Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Adventure classics -- Far from the fields we know


The King of Elfland’s Daughter

by Lord Dunsany


If I hadn’t been taking my usual indecipherable notes during last month’s FenCon writing workshop, I would hardly have believed I heard editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden (who forms, with wife Teresa, the Tor Books editing team Nielsen Hayden) say the name “Lord Dunsany.” Really? I’d come across Lord Dunsany’s influential 1924 fantasy novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, more than thirty years ago but that was the only mention of the prolific Anglo-Irish writer I had ever seen or heard of until Nielsen Hayden dropped his name.

In a lucky moment, I’d already listed The King of Elfland’s Daughter on this month‘s fantasy classics for its obvious influences on J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery adventures, E.R.R. Eddison’s Ouroboros series, and even C.S. Lewis’s alternate universe of Narnia stories. With Nielsen Hayden’s recommendation, I had another excuse to read Lord Dunsany again.

(By the way, his full name was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany. No wonder he wrote his dozens and dozens of plays, poems, novels and short stories in a wide variety of genres under a pen name.)

Dunsany paid the publication costs for his first book--and first experiment in writing alternate universes--1905’s The Gods of Pegana, a short story collection containing its own mythology, history and geography. It must have seemed like a strange, chancy experiment to commercial publishers at the time. But reviewers and readers such as young H.P. Lovecraft couldn’t get enough. Dunsany would become “the single greatest influence on fantasy writers during the first half of the twentieth century,” editor Lin Carter wrote in his introduction to the 1969 reprint of The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

The book recounts the story set in both a timeless, otherworldly Elfland, and, in Dunsany’s own brief preface, “the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley.” Except that the woods are not ordinary, and I hope, not English, haunted as they are by creatures whose habitats span both worlds, or who, like unicorns, travel habitually between the two.

One day, the twelve members of the parliament of Erl take a break from their usual duties of blacksmithing and leather tanning and garden to make a strange request of their hereditary lord.

“We want to be ruled by a magic lord,” they said. And their lord replied, “It is five hundred years since my people have spoken thus in parliament, and it shall always be as your parliament saith.” So the lord of Erl summons his son Alveric to cross over the border into Elfland and marry the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel. And Alveric sets out, finds the elvish princess and returns within a single elvish day, only to learn that his father has died and the parliament members have grown old in the decade or more that has passed on Earth during that one magical day in Elfland.

That is only the beginning of Alveric’s troubles. Because how can a princess who dances in the road, talks to goats and laughs at funerals ever find contentment in “the fields we know”?

“Dunsany combines the style and settings of the classical fairy tale with an adult and sophisticated viewpoint, welding the two diverse elements into one match whole through his lyric, singing prose,” Carter wrote. “Most fairy tales end with ‘and they were married and lived happily ever after. But Dunsany knows this could not be so: for Alveric was of mortal blood and hearkened after earthly things--but Lirazel was neither mortal nor earthly. . . And to Dunsany’s lasting credit goes the honor of having written a fairy tale that dares to tell you ‘what happened afterward.’”

Dunsany’s works are readily available, often in free e-book versions, as well as an armload from the Dallas Public Library.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a November of fantasy with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.)

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