I can’t remember when I first came across this book, but I do know that I wasn’t enticed by it. First, its title is tinged with twee. Second, for some reason I equated Lord Dunsany with Baron Corvo whose Desire and Pursuit of the Whole seared itself on my brain about ten years ago (beautifully written but 350 infuriating pages of whine, nevertheless). But people I respect have praised The King of Elfland and I reasoned that I could probably cope with one self-indulgent aristocrat per decade and then the 1924 Club was announced, so here we are.
As soon as I started reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter, I saw that my fears had been entirely misplaced. Sorry, Lord D. This is a beautiful and magical book (also a great deal less prog rock than the cover of my edition implies). The parliament of Erl, twelve ordinary men, believing that their land lacks fame and status within England, tells the Lord of Erl that they want to be ruled by someone magical. This will increase Erl’s status. Their lord sends his son Alveric to cross the border of twilight into Elfland, and wed Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. Alveric overcomes enchanted trees and elvin knights and Lirazel succeed in escaping Elfland. But time passes differently in Elfland; actually, it barely passes at all. Back in Erl, ten years have passed and Alveric’s father has died. Alveric and Lirazel marry, have a son and rule Erl, yet Lirazel remains alien and sometimes Alveric’s understanding of her fails. Soon Lirazel steals back to Elfland, Alveric embarks on a quest to find her and Orion is left behind to grow up as best he can. Meanwhile, the parliament of Erl soon learns to be careful what it wishes for...
Clever Alveric knows it’s best not to enter the realms of fairy unprepared, and before he sets out to obey his father’s command and bring back Lirazel, he pays a visit to the witch Ziroonderel (who likes to live at the top of a windy hill because that’s where her cabbages grow best):
The witch approached it [the magical sword she is making out of thunderbolts for Alveric] 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 once loved 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 dark high heath a song that seemed so full of mornings and evenings preserved by 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 sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of time 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.
This passage gives a good flavour of the novel. It is firmly rooted on close and precise descriptions of the English countryside, perfumed by its wild flowers and illuminated by its twilights and starlights, but it is also lush and romantic and nostalgic for a rural past. The language is consciously archaic and literary, but it also imitates, through rhythm and repetition and tag phrases such as ‘the fields we know’, the sort of speech forms and oral culture associated with ballads. It is a very musical book, because of these rhythms and repetitions and the sounds of the words Dunsany chooses. These lyric stretches are broken into very short chapters, which prevent the intensity becoming overwhelming. The short chapters also help the action to move along.
Elfland is a curious place, where time moves slowly. The barrier between humans and other creatures in ‘the fields we know’ does not exist here and there seems to be a harmony between all living things. Colours and plants are different too, of a beauty which ‘cannot be described in song’, beyond our words. We’re told to imagine a garden spangled with dewdrops, the stars have just faded, dawn is breaking, something of that beauty is the beauty of Elfland. It’s a place that is shunned by those who live on its borders and opposed by the Freer, a religious figure closely modelled on a Catholic priest; a place that is more wonderful than madness or dreams and that perhaps poets visit in visions. However, Erl is not really ‘the fields we know’ despite the narrator’s insistence: it’s a sort of alternate mediaeval land which is ever so slightly not a re-imagining of the ‘actual’ Middle Ages. An alternative Middle Ages with magic? Could this be the beginning of all those High Fantasy cod-mediaeval epics?
(The fifth tapestry in the series The Hunt of the Unicorn, Flemish tapestry woven around the turn of the sixteenth century, now in The Cloisters, New York; from here; all right, it’s not entirely appropriate as Orion hunts alone with his dogs, but still...)
I felt the influence of George MacDonald’s work here; there was something in the tone of the book which brought MacDonald to mind, but also the enchanted wood and the possibility of slipping between planes of reality. The author (should I call him Dunsany or Plunkett?) acknowledges Tennyson, and is surely indebted too to the Celtic Twilight (or Twiglet, as I keep typing) and Yeats: the novel is infused with romanticism, melody, desire and sadness as well as a knowledge of Irish fairy tales. In the later part of the book, Orion and his dogs hunt unicorns (this I struggled with: would you hunt a unicorn? But Lord D was a keen hunter) and that reminded me of the section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Gawain is tested. Here Orion doesn’t seem to be undergoing a test as much as responding to his fay genetic inheritance (he is, after all, only half-human) and the hunt has an element of ritual and communion about it.
The novel is riddled with misplaced desires and revolves around a series of oppositions: male and female, Elfland and Erl, religion and magic. But these oppositions can shift and are often complicated by triangular relationships, such as those between the King of Elfland, the Freer and Ziroonderel; the King of Elfland, Alveric and Lirazel; Lirazel, Alveric and Orion. The border between Erl and Elfland is one of mist and twilight and there’s always a sense that no dichotomy is fixed, that minds can open and barriers dissolve.
I read this for the 1924 club. Thank you Simon and Kaggsy for dreaming it up and hosting it! If you click on the links in their names, you will find yourself on the hub pages with links to all the other reviews in the 1924 Club: well worth visiting for a snapshot of a (partial, perhaps) literary moment.
(Frances MacDonald, Sleeping Princess, 1909, pencil, watercolour and gold paint on vellum, private collection; found here)