The King of Elfland’s Daughter: Haunting and Lyrical

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Lord Dunsany The King of Elfland's DaughterThe King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

After reading about Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter I went in search of it and found it at my university library. Reading it was quite a different experience for me, but people who aren’t prepared for the style of writing like I was might be disappointed, confused or scorning of the slow, dream-like pace, archetype characters and poetical language. This might be especially true of fans of typical fantasy genre books (authors such as David Eddings or Terry Brooks) where a fantasy universe is deemed to be good only if it has a solid backing and an exhaustive array of facts and figures to add realism to the stories. Lord Dunsany however, expects the reader to take for granted the existence of Elfland, trolls, elves and will o’ the wisps, without trying to explain them. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is refreshingly free of geographies, biologies, cultures, or other infinite details that are so prevalent in other fantasy cult books.

The story goes that the Parliament of Erl approaches their king, eager for their small country to be known throughout the lands. The solution is for it to somehow imbue magic into its royalty, and to achieve this the king sends his son Alveric into Elfland to make the King of Elfland’s daughter his wife. Alveric is successful in this, and brings the beautiful Lirazel back to Erl, where they have a child Orien. The King of Elfland however desperately wants his daughter returned to him, and by use of three powerful runes, contrives to bring her back to her home.

Dunsany delves into several themes throughout the book, all framed by the contrasts of Erl and Elfland. Within this, he explores the differences between Paganism and Christianity, freedom and restrictions, the passage of times, mortality and immortality, male and female, parent and child — the list goes on. Running through these is the main story thread that makes clear that everyone desires what they cannot have, and although by the end of the novel their desires come to fulfillment, it is in an ironic resolution that no one (including this reviewer) could have ever wished for. The ending is thus happy, but contains a certain sense of something bittersweet, like a lost childhood that Dunsany continually likens Elfland to.

It was acknowledged by many later fantasy writers that they were inspired by Dunsany, including (obviously) Tolkien. It is no coincidence that Alveric and Lirazel have a certain resemblance to Aragorn and Arwen in way of their courtly love and somewhat ‘forbidden’ romance. However, I feel that Dunsany hits upon notes of inevitable discord between the two that Tolkien neglects. I wonder for example if Arwen ever felt: ‘the years that assail beauty, and the harshness that vex the spirit that were already about her, and the doom of all mortals hung over her head.’ It is something for devoted Tolkien fans to think about, as well as potent storytelling. (That wasn’t a dig at Tolkien by any means, just a thought to dwell on).

On the actual styles of storytelling, many people might feel frustrated at the continued use of ‘the fields we know’ to describe earth, and faery as a place ‘only told of in song’. However, as I went through the story, I found the repetition to become quite familiar and comforting, like a steady rhythm or heartbeat, and the final sentence making use of this repeated phrase made me take a deep sigh of contentment. Lord Dunsany’s other gift is his use of metaphor and imagery. For instance, his use of the priest likening Lirazel to a mermaid, and then later echoing this thought with “there was something in [the priest’s] voice as he spoke, a little distant from her, and [Lirazel] knew that he spoke as one that walked safe upon the shore, calling far to a mermaid in a dangerous sea,” makes this not just a book, but literature. Dunsany’s soft, poetical, vivid, mellow language is what makes this book so appealing, and used to unforgettable descriptions of Elfland, twilight, the countryside, and beauty in all its forms.

A couple of times he falters when he slips into what I’ve described above — trying to make story real. References to Tennyson and the infamous unicorn horn of Rome are jarring, and pull one out of the dreamy atmosphere. The archetypes are expected and unsurprising — the mighty king of Elfland, the elusive witch-upon-the-hill, the elfin beauty, the warrior-king, the hunter-prince, the trickster fey — we’ve encountered them countless times in one form or another.

But overall, this book has my recommendation, for a novelty to see how the fantasy-writers wrote before Tolkien, and for a wonderful escape into a glorious world. Plus, you can learn some little bits of trivia that you may of not known before, for instance — did you know that faeries hate dogs? That they cause clocks to stop? That their infants can talk?

The King of Elfland’s Daughter — (1924) Publisher: When the men of Erl asked that they be ruled by a magic lord, their lord bowed to their wishes and sent his eldest son, Alveric, beyond the fields we know, to the land of faery to win the hand of Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s sweet and beautiful daughter. But marriage between a mortal and an elf princess can only end in heartbreak, and the land of Erl discovers that the imposition of magic rule is, at best, a mixed blessing. Enchantingly written and completely captivating, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a moving and brilliant masterpiece.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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