To continue my read through of older (and sometimes overlooked) works in the history of fantasy and science fiction literature, I have arrived in 1924 for Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
Previously I’ve read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912) and The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt (1924). I would recommend both for those interested in older literature of the spectacular. Also The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson was published in 1954, and fits as an influential book in its own right, if you’re interested in that.
The book was fantastic. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though, no book is. There was a bit of a lag in the middle to end of the book, roughly the 50% to 75% mark. In addition, the story seems to have no real action by the main characters after the halfway point, but that’s by design. As far as how readable it is, I leave that up to the individual reader. I had no problem approaching the book, but will readily admit some difficulty after the middle section.
The story of the book was concerned with two kingdoms: the kingdom of men named Erl and the kingdom of fairies named Elfland. The king of Erl, in the beginning is asked by his people to give them a king who has magic. The king, knowing that what they were asking would lead to trouble, told his only son to venture to Elfland and wed the legendary princess there. That way, there would be magic in the royal bloodline.
The first quarter of the story was concerned with the prince of Erl finding his bride, returning with her, and living with her in Erl. Then, she decides to return to Elfland, and the rest of the book is concerned with the time difference between the two realms and how time doesn’t move for her and the fairies while the men search for a way to get to her.
The characters were the second weakest part of the book, the first being the plot. The titular character, Lirazel, was fascinating as a concept. But as a character she’s shallow. Lirazel was torn between loving Alveric and Erl, and longing to return to Elfland and her father.
Alveric himself was an unsympathetic character who went from heroic in the first quarter to utterly useless in the latter parts of the book.
Their child, Orion, was the most interesting character, in my opinion. He loved his hounds, wanted to meet his mother, but doesn’t want to leave the world he knows behind. It’s complicated and interesting. Ultimately, it culminates in a hunt he took to kill a unicorn. This proved to the people of Erl he was skilled, but also that he had some magic in him after all. Honestly, I had no interest in the unicorn hunt, but it was beautifully told.
The best part of the book was Dunsany’s writing. His descriptions of Elfland as bordering on the twilight of the sky was something magical taken directly from fairytales. The King of Elfland, himself, was never really seen as much as felt. He’s a presence in the story, whose power and authority echo throughout the tale. It’s fascinating and interesting and beautiful. The runes he used in the story had earth-shattering effects, able to change the border of his land to recede, to block people from entering.
It’s an amazing story. I would recommend it for anyone who loves older fiction and fantasy books.
Lord Dunsany writes like a man who has the muses on his shoulder, feeding him the language of imagination and wonder themselves.
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