Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Nobody has ever imitated Tolkien satisfactorily. As a result, I prefer to read pre-Tolkienic fantasy rather than post-Tolkienic fantasy. Hodgson's The Night Land is one such work. And Lord Dunsany's delicate, evocative, beautiful book The King of Elfland's Daughter is another.

It tells the story of the tiny kingdom of Erl. The parliament of Erl, discontent with their obscurity, wishes for a magic lord, a leader who will make them famous. The King of Erl bows to their wishes and sends his son Alveric to wed the King of Elfland's daughter. Alveric travels to Elfland and spirits the princess away, but the marriage of a mortal with one of the elven that dwells beyond salvation cannot be happy, and one can never wish for just a little magic...

This was a fascinating work. Dunsany uses some extremely beautiful and evocative language and he clearly draws upon many fairytale tropes in building his story. For example, Lirazel and Alveric's son Orion can hear “the horns of Elfland dimly blowing” at evening. This is almost a straight quotation of Alfred Tennyson's “Blow, bugle, blow”:
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

In fact as early as the Middle English Lay of Sir Orfeo, the horns of the King of Fairy can be heard:
with blowing far and crying dim
and barking hounds that were with him.

And here we can see the use of the word “dim” rather than “faintly” as in Tennyson, which suggests that Lord Dunsany also borrowed from Sir Orfeo. I have quoted from the Tolkien translation of that poem, and Tolkien too borrowed the image to tell of the Elves hunting in an early draft of his unfinished poem The Lay of Leithien:

Hark! Afar in Nargothrond
far over Sirion and beyond
there are dim cries and horns blowing
and barking hounds through the trees going.

I choose just this one example of the rich and layered language that Dunsany uses in this book. Every other phrase reminds me of something just beyond my reach. Unfortunately I can only source a few of allusions, like this one, but as you can see it provides an extraordinarily rich reading experience even if you can't quite put your finger on why.

The plot is likewise richly allusive. Like every other story you've read, from Narnia to Rip van Winkle, half an hour in Elfland is ten (or fifteen, or fifty) years outside. Like every other story, from that of Gawain and Ragnell to that of Aragorn and Arwen, the union of a man with an elf-woman is problematic at best and tragic at worst—and must always be paid for. And like many of the older fairy-stories, such as Tam Lin, the Elves live somehow beyond salvation, yet not doomed to Hell.

It's thus an extremely genuine fairy-tale and appears to have entered into the well of tales, from which other writers draw when they write their own works: the foreword to the Fantasy Masterworks edition of this book is by Neil Gaiman, whose book Stardust appears to be heavily influenced by The King of Elfland's Daughter.

But Dunsany isn't afraid to subvert a couple of the tropes he borrows, and because he does it sparingly and skilfully, it's intensely effective. One of the most unforgettable passages in the book tells how Orion, Lirazel and Alveric's half-elvish son, hunts a unicorn:
Once more he thrust and failed; he saw the unicorn's eye flash wickedly in the starlight, he saw all white before him the fearful arch of its neck, he knew he could turn aside its heavy blows no more; and then a hound got a grip in front of the right shoulder. No moments passed before many another hound leaped on to the unicorn, each with a chosen grip, for all that they looked like a rabble rolling and heaving by chance. Orion thrust no more, for many hounds all at once were between him and his enemy's throat. Awful groans came from the unicorn, such sounds as are not heard in the fields we know; and then there was no sound but the deep growl of the hounds that roared over the wonderful carcase as they wallowed in fabulous blood.

Wait, unicorns aren't meant to die like that...

Although this is a rich and unusual book, full of beauty and meticulously crafted to fit seamlessly in with all the other old British fairy tales, I don't know that it gets everything right. The poet Yeats would probably have agreed with this particular view, but then nor do I think the poet Yeats was quite right. All freedom and beauty and worth in life is said to come from Elfland, and much is made of the fact that Elfland is without salvation. Meanwhile, “Christom”, the religion of Erl, provides only cold and empty formalism to the mundane world. On the other hand, the beauty of Elfland is static and timeless, warding off sharp grief and sharp joy both: the princess Lirazel wears a crown of ice before she runs away with Alveric, and when she comes to the fields we know that crown melts. So neither Elfland nor 'the fields we know' can give true fulfilment and bliss. Is there nowhere, in Lord Dunsany's fairy-tale, for a human to feel happy and at home?

(Oops! Once again I have managed to review a book not in the public domain! Yet The King of Elfland's Daughter was published in 1924, so I think it qualifies as a vintage novel!)


Tim Nelson said...

Did you miss the references to heaven? :)

Having just read "Tom Brown's Schooldays", I'm reminded that life in the fields we know is a continuous struggle, even for those Christom. I was worried that he was going to derive the Christom religion of its power, but he doesn't do that.

I wondered if the following wasn't one of the references.├Ânig

Suzannah said...

I might have. Remind me?


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