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The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany was once a very popular book. Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, an Irish peer, died in 1957 at the age of 79. He was a prolific writer of stories, poems, novels and plays, very well known in his day but now almost completely forgotten. I came across him by chance not long ago and have since read two of his novels and one of his plays.
His writing could be described as whimsical. It could be considered a fore-runner of magical realism. He could be seen as belonging to a tradition of fantastical story-telling which goes back as least as far as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He is said to have been an influence on J.R.R.Tolkien and was certainly a friend of W.B.Yeats. He might have been influenced by Maurice Maeterlinck.
First published in 1924, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a variation on the kind of folk tale in which a fisherman fall in love with a mermaid. The parliament of Erl, which consists of twelve working men in ‘ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees’, go to the Castle of Erl and tell the Lord that it is time for something new.
“For seven hundred years,” they say, “the chiefs of your race have ruled us well; and their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels, living on yet in their little tinkling songs. And yet the generations stream away, and there is no new thing.” The Lord asks them what they want and they say, “We would be ruled by a magic lord.”
The Lord sends for his son, Alveric. “Go forth,” he said, “before these days of mine are over, and therefore go in haste, and go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that clearly pertain to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”
Alveric asks what is the purpose of his journey and his father says, “To wed the King of Elfland’s daughter.”
With the help of the witch, Ziroonderel, Alveric makes his journey and brings back Princess Lirazel. They marry and have a son, who is named Orion, but the marriage is unhappy. Lirazel goes back to Elfland. Alveric, realising his mistake, goes after her, with four young men to help him in his quest. But each time they come near to Elfland, the border of Elfland (which is made of twilight) moves a little further away. Orion, in the end, goes in search of his mother. He hunts unicorns on the border and finally he finds her.
Several things rescue Dunsany from the trap of archaism into which, for example, William Morris fell and was irretrievably lost to most modern readers. There is always a hint of irony, as when the parliament say, “Their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels… in their little tinkling songs.” The men in leather jackets live to regret their vain wish for glory.
Dunsany starts his book with a short preface: ‘I hope that no suggestion of any strange land that may be conveyed by the title will scare readers away from this book; for, though some chapters do indeed tell of Elfland, in the greater part of them there is no more to be shown than the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.’
The fields we know is a phrase which is used with Homeric repetition, as in rosy-fingered dawn or wine-dark sea, and gradually acquires a meaning which it takes from its implied opposite: the fields we don’t know. The thing about Elfland is that time moves very slowly there. After only the briefest of visits, when he returns to the fields he knows, Alveric is much older, having been away much longer than he thought. When Lirazel goes back, she already bears on her face the scars of time which are unknown in Elfland.
When Orion stands on the border of Elfland, ‘He thought of his mother dwelling in lonely ease beyond the rage of Time, he thought of the glories of Elfland, dimly known by magical memories that he had from his mother. The little cries of the earthly evening behind him he heeded no more nor heard. And with all these little cries were lost to him also the ways and the needs of men, the things they plan, the things they toil for and hope for, and all the little things their patience achieves.’
Imagining a place beyond the reach of time, Dunsany finds a way to write about the real world. What looks like an escape into Elfland is not really an escape at all. It is a continuation of Wordsworth’s train of thought in his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar…
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
The inhabitants of Dunsany’s Vale of Erl keep their backs to the east, where Elfland lies.
Rory and Bran is a very different kind of book, set in the fields and lanes of rural Ireland. Rory is the simple son of elderly parents who send him to market to sell some cows. The identity of Bran, who they send with him to look after him, is never revealed but can only be guessed at. Despite Bran’s best efforts, nearly everyone they meet takes advantage of Rory’s trusting nature. But the tinkers and tramps who begin by cheating him turn out to be his best friends. As well as helping Rory, they help to save the girl he is in love with, Oriana, from being sent to an asylum by Aunt Bridget, who wants to cheat her out of her inheritance.
The only fairies in Rory and Bran are the kind we mean when we say, as we might about Rory, that he is ‘away with the fairies’. But in this book, as much as in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, it is reality-as-illusion that interests Dunsany. It deserves to be much better known, not least for the last short chapter, in which one of Rory and Oriana’s children makes a speech in the Dail ‘without which the most national of Irish birds would be unprotected by Irish law.’ You need to read it to get the joke.
If, Dunsany’s most successful play in his lifetime but never performed now, is about a young man, John, who buys a magic crystal from a mysterious visitor, Ali.
‘He that taketh this crystal, so, in his hand, at night, and wishes, saying “At a certain hour let it be”; the hour comes and he will go back eight, ten, even twelve years if he will, into the past, and do a thing again, or act otherwise than he did. The day passes; the ten years are accomplished once again; he is here once more; but he is what he might have become had he done that one thing otherwise.’
If is a well-made play and well-made plays are not often produced now unless, like Journey’s End, they become topical again. Literary taste is often determined by factors which are superficial and ephemeral: language, style, perceptions of relevance. Literary reputations come and go. It is always worth looking back fifty or a hundred years to see what we might be missing. The first half of the twentieth century is full of neglected authors waiting to be re-discovered. My discoveries so far include Ronald Fraser, Louis Golding, Constance Holme, David Garnett, T.F.Powys, Frederic Prokosch, Maurice Maeterlinck and now Lord Dunsany. With very few if any of their books in print, second-hand bookshops are the only answer.