredible Hulk on acid). The highlight, though, is Christopher Lee, who also provides the narration, whose glorious bass represents the King in a piece that almost reaches operatic heights.

The album may prove difficult to get hold of, but is worth searching for. The novel, however, is available in several editions. It’s available on Amazon, and should be obtainable from good bookshops. I fully recommend it.

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Rating: 9.9/10 (9 votes cast)
The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, 9.9 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
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