Mining the Genre Asteroid: The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

20 Mar

A council of the people petition the King for a ‘magic lord’ to rule over them. Not a wise thing, what this parliament of craftsmen ask. No indeed! But rather than deny them their request, the lord of Erl is bound to grant it, following tradition immemorial. He sends his son Alveric to Faery to get himself a Faery bride. And so Alveric begins a grand quest to win and keep as his bride the King of Elfland’s Daughter. Getting his bride to be, as Alveric and the people of Erl will find out, is the simplest part of the whole venture. Dealing with the consequences of an unhappy bride, and the infusion of magic into Erl, are much bigger problems for them to face…

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The King of Elfand’s Daughter is the best known work of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th baron of Dunsany in Ireland. He wrote numerous short stories under the name Lord Dunsany (including the very well done Gods of Pegana sequence) and The Book of Wonder, but his best single long form work is his proto-secondary world fantasy The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924).

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is notable today for codifying a lot of the tropes we find in fiction. Some of those tropes extend back into myths and legends, but it is in the King of Elfland’s Daughter that Dunsany brought them to literature and fantasy for writers generations after to borrow, steal, subvert and twist. A quest into faerie for an elvish princess bride (and the hazards and drawbacks once won). The strange nature of faerieland, where time runs strange and the border of the land itself is indistinct, unclear, and amorphous. Magic swords, mythological creatures. For such a slender volume, the novel is packed full of these early forms of the fantastic.

The real reason to read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, though, is not to see the early origins of genre fantasy (although that is well worth your time). Rather, it’s to enjoy the beautiful, structured language that one finds in Dunsany’s work. In comparison to the sharp, short descriptions and actions found in more modern fantasy, the sentences of Dunsany have an old-fashioned appeal.

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And very soon the young man stood before him, in that same carven chair from which he had not moved, where light, growing late, from high windows, showed the aged eyes looking far into the future beyond that old lord’s time. And seated there he gave his son his commandment.

“Go forth,” he said, “before these days of mine are over, and therefore g

o in haste, and go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that clearly pertain to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”

“It is far from here,” said the young man Alveric.

“Yes,” answered he, “it is far.”

“And further still,” the young man said, “to return. For distances in those fields are not as here.”

“Even so,” said his father.

“What do you bid me do,” said the son, “when I come to that palace?”

And his father said: “To wed the King of Elfland’s daughter.”

The young man thought of her beauty and crown of ice, and the sweetness that fabulous runes had told was hers. Songs were sung of her on wild hills where tiny strawberries grew, at dusk and by early starlight, and if one sought the singer no man was there. Sometimes only her name was sung softly over and over. Her name was Lirazel.

She was a princess of the magic line. The gods had sent their shadows to her christening, and the fairies too would have gone, but that they were frightened to see on their dewy fields the long dark moving shadows of the gods, so they stayed hidden in crowds of pale pink anemones, and thence blessed Lirazel.

“My people demand a magic lord to rule over them. They have chosen foolishly,” the old lord said, “and only the Dark Ones that show not their faces know all that this will bring: but we, who see not, follow the ancient custom and do what our people in their parliament say. It may be some spirit of wisdom they have not known may save them even yet. Go then with your face turned towards that light that beats from fairyland, and that faintly illumines the dusk between sunset and early stars, and this shall guide you till you come to the frontier and have passed the fields we know.”

Then he unbuckled a strap and a girdle of leather and gave his huge sword to his son, saying: “This that has brought our family down the ages unto this day shall surely guard you always upon your journey, even though you fare beyond the fields we know.”

Dunsany’s work, although overshadowed and overlapped in the main by Tolkien, nevertheless has had a profound influence on the fantasy genre. More than just his novels, his short fiction has influenced Lovecraft (who met Dunsany when the latter was on a speaking tour in the U.S.) and Tolkien himself. It’s easy to see the poetic, haunting flavor of Dunsany in writers of more modern fantasy and SF ranging from Jack Vance (he even named a novel, Lurulu, after the troll in this novel) to Peter S Beagle (a unicorn hunt features prominently in the novel; Beagle clearly was moved by it in his own work), to Gene Wolfe (who has included Dunsany’s poetry in his books) and Ursula K LeGuin.  And many more. Many of the writers inspired by Dunsany are perhaps unaware of the enchantment that Dunsany has laid upon the tropes of fantasy. The spells of the Elf King are not expended and diminished, even to this day.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is readily available on Project Gutenberg, and, for good reason, continually gets printed and reprinted. Oh, and one last thing. In the prog-rock experimental 70’s, the novel was made into a Rock Opera, with Christopher Lee(!) doing the narration and playing the Elf King.

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