Lyrical Narrative: I don’t recommend this particular book for everyone, but Lord Dunsany wrote adult fantasy fiction with lyrical prose which are must-read, enjoyable short stories too: The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories or the Time and the Gods collection for instance. Read those. But The King of Elfland's Daughter (TKoED) is a novel, and the style works less well. Unending paragraphs literally span pages. Run on sentences eventually stop, only to be followed with new sentences beginning with conjunctions.
Occasionally, he’ll break the fourth wall to answer critics requiring a link to actual history (so he calls out a unnecessary connection to 1530 Europe and the Pope in his chapter called “A Historical Fact) and an equally unnecessary apology to stereotyping the alluring willow the wisps. So thick was the main narrative style, these asides blended in smoothly as if he we talking to the reader over a camp fire.
For Adult Fantasy Aficionados: TKoED is really only recommended for fantasy fans learning great works written before or in-parallel with Tolkien’s release of his Lord of the Rings; in fact, I read this inspired by such aficionados with a groupread on Goodreads. There are clear influences that resonate with Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur (The Silmarillion) and milieus that echo that of Eddison’s Ouroboros and Anderson’s Broken Sword. You’ll enjoy this more if consider its broader place in literature:
- E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922)
- Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924)
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937)
- Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954)
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)
Fields we Know, and Fields we do not know: Separating the land of magicless men and the field-they-knew is a wondrous twilight which many ignore, but the timeless and geographical shifting land of elves is beyond—and over there lies fields-we-humans-do-not-know. Across this barrier, Dunsany sends the reader with a heroic human. He is heir to the city of Erl, Alveric, questing for some magic in a tale that “only songs can tell.” Alveric gains magic by luring the daughter of the Elfland King back to the city of Erl. The repetition of places-we-know, and places we-do-not-know, evokes a famous quote spoken ~80yrs after the book’s publication:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.” Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense, 12 February 2002
Dunsany wants to share the unknown with us. However, he admits he cannot capture things that can only be sung, or experienced outside the pages of a book. Yet he succeeds in creating entrancing prose.
Conflict is present, but unclear: One may expect more clear conflict, but it is not the ostensible Alveric/Orion/Man vs. Elves. There are many reasons why elves and humans should avoid each other or go to war, but in the end they seem to have undramatic encounters. There is an undertone of “magic vs reality” demonstrated with the Freer (a stifling Christian priest) and his interactions with magic/elves.
The first half and end focus on Alveric. His heroic adventure is compelling. He has wondrous battles with using a magical sword against weird things. His elvish wife (Lirazel) is conflicted. His tale is dark but told friendly; it is a Fairy tale in which Alveric goes mad and follows even madder men. I would have preferred the book just focus on him and his relationship with the titular daughter of the Elfland King.
Their son, Orion, dominates the middle of the book. His hunting experiences were odd. Orion is shown to be at-one with nature, but then he hunts innocent, beautiful, peaceful & magical unicorns (which provide nothing more than glory and trophies). He even teamed with the same troll that tricked his mom into being lured back to Elfland. Content seem to drift with his story, so we get treated to pages of the troll mis-communicating with pigeons.
All in all, if you appreciate older literature you’ll find this one worth the extra effort. Even if you want to tackle this to experience Dunsany, try out his short fiction first.
Excerpts: p68: Weird, poignant, philosophizing example #1: Sad toys in Elfland
“For it is true, and Alveric knew, that just as the glamour that brightens much of our lives, especially in early years, comes from rumours that reach us from Elfland by various messengers (on whom be blessings and peace), so there returns from our fields to Elfland again, to become a part of its mystery, all manner of little memories that we have lost and little devoted toys that were treasured once. And this is part of the law of ebb and flow that science may trace in all things; thus light grew the forest of coal, and the coal gives back light; thus rivers fill the sea, and the sea sends back to the rivers; thus all things give that receive; even Death.
Next Alveric saw lying there on the flat dry ground a toy that he yet remembered, which years and years ago (how could he say how many?) had been a childish joy to him, crudely carved out of wood; and one unlucky day it had been broken, and one unhappy day it had been thrown away. And now he saw it lying there not merely new and unbroken, but with a wonder about it, a splendour and a romance, the radiant transfigured thing that his young fancy had known. It lay there forsaken of Elfland as wonderful things of the sea lie sometimes desolate on wastes of sand, when the sea is a far blue bulk with a border of foam.”
p105: Weird, poignant, philosophizing example #2: The power of ink
And little [Orion] knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills. Little knew he of ink…
p7: Enchanting Magic example #1: The making of a magical sword. And. And. And …
The witch approached it and pared its edges with a sword that she drew from her thigh. Then she sat down beside it on the earth and sang to it while it cooled. Not like the runes that enraged the flames was the song she sang to the sword: she whose curses had blasted the fire till it shrivelled big logs of oak crooned now a melody like a wind in summer blowing from wild wood gardens that no man tended, down valleys loved once by children, now lost to them but for dreams, a song of such memories as lurk and hide along the edges of oblivion, now flashing from beautiful years of glimpse of some golden moment, now passing swiftly out of remembrance again, to go back to the shades of oblivion, and leaving on the mind those faintest traces of little shining feet which when dimly perceived by us are called regrets. She sang of old Summer noons in the time of harebells: she sang on that high dark heath a song that seemed so full of mornings and evenings preserved with all their dews by her magical craft from days that had else been lost, that Alveric wondered of each small wandering wing, that her fire had lured from the dusk, if this were the ghost of some day lost to man, called up by the force of her song from times that were fairer. And all the while the unearthly metal grew harder. The white liquid stiffened and turned red. The glow of the red dwindled. And as it cooled it narrowed: little particles came together, little crevices closed: and as they closed they seized the air about them, and with the air they caught the witch's rune, and gripped it and held it forever. And so it was it became a magical sword. And little magic there is in English woods, from the time of anemones to the falling of leaves, that was not in the sword. And little magic there is in southern downs, that only sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and the chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendour of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of may. And by the time the sword was black it was all enchanted with magic.
Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till Earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. Enough that it was once beyond our Earth and was now here amongst our mundane stones; that it was once but as those stones, and now had something in it such as soft music has; let those that can define it.
p102: Enchanting Magical Music example #2:
Then the Elf King rose, and put his left arm about his daughter, and raised his right to make a mighty enchantment, standing up before his shining throne which is the very centre of Elfland. And with clear resonance deep down in his throat he chaunted a rhythmic spell, all made of words that Lirazel never had heard before, some age-old incantation, calling Elfland away, drawing it further from Earth. And the marvellous flowers heard as their petals drank in the music, and the deep notes flooded the lawns; and all the palace thrilled, and quivered with brighter colours; and a charm went over the plain as far as the frontier of twilight, and a trembling went through the enchanted wood. Still the Elf King chaunted on. The ringing ominous notes came now to the Elfin Mountains, and all their line of peaks quivered as hills in haze, when the heat of summer beats up from the moors and visibly dances in air. All Elfland heard, all Elfland obeyed that spell. And now the King and his daughter drifted away, as the smoke of the nomads drifts over Sahara away from their camel's-hair tents, as dreams drift away at dawn, as clouds over the sunset; and like the wind with the smoke, night with the dreams, warmth with the sunset, all Elfland drifted with them. All Elfland drifted with them and left the desolate plain, the dreary deserted region, the unenchanted land. So swiftly that spell was uttered, so suddenly Elfland obeyed, that many a little song, old memory, garden or may tree of remembered years, was swept but a little way by the drift and heave of Elfland, swaying too slowly eastwards till the elfin lawns were gone, and the barrier of twilight heaved over them and left them among the rocks.
p15: Dreamy style example #1: Fields we know; And. And. And…
“To those who may have wisely kept their fancies within the boundary of the fields we know it is difficult for me to tell of the land to which Alveric had come, so that in their minds they can see that plain with its scattered trees and far off the dark wood out of which the palace of Elfland lifted those glittering spires, and above them and beyond them that serene range of mountains whose pinnacles took no colour from any light we see. Yet it is for this very purpose that our fancies travel far, and if my reader through fault of mine fail to picture the peaks of Elfland my fancy had better have stayed in the fields we know. Know then that in Elfland 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. And the colour of Elfland, of which I despaired to tell, may yet be told, for we have hints of it here; 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, all these are hints of that colour. And while our sunflowers carefully turned to the sun, some forefather of the rhododendrons must have turned a little towards Elfland, so that some of that glory dwells with them to this day. And, above all, our painters have had many a glimpse of that country, so that sometimes in pictures we see a glamour too wonderful for our fields; it is a memory of theirs that intruded from some old glimpse of the pale-blue mountains while they sat at easels painting the fields we know.”
p40: Dreamy style example #2: trembling weeds and personified energy
“Cast anything into a deep pool from a land strange to it, where some great fish dreams, and green weeds dream, and heavy colours dream, and light sleeps; the great fish stirs, the colours shift and change, the green weeds tremble, the light wakes, a myriad things know slow movement and change; and soon the whole pool is still again. It was the same when Alveric passed through the border of twilight and right through the enchanted wood, and the King was troubled and moved, and all Elfland trembled.”