2004-03-09: The King of Elfland’s Daughter

The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924)

by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany (Lord Dunsany) (1878-1957)

This edition was produced in 1999, the first in a new imprint of Del Rey Books, called Impact, a series of influential works of fantasy and science fiction.

A bit of the flavor of Lord Dunsany’s writing comes through in his one-sentence preface:

I hope that no suggestion of any strange land that may be conveyed by the title will scare readers away from this book; for, though some chapters do indeed tell of Elfland, in the greater part of them there is no more to be shown than the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.

As you can see from this, the book is mostly about the strangeness of ordinary humans, with the odd Elflander thrown in to sharpen a point here or there. And, as you can see, one of the points is that Elfland isn’t far at all from the fields we know.

Lord Dunsany’s prose is poetic but not too tiresome. His sentences are often long, but flow nicely. His attitude is respectful of the fantastic part of ordinary people, and amused at the ordinary part of ordinary people and creatures. He has something to say about the ordinary and fantastic parts of fantastic creatures, too.

The main protagonist is Orion, son of the King of Elfland’s daughter and a mortal prince. Orion grows up without much benefit of either of his parents, and soon falls under the tutelage of a pair of woodsmen. Lord Dunsany then describes this aspect of his education:

And little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man’s thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark of time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills.

Lord Dunsany lived from 1878 to 1957. I would like to know if his influence on Tolkien has been documented. As Neil Gaiman says in his introduction:

Perhaps this book should come with a warning: it is not a reassuring, by-the-numbers fantasy novel, like most of the books with elves, princes, trolls, and unicorns “between their covers.” This is the real thing. It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola. So trust the book. Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly.


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