Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at a man who forged a reputation as one of the giants of early fantasy literature, namely Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany – or as we tend to know him, Lord Dunsany. And the book is his most well known today, The King of Elfland’s Daughter. If you want a too long didn’t read review, I have a limerick for you
There was a young prince named Alveric
Whose father once told him “Listen quick,
The people want magic in their life
So find a faerie wife
Even if the marriage is never a picnic”
For everyone else – scroll down!
What’s it all about?
Alveric is the son of the Lord of Erl, and in Erl the tradition is the Lord rules but when parliament (rarely) asks for something they get it. So when they ask for a magic lord, to bring lustre to the name of Erl, Alveric is sent off to gain the hand of the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel. And the rest of her, obviously. After a little adventure he manages to do this, but their love is somewhat strained by the usual problems of mortal and fae, and a lot of the book is about what happens next.
How readable is it?
It’s as readable as the King James VI bible, which is often invoked by fantasy scholars as a comparable/influence on Dunsany’s writing. I very much agree with that. To pick a few lines at random so you can see:
“And the sword that had visited Earth from so far away smote like the falling of thunderbolts; and green sparks rose from the armour, and crimson as sword met sword”
“So now, while the hounds were sleeping on boards in a doggy mass in each of their kennels, for the dogs and the bitches dwelt each in a separate house, the troll was scurrying over the fields we know through twilight trembling on the verge of moonlight, with his face turned toward Elfland.”
It’s readable, it’s poetic, but a little can go a long way.
Is it any good though?
It’s quite good. I think its undoing by modern standards is that the characters feel very archetypal and ho hum. They’re simply stock characters put in place to explore the plot, idea and world.
The plot, idea and world are also quite archetypal – very archetypal in fact – but a lot more alive, a lot more infused with Dunsany’s own particular ideas. He pokes fun fondly at the people and their hopes for a magic lord and dwells on length at the various confusions with which we and faerie regard each other. There is adventure in this book, but it comes second to the culture clash. Tonally, it reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust; the adventure is perilous, faerie and mortal realm have their pluses and minuses alike, but you know things will end fairly well.
Perhaps the best aspect of it is the prose, which is not always the ideal strength for a fairly lengthy novel. Not everyone will agree with me there, I think, but while it takes some chewing, it’s very evocative and beautiful. I think people will find their appreciation of this book resting a lot on how they feel about the prose.
How Important is this book?
Dunsany’s importance to fantasy is huge, if sometimes sporadically felt. This particular book, while his best known, is perhaps a little harder to pin down. I’ve already mention Gaiman’s Stardust as having a like tone and, well, really, it’s just incredibly like and wikipedia says there’s a comment in the Neil Gaiman Reader that supports this so there’s one. Jack Vance wrote a book named after a character in this book, so there’s two. More?
We do know that Dunsany and his works were well known to many early fantasists. Tolkien was familiar with a good deal of his work, and Lovecraft and Howard huge fans of his poetry. Clark Ashton Smith was also familiar to include the third of Weird Tales’ big three. Gene Wolfe has used Dunsany’s poetry in his books while Le Guin names Dunsany’s A Dreamer’s Tales as one of the books that changed her life. Other famous genre names who’ve made their debt clear include David Eddings, Peter S Beagle, Fletcher Pratt, Evangeline Walton – and that’s not including people who’ve just said they like his work, like Michael Moorcock. Presumably this book is important to a lot of these names, but I can’t honestly nail it down as it being this particular book. Still, best to assume it’s been quite important then; where ever fantasy authors gather to send their characters from the fields we know to weird and wonderful realms, there’s usually someone who’s been influenced by Dunsany in some way, either first-hand or second.
What about the author?
Oh good lord, where to start? Dunsany had it well made as a member of the Anglo-Irish peerage, and used that to live an accomplished life to the fullest. He was a pistol shooting and chess champion in Ireland, where he was well in with the literary circles, was both a keen hunter and promoter of animal rights, and served in various armed forces and as a professor. Very much an early version of one of those author biographies that seems to contain every job under the sun.
Dunsany wasn’t the only writer of what we’d now call fantasy literature in Britain pre-Tolkien but I would suggest he is the best known. Having read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, I would suggest that’s with good reason. His poetic prose, his whimsical imagination, and intriguing plotting is a package that puts him above the other such writers I’ve read so far. That’s why he’s became such an influential figure on the fantasy writers of yesteryear, and I wouldn’t be at all if other writers and fans picked this book up today and still enjoyed them.