Fairy Tale Friday: The King of Elfland’s Daughter

November 6, 2009 at 12:00 am 4 comments

koedIt is difficult to write a review of something which is simultaneously forgotten and revered, depending on what group of people you talk to. Writing about the forgotten is easy–you’ve rediscovered something you want to share with everyone else–but writing about the revered and beloved is quite another thing. It’s like writing a review of the Bible. “Dragged a bit at the front–all those begats?!–but then picked up nicely towards the end.” Impossible! Unfortunately, I am in that very same pickle today as I think about Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

Dunsany, real name the wonderful Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, was an Irish baron (thus “Lord” Dunsany) who wrote prolifically in the early twentieth century before he died in 1957 and his work fell into the realms of the forgotten. One of his most famous works is The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a book which various modern fantasy writers (including David Eddings and Neil Gaiman) have credited with launching the modern fantasy genre and/or inspiring them personally to write at all. But today, outside of the circles that know who Eddings and Gaiman are, most people have never heard of Lord Dunsany or the King of Elfland or his daughter.

This is a true shame. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a delightful little fantasy (or perhaps simply fantastical) story which does not fall victim to the many pitfalls of Victorian fairy tales. As discussed previously in this blog, these were stories written entirely for children, oftentimes taking place in some kind of frilly garden, and involving sugarplums and minuscule tea cups. Instead, Dunsany absolutely does give birth to the modern idea of fantasy and fairies, setting his tale in the kingdom of Erl which is located directly next to the border of Elfland.

The story tells of Alvaric, the prince of Erl, who is ordered by his father to go into Elfland and marry the beautiful fairy princess he will find there in order to bring magic to the kingdom of Erl as requested by the Erl parliament (a group of about six mead-drinking town elders). Alvaric accomplishes this feat, but that is by no means the end of the story. Rather, Dunsany takes a look at what happens after “happily ever after” and uses his story to explore familial loyalties, being careful what you wish for, and journeying long and far to reclaim your true love. In short, the story has everything. Equally impressive is Dunsany’s ability to take any number of hackneyed elements and combine them into a wholly original and magical narrative.

And, on top of an original plot-line, Dunsany is also gifted with an unexpectedly whimsical prose. He primarily writes much like you would expect an Edwardian baron to write, but occasionally he’ll just throw something out there that is so perfect and so whimsical that you are blown away. I don’t want to ruin the surprise of any of them, so I won’t quote here, but I’ll just mention a certain little girl who is saved from Elfland by a jellyroll.

While there were some parts of the story I did not enjoy (including the idea of a girl’s choice between her father and her husband, which was dealt with a very unappealingly heavy-handed way, and the hunting of unicorns, which has never appealed to me), I would absolutely recommend giving this story a go. At the very least, you’ll gain some appreciation for one of Fantasy’s founding fathers and get to compare how far the genre has come since Dunsany’s day. If you’re comparing it to Gaiman’s Stardust, the answer is not much. And that’s definitely a good thing.


Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , , , .

Answers Letters from London by Julian Barnes

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  November 19, 2009 at 9:40 am

    This sounds so cool :D I wonder if Susanna Clarke was influenced in any way? Did it seem like she might have been?

    Also, why are they hunting unicorns?!

    • 2. Corey  |  November 20, 2009 at 6:50 am

      It is super-cool! I think this is one of those books that has influenced all fantasy writers of the 20th century, whether than acknowledge it like Gaiman or not. It just completely changed the format of the genre.

      But more specifically, yes, I do think Clarke was influenced. It has the same kind of “be careful when you wish for magic in your world” aspects (like when the theoretical magicians wish they had “real” magic and then it creates this whole mess when magic does return to England) and it also has the slightly wicked but very powerful fairy/elf character in the King of Elfland, although he is far less bad and much more concerned for his daughter than Clarke’s fairies (I’m particularly thinking of the gentleman with the thistledown hair).

      Anyway, you should read it and see for yourself! It’s quite short and will go quickly.

      Ugh. Alvaric’s son, Orion, likes to hunt and the unicorns come over the border from Elfland and Orion thinks they are the finest possible quarry for his exceptional hunting skills. It’s a kind of random sidenote to the plot, but it still bugged me. Really? We needed to kill a unicorn right then?

  • […] benefited greatly from its context. Gaiman’s ability to flawlessly mimic the style of Dunsany and other Victorian and Edwardian tale-spinners was stunning. The story itself was both derivative […]

  • […] seamlessly into older traditions. Gaiman’s Stardust could just as easily have been written by Lord Dunsany and Clarke’s man with the thistledown hair fits perfectly in with the early modern notions of […]


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