“He knew not yet that nothing in our fields has the strength to hold out against time.”
Lord Dunsany, born in 1878, is widely regarded as a pioneer of the fantasy genre. The King of Elfland’s Daughter, published 30 years before The Fellowship of the Ring, reads as you might expect from a novel written at a crossroads, the birth of the distinction between fantasy and the fantastic.
This novel takes place in a village at the border between the fields we know and Elfland, a mystical paradise where humans cannot belong. In this vale, thunderbolts strike the soil and stay embedded there, unicorns graze on the next hill over, and villagers can demand a magic lord and see it as a reasonable request. So Alveric, the lord’s son, is sent to marry Lirazel, the princess of Elfland.
Reflective of its roots, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is very much an extended fairy tale, from the smidge of surprising and grave humor to the feeling that no one else exists in this world apart from the handful of characters whose stories we follow. However, in a full-length novel, this meandering style is not always effective. It loses focus in the middle, especially during the hunting chapters with Alveric’s son. Most fairy tales and campfire stories are not meant to be drawn out unless they are supported by additional material, which is not the case in this book. Lord Dunsany was known to publish his first drafts, and while The King of Elfland’s Daughter is undoubtedly masterful for a first take, its lack of focus greatly hurt my enjoyment of the story.
Despite this flaw, this book is worth picking up at least briefly for the beauty and wonder of its world. Elfland is described so magically, you can almost see it in saturated colors, pictured not directly but indirectly. The idea of it is just as enchanting as it must be for Alveric, who searched endlessly for its horizon. It could be forever moving away from you with each step you take, like childhood, as represented by the lost toys and remembered voices scattered in its wake as it drifts out of reach.
No matter how desperately Alveric tries to find Elfland, he cannot overtake it. He loves Lirazel, or the idea of her, at least, enough to embark on a hopeless mission—but he doesn’t understand her enough to appreciate her strangeness. Just like the villagers who long for magic and push it away when it starts to scare them, he cannot bridge the gap between his humanity and the fey nature of Elfland.
Lord Dunsany writes in a style that many modern authors of epic fantasy aim to emulate: lyrical, grave, with long sentences that unravel like petals, yet also straightforward and almost matter-of-fact in its magic. The prose reveals wonderful things while pretending they should be expected. This is a difficult balance to strike, but I think it works here because this is not a character-oriented book. Maybe that’s why this style of writing is not always effective in newer books that focus more on shaping characters readers can relate to and care for—the prose is inherently distancing from the people but close to the world.
“And there fell on these folk as they all leaned hushed from their windows a mood that looked gently, wistfully backward through time, such a mood as might lurk by huge dock-leaves in ancient gardens when everyone is gone that has tended their roses or ever loved the bowers.”
After reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter, I understand why it is regarded as a fantasy classic. It is written beautifully, in a fairy-tale style that perfectly matches its wistfully romantic story. However, it is not particularly engaging, with pacing that flags throughout. Ultimately, it is an otherworldly, plaintive, nostalgic tale, but a slow novel that moves in starts, whose length pulls the story back instead of lifting it to new heights.