Published on 18/11/2014 by Jean Roberts
The King of Elfland’s Daughter, first published in 1924, was written by Lord Dunsany or,
to give him his full name, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany.
At first glance, the book is a simple fairy tale that tells the story of Alveric, prince of the Land of Erl, who is bidden by his father to find and marry Lirazel, the titular King of Elfland’s Daughter, so that, in accordance with the wishes of the people, the kingdom of Erl might one day be ruled over by a magic lord. But this is no mere fairy tale: this is a fable about ambition and loss, and about the yearning we all feel for those things that are always just beyond our reach.
Although born of royal blood, Alveric is still only human. To find Elfland he has to enlist the help of Ziroonderel, a witch who gifts him a sword forged from seventeen thunderbolts found ‘in the soft
earth under her cabbages’. Armed with the enchanted black blade, the prince sets forth on a quest that takes him through the twilight border into Elfland, a magical realm where time moves more slowly than in the world of men. After many trials, he finally wins the hand of the beautiful Lirazel who, despite her father’s wishes, returns with Alveric to Erl where they are married and have a son, Orion.
And there, if this were just an ordinary fairy tale, the story would end ‘happily ever after’. But Dunsany’s Lirazel is no two-dimensional princess. Instead of finding contentment with her ‘hero’, she wearies of his grey world and, pining for the enchantments of Elfland, eventually slips away to return to her father’s kingdom, leaving behind her bereft husband and son.
It is Lirazel’s abandonment of Alveric and Orion that signals Dunsany’s break with tradition, and sees him steer his story into darker, more adult territory. Desperate to find his wife, Alveric sets out on a second quest. But Elfland is denied to him, and he spends many years wandering the land; a Lear-like madman gripped by his all-consuming obsession.
But Dunsany had no intention of writing a tragedy, and eventually gives us a happy ending, albeit a slightly bittersweet one, where the only thing lost is something worthless: the power to deny change.
It is an important allegory, not just for those living in the post-WW1 years, but for us today.
As to why this particular novel should be saved from the fire… well, it is one of Neil Gaiman’s favourite books and his inspiration for ‘Stardust’. But, more significantly than that, it is a neglected masterpiece of adult fantasy whose lyrical prose allows us a glimpse into a magical world ‘beyond the fields we know’.
1st Prize - AnExclusive Discworld print signed by author Sir Terry Pratchett & Discworld illustrator Paul Kidby
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