As I mentioned in a previous post, I started to become more interested in classic fiction and I want to read more of it. This includes genre fiction so I did what seemed like just the thing to do and picked up The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany. I mean, it became public domain this year, so why not? I’ve previously read two of the author’s short story collections and I thought they were interesting but not exactly my cup of tea- although I did appreciate what the short stories did for the genre as an influence.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter however, I liked much more. It’s a novel, rather than a short story collection and for me personally, more enthralling than the short stories. Then again, the short stories really are short so that may be part of the reason why. The longer form of TKoED allowed the story to shine more and for Lord Dunsany’s use of language to be front and center. It’s not a thousand pages either, more like two hundred-fifty pages so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. As a classic work of genre fiction and perhaps one of the foundational works of modern fantasy, you can’t go wrong with this book.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter concerns the fictional land of Erl, where the members of the Parliament decided that they wish to be ruled by a magic lord. In response, the lord of Erl sends his son to go to Elfland and marry the Princess Lirazel. This portion of the story was actually over rather quickly and as if in no time at all, Alveric and Lirazel are on their way back to Erl, years having passed since Alveric had left. What happens next dwells on the consequences of their actions.
In the King of Elfland’s Daughter, we aren’t given the traditional ‘Happy Ever After’ once the couple marries and settles in their land. Instead, we get a Lirazel who’s struggling to hold on to her memory of Elfland, who cannot fully embrace the local religion (hinted to be Christianity) despite converting in order to marry Alveric, and who cannot truly adapt to the land she currently inhabits. This led to her being spirited away back to her native Elfland in an action that would change not only her family, but also Erl in the years to come.
The books spans several years and time gradually becomes more fluid as the book progresses. Lirazel and Alveric’s son Orion grows up and becomes the de facto Lord of Erl as his father decides to chase after Elfland- and Lirazel again. During Alveric’s desperate search, Elfland starts to fade away from ‘the lands we know’, it drifts apart, the location moves as the king wishes to separate them. In the meantime, Orion grows up without his parents’ influence and takes up hunting like his human forefathers did. Only, his magical heritage remains strong and he hears the horns of Elfland and hunts unicorns, befriends magical creatures, and brings magic to the land of Erl.
Time and magic intertwine in this novel. Time has no meaning for Lirazel as she is ageless and almost ethereal. Years pass by- yet only a moment to her in the lands of her father- when she becomes heartsick and misses her husband and son. It helps to cement the idea that Lirazel really isn’t human and couldn’t be judged according to human standards. There is that separation which is mended towards the end of the book.
As I said, the book is written beautifully. It has this poetic prose typical of Victorian-era literature and it really does help make the story appear more magical. Magic here is mysterious, undefined. This was written before magic systems became more popular in fantasy and thus is defined more by folklore and traditional stories rather than an almost scientific explanation of how magic works. The novel also doesn’t concern itself with worldbuilding. Things are just the way they are with no need of explanation. It makes the story seem ageless and you could almost imagine it as a folktale itself.
I’d describe this book as ‘quiet’. It is concerned more with the relationships between people and the lands they inhabit than more world-changing events (despite the fact that there is an event here which is could be characterized as world-changing). It’s more of a tale about a family and a village, not an entire world. This quiet quality makes it more mystical as the goings-on of a village and the awe-inspiring magic of fairy king and a woodlands witch influence the story.
For me, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is not a book to be read in one sitting, despite the relatively short length in comparison to today’s massive tomes. It’s meant to be read more slowly, pondered upon, and readers should take in and wallow in the beautiful old-timey language. The writing here transforms mundane landscapes into something magical. Some of the passages in this book I had to re-read because they were dense and flowery, but I did enjoy it more as I did so.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in my opinion, should be read by anyone interested in the evolution and beginning of modern Western fantasy. This is the book which influenced authors like Lovecraft and Tolkien. While the short stories left me a little cold, this book really made me understand what made Lord Dunsany such a big influence on the genre.