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"And she bade him gather thunderbolts in her garden,
in the soft earth under her cabbages."


It seems to me that Lord Dunsany was at his best writing short fiction. His peculiar genius worked best with tight little fables like "How the Enemy Came to Thlunrana", and dazzling vehicles like "Idle Days on the Yann" where he really didn't have anything at all to say other than "See how lovely and strange it all is" (and it is -- oh, it is). He was a dealer in miniatures, like Borges.

The King of Elfland's Daughter is a novel, two hundred and forty pages in length, first published in 1924. The cover of my copy features a detail from La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John William Waterhouse, a sort of a Johnny-come-lately Pre-Raphaelite1. Art Nouveau would be more appropriate, I believe, but lately the ongoing avalanche of trashy "fantasy" novels has been sprouting cutesy fake Art Nouveau cover art. It's really just as well to steer clear of that stuff. On the other hand, there's a tedious "introduction" written by the popular commercial typist Neil Gaiman.

The plot isn't so complex: There is a small, obscure kingdom, with a parliament and a King. For the first time in five hundred years, the parliament speaks up: They like their King well enough, but they're weary of being so prosaic. They want a magical ruler: "They had all desired that the Vale of Erl should be known among men, as was, they felt, its desert." That's "desert" as in "what it deserved" ("just deserts" is the same usage). Dunsany's slightly archaic English is fun, and sometimes keeps the reader on his toes: Later, he speaks of a prognosticator's cloak as being "due to the future", meaning "required by".

The King calls in his eldest son and charges the young man with travelling to Elfland, "beyond the fields we know", and marrying the eponymous King of Elfland's eponymous daughter, Lirazel. The young prince, Alveric, does as his father asks, but before leaving he obtains a magical sword from a local witch.

Alveric travels through a border of twilight into Elfland. The prime contractor for Elfland was clearly Maxfield Parrish:

"...the very air there glows with so deep a lucency... we have hints of it here; the deep blue of the night in Summer just as the gloaming has gone, the pale blue of Venus flooding the evening with light, the deeps of lakes in the twilight, all these are hints of that color."

Alveric meets elvish knights, but with his enchanted sword confounds them. He clobbers the local thugs, he makes off with the willing Lirazel.

They return to the Vale of Erl to wed, and are blessed with issue in the form of a son, Orion. Soon enough, the novelty wears off for Lirazel and she returns home. Alveric pursues her, but the King of Elfland senses his sword and draws back the borders of Elfland.

For years, Alveric wanders in the company of two insane retainers, trying to find Elfland. Elfland always scampers off whenever he draws near. This takes up much of the book. The scene shifts to Elfland and to the Vale of Erl; trolls and their hounds make mischief across the border, and the novelty wears off for the people of Erl, too. Meanwhile, Lirazel remembers Alveric and Erl and her son, and yearns for them.

Ultimately, the King of Elfland extends a pseudopod of Elfland and annexes the Vale of Erl. Alveric, Lirazel, and Orion are reunited, and everybody lives happily ever after.

The King of Elfland's Daughter is a collection of wonderful incidents. The first chapter would be an unbeatable short story all by itself. The problem is that it doesn't function so well as a novel. Each episode leads to the next and there are no digressions or irrelevancies, but somehow it doesn't ever build up the compelling narrative momentum you really need if you want to tell a story for two hundred and forty pages. Dunsany wrote endlessly varied trays of savory and strange hors d'oeuvres, not well-planned banquets. Is that so wrong? Eat up! It's tasty.




1 You've seen that misty painting of The Lady of Shallot drifting around in a swamp? It was sort of in vogue a few years ago, in certain circles. Well, that's Waterhouse.

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