Reading Lord Dunsany #2: “The King of Elfland’s Daughter”

This week, I continued reading Lord Dunsany with The King of Elfland’s Daughter, widely considered (among those relative few who know him today) as his masterpiece, a slim but enduring fairy tale novel that weaves threads and themes from his (very) short stories, such as those featured in The Book of Wonder and Tales of Wonder, into a wistful, funny, melancholy, archaic-yet-at-the-same-time-strangely-modern-or-at-least-ahead-of-its-time, searingly beautiful, and cohesive whole.

Written in 1924, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is almost thoroughly unlike the majority of fantasy novels written today while at the same time being one of their most important forbears (having been a significant influence on Tolkien–particularly in The Hobbit–among others). The only relatively recent novel I can think of that might fall somewhere in the realm of a similar tone is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but even that is incredibly different in a hard-to-define way. Because the novel is so alien–yet oddly familiar, like something out of a long-buried, only-vaguely-remembered childhood dream–it wouldn’t necessarily appeal to all fantasy readers today. My shorthand recommendation would be that if the title alone makes you smile, bringing to mind images of cozying up in front of a fire with a mug of hot cocoa and a magical book on a chilly night, or of a beloved older relative reading to you when you were young and feverish, such as in the film of The Princess Bride, you will likely love it. If the title does nothing for you, the rest of the book probably won’t either.

One of the main reasons that The King of Elfland’s Daughter feels so unique when read today is that one could say that, from a plot perspective, not much actually occurs, and that there is arguably no definitive protagonist. The seeming hero of the first few chapters of the novel spends most of the rest of it on a meandering, thankless quest with a troupe of madmen, on which he makes no progress for countless years, not unlike a failed grail knight. Meanwhile, the character who ascends to center stage afterwards, his son, who everyone around him expects to have a magical destiny, grows up, becomes a hunter, first of regular woodland creatures and eventually unicorns…and that’s about it. There is no meeting with a wise, mystical old man to set him on his path, no refusal of the call, and none other of the typical Campbellian Hero’s Journey signposts. Changes generally occur not due to human action but due to the emotions of the daughter of an ageless elf, and her father’s gradual, reluctant reactions to such.

And yet the story is absolutely wondrous. Atmospherically, Dunsany conjures up a luminous Fae realm on paper with a greater sense of awe than probably any other writer I’ve ever read. One might even feel the urge to read the passages set in Elfland aloud, albeit in hushed tones:

And all of a sudden he came…to the emerald glory of the Elf King’s lawns…we have hints of such things here. 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; untrodden 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 sometimes of the glow of the lawns of Elfland; but then it passes so quickly we can never be sure. More beautiful than aught our wonder guesses, more than our hearts have hoped, were the dewdrop lights and twilights in which these lawns glowed and shone. And we have another thing by which to hint of them, those seaweeds or sea-mosses that drape Mediterranean rocks and shine out of blue-green water for gazers from dizzy cliffs: more like sea-floors were these lawns than like any land of ours, for the air of Elfland is thus deep and blue…beyond them lay like night the magical wood. And jutting from that wood, with glittering portals all wide open to the lawns, with windows more blue than our sky on Summer’s nights; as though built of starlight; shone that palace that may be only told of in song.

Dunsany’s writing comes from a time before literary magical systems became regimented and relentlessly rules-based. His magic is never codified or explained–we never learn, for example, why or how Ziroonderel, the witch from our realm, seems to have at least some magic that outshines that of the King of Elfland; she just does, although the two apparently have some sort of past–and yet it also feels remarkably consistent. Elfland is a place of eternal twilight, where nothing ever changes and time practically stands still, versus our world, referred to as “the fields we know,” where things are constantly growing, aging, dying, changing. In fact, one of the major themes of the novel, which appears in numerous Dunsany short stories, is that people of other realms are just as mystified by our world as we are of theirs. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the troll, Lurulu, finds the concept of passing time both funny and strange, and finds himself absolutely entranced by men and their bizarre ways. Dunsany shows us our (to him, foreign) world through his eyes in a manner that feels almost disarmingly modern for such an old book. We aren’t necessarily meant to assume that our ways are better.

In some ways, that might be what impressed me most. In many similar books, the dichotomy set up between Elfland and the “fields we know” would have been done so specifically in order to set up a value judgment between the two. The moral would likely be something along the lines of “though we may think we hate the idea of time passing, and though we wish we could hold onto certain moments forever, it is infinitely preferable to being frozen, static, never growing, never evolving; even death helps us appreciate and cherish what we have when we have it”. But, although The King of Elfland’s Daughter could be interpreted as a cautionary tale of sorts (although I’d argue against being so reductive as to cast such a very layered story in that light alone), its lesson would be more along the lines of warning people to be careful to understand exactly what they are wishing for in advance of wishing, rather than proscribing that the passage of time is better than the alternative. Instead, they are simply different.

Author: Robert Berg

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