Here are just a few of the things that we have to thank Lord Dunsany for introducing to the modern fantasy genre with this novel.
And comedy trolls.
In other words, the very stuff out of which modern sword and sorcery has been fashioned.
Lord Dunsany, it seems, has a lot to answer for.
The King of Elfland's Daughter - "one of the seminal fantasies of the century" according to John Clute, now reprinted as part of Gollancz's series of groundbreaking fantasies - has been a victim of its own success. The blurbs on the back of his collection of short stories, Time and the Gods (also part of the Fantasy Masterworks list), show the breadth of Dunsany's influence with praise by writers as different as HP Lovecraft and Katherine Kerr. With his stories of timeless gods whose names can drive men mad and ancient heroes taking up their quests with swords and magic, Dunsany helped to spawn the likes of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With the half-realized faerie world of Elfand in this novel, he paved the way for the full-scale fantastic landscapes of Tolkien and his imitators. In terms of modern fantasy, Dunsany's seed has spread far and wide.
Yet as the genre he played such a crucial role in defining gives way to inbreeding, degeneration and endless recycling of the same tropes, you have to ask yourself: is it still possible to read Dunsany without all the shit that came after him getting in the way? Apart from historical interest, why would anyone want to?
A description of the novel's plot isn't hopeful. The King of Elfland's Daughter has story but not much in the way of narrative. Sometime in the distant past, somewhere in England (you can just imagine how Monty Python would take the piss), the story is set in motion by the desire of the people of Erl to "be ruled by a magic lord". So directed, Erl's crown prince, Alveric, journeys into neighbouring Elfland to steal the King of Elfland's daughter, Lirazel (with her connivance), back across the border to his homeland. The marriage between the two results in a son, Orion, and years of happiness, but eventually, Lirazel's homesickness and a domestic squabble lead her to flee to Elfland. Distraught, Alveric embarks on a long, fruitless quest to find his wife while Lirazel sits in Elfland pining for the world of mortals and their son grows older. Unicorns are hunted. Elves frolic. Pages pass.
In fact, very little seems to happen until the end, when the story's resolution is conjured almost absent-mindedly by the author. However inflated and banal many of Dunsany's successors have been, at least they concentrated on trying to tell a cracking yarn. Dunsany is so leisurely a storyteller that you can almost believe he would think it unseemly for a writer to do anything so coarse as grip his reader with a story.
Far better to enjoy the novel as a meditation on the nature of wonder and it is here the book's strength lies. Dunsany speaks through the witch Ziroonderel when she chides the men of Erl for complaining that their dealings with Elfland have resulted in 'overmuch magic': "Overmuch magic! As though magic were not the spice and essence of life, its ornament and splendour." Elfland itself is a world of intoxication, a place 'beyond the fields we know' where time runs slower and the wonder of existence is perpetually immanent. The troll, Lurulu, describes it:
He contrasted (the mortal world), in wonder, with the deep calm of his home, where the moment moved more slowly than the shadows of the houses here, and did not pass until all the content with which a moment is stored had been drawn from it by every creature in Elfland.
Dunsany's Elfland is not so much a real place as a state of being, the ability to see heaven in every grain of sand. In the novel's climax, the people of Erl achieve this grace when the borders of Elfland reach out and absorb their kingdom, snatching it from the fields we know. Elfland is only a condition of our world and has little autonomy. A very different landscape then from Tolkien's Middle Earth, whose meticulous detail creates an arena in which everyday passions and historical dramas can be played out without the messiness of the real world. Middle Earth and its copycats offer wonder, but you have to escape this world to find it. Dunsany rejects this: you can't pursue wonder, just as Alveric can search for years for a way into Elfland but is bound to fail. All you have to do is invite it into this world and open your eyes.
Dunsany's own life reflects his fascination with the wonderful. World traveller, soldier, hunter and a chess champion who once held the then-Grand Master to a draw, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, exemplifies the restlessness with the mundane world expressed by the inhabitants of Erl. Like his older contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dunsany was obsessed with the supernatural and the fantastic, boiling over in a lifetime of fiction resulting in eight novels, twice as many short story collections and over 40 plays.
The short stories are perhaps the prime examples of his writing. The antique, almost Biblical style of the novel works to better effect at shorter length and the narrative weaknesses are less relevant. Several of the novel's best sequences are variations on motifs in earlier stories. Nevertheless, the open-eyed quality of the novel, the sheer delight in revelling in the sense of wonder, is so refreshing, so innocent, that the book will continue to charm modern readers. It's a far cry from many, more recent fantasy writers, who may have more fantastic landscapes and extraordinary characters, but remain, in comparison, more mundane writers.
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© Philip Raines 11 August 2001