Review: The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

This novel (short novel? novella?) by Lord Dunsany was written in 1924, and seems to have wandered in and out of the public eye over the last century. It’s a very classical (French-ish to me, for some reason) fantasy story that feels a bit like a fairy tale in the vein of the Arthurian cycle.

What’s it about? (spoilers!)

The simple folk of Erl want their country to be famous, so they ask their ruler for a magic lord (because nothing encourages tourism and respect in a pseudo-Christian setting like un-Christian magic!). The prince Alveric goes to the witch Ziroonderel for a magic sword, and then goes east into Elfland to win the heart and hand of the elf princess Lirazel (by killing all the elf knights with his magic sword). She comes back to Erl, marries Alveric, and they have a son, Orion.

The people rejoice! Everyone lives happily ever after! Just kidding.

Time passes, and Lirazel is unable to adapt to the mundane human world, particularly its religious norms. This leads to clashes with Alveric, who apparently doesn’t understand why his exotic immortal magical wife can’t just give up her entire identity, culture, and personality to act like a boring local human girl, and eventually she chooses to return to Elfland.

Alveric quickly regrets everything he whined about and goes to bring her back, but discovers that Elfland has magically withdrawn from the borders of Erl (you can’t get there from here anymore). So Alveric gathers up a band of madmen (because who else would you want to go on an endless road trip with?) to quest for Elfland and bring Lirazel home. 

The quest goes… poorly. Like, really bad. Griswold-family-vacation bad. Decades pass. One by one, Alveric’s mad friends turn sane and go home to get jobs and get married. His last two crazy companions start competing to see who can be the craziest. It’s not a good scene, folks, and it makes a compelling argument for Why You Should Never Pressure Your Wife To Convert. 

Meanwhile, little Orion grows up to be a skilled hunter and Elfland returns to the borders of Erl (now that Alveric and his magic elf-killing sword are far away). Orion, who feels torn between these two worlds, begins hunting unicorns just for funsies, and then enlists the aid of some trolls to care for his hounds. As the trolls and fairy creatures run amok (they really like killing each other for some reason), the people of Erl begin to seriously regret asking for a magic lord.

In the end, Alveric abandons his quest and returns home, and Lirazel leaves Elfland to return to Erl and her family. She also brings a tidal wave of magic to all of Erl, and thus carries off Erl itself into Elfland. (Except for the church and the people hiding there.)

What’s the big deal?

Good question. Well. It’s a lovely sort of sad, lyrical, old-fashioned fairy story. It reminds me of other fairy tales, evoking a nostalgia for classic Rankin/Bass cartoons, Aesop’s fables, The Dark Crystal, and things half-remembered from childhood that seemed magical and strange at the time, and so continue to seem that way now. So in that sense, I enjoyed the experience of reading it.

On the other hand, it’s a bit thin on story. The characters are…fine. You might call it over-written at times. Sometimes I felt like it was a first draft, and a better story or version was waiting in the wings. If it was the first classical fairy tale you had ever read as a fan of fantasy, you’d like it very much, probably. If it was your hundredth such story, maybe not so much.

Pedant Rant: The title feels a bit tortured to me. The King of Elfland’s Daughter? She has a name, you know. Lirazel (which is a fantastic name, by the way). But it’s not really about her. And it’s definitely not about the King of Elfland. It’s about Alveric and his mad questing, and Orion and his search for identity and meaning. End of Rant.

Recommended?

Maybe? It’s definitely not for everyone. If you enjoy ye olde fairie tales and classical writing, then yes, you will probably enjoy this. If you want a richer story, or a richer world to explore, then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. (I’d recommend The Last Unicorn as a similar but stronger story, both the book and the Rankin/Bass cartoon.)

Where is it?

Read / download free on Faded Page: https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20120938

It’s $0.99 on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01DI5KIDC

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