The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

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The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Published: 1924

Format: Paperback

Recommended By: Ana at Things Mean a Lot

I Categorized It As: Science Fiction/Fantasy, Classic

My Rating: 4.5/5

Prince Alaric takes Princess Lirazel, the elf king’s daughter, back to “the land we know” to become his wife. By leaving her own world, Lirazel loses the prospect of immortality. She also finds herself in a land of beliefs and customs she doesn’t comprehend, among people who don’t understand her. This creates a growing rift between her and Alaric.

Lirazel’s home, Elfland, is a place of lost memories, voices, and childhood playthings, a preternaturally beautiful land upon which time has no impact. It provides glimmers of inspiration to people who wander near its borders, inspiring them to be writers, artists, or poets.

This fantasy novel, published in 1924, inspired many later writers renowned for their rich literary imagination, including H.P. Lovecraft and probably J.R.R. Tolkien. The tale of a mortal prince and an elven princess falling in love, and the prospect of her giving up her immortality, is mirrored in The Lord of the Rings. The King of Elfland’s Daughter also reflects a pervasive sense of melancholy and yearning for times past and things lost; I wonder whether this resonated with Tolkien. In a letter to his son, Tolkien wrote:

There are two quite different emotions: one that moves me supremely and I find small difficulty evoking: the heart-racking sense of the vanished past. (Hat Tip: Roger Colby at Writing Is Hard Work.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is lyrical and written with a slow, dreamy rhythm. It flows more like poetry than prose, with lavish imagery and careful observation of nature.  The elegant,mpoetic style, which reminds me a bit of Lovecraft’s work, may seem excessively slow to some modern readers.

As I mentioned, the aspect of this novel that stands out the most for me is the sense of nostalgia, loneliness, and melancholy, along with the sense of regret for things lost. These themes resonate with me, probably because I am at midlife, and I find myself spending more time looking back and longing for people and experiences in my past. The novel also does a beautiful job of creating that sense of seeking and yearning that pervades so much of our lives, in love, family relationships, and our lifelong struggle to become who we want to be.

As Nymeth wrote in her beautiful review of this novel:

Alveric’s desperate quest for Elfland, whose borders keep retreating, told me so much about what it means to be human. It told me about why we tell stories, why we have myths, why we dive into the deepest ocean abysses, why we have gone to the moon, why science exists, and history, and religion, and literature too. There’s something so human about his longing for something just out of reach. Alveric’s mad journey, one of the progenitors of the fantasy quest as we know it today, is at its core about a feeling we can recognise in so much of what we do.

I also loved the author’s exploration of time. He looked at our world through the eyes of a creature of Elfland. I vividly sensed how dazzlingly hurried even a quiet corner of our world would seem to someone used to living in a timeless, eternally becalmed realm.

The novel also looked at the passage of time as a result of experience rather than chronology. When something happens in Elfland — when someone is changed or has her life altered in some way — time leaps forward. This got me thinking about the way we mark the passage of time in our lives, by milestones, unforgettable experiences, or crises we struggle to overcome, rather than as a succession of days, months, and years. It is our experiences — relationships, changes, things gained and lost — that move us forward through life.

This is a lovely, moving book, and it gave me a better sense of the roots of modern fantasy fiction. I read it slowly, savoring the use of language and the images and ideas it evoked.

I have been on an intense fantasy-reading jag. I’ve caught up on the A Song of Ice and Fire series and recently started reading N.K. Jemison‘s work (starting with The Killing Moon), on Stephanie ‘s advice. I will definitely be looking for more recommendations. Any ideas? 🙂

Snippets from The King of Elfland’s Daughter:

  • … crooned now a melody like a wind in summer blowing from wild wood gardens that no man tended, down valleys loved once by children, now lost to them but for dreams, a song of such memories as lurk and hide along the edges of oblivion, and leaving on the mind those faintest traces of little shining feet which when dimly perceived by us are called regrets. (p. 6)
  • (The Elf King has realized his daughter left.) Even as he stood there he knew that the years that assail beauty, and the myriad harshnesses that vex the spirit, were already about his daughter. And the days that remained to her now seemed scarce more to him, dwelling beyond the fret and ruin of time, than to us must seem a briar rose’s hours when plucked and foolishly hawked in the streets of a city. He knew that there hung over her now the doom of all mortal things. He thought of her perishing soon, as mortal things must, to be buried amongst the rocks of a land that scorned Elfland and that held its most treasured myths to be of little account. (p. 39)
  • … scraps of the gloaming of evenings long treasured in aging minds. (p. 143)
  • A land of change! The decay of the boards in the loft, and the moss outside in the mortar, and old lumber mouldering away, all seemed to tell the same story. Change and nothing abiding. (p. 152)
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