Part of my Masters thesis is on the evolution of the fantasy novel. This means I had to delve into the pre-Tolkien works, which while important to the evolution of the fantasy process, is a scary place to go and, frankly they’re downright boring.
I DNFed The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris at about the 20% mark since I could barely understand the sentence structure, never mind the plot, and slogged through The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany instead since it had far less thees and thous than Morris. Both Tolkien and Gaiman reference Dunsany’s work as an inspiration for their own fantasies, so I thought it would hold more promise. Nope. Boring, boring, boring.
Now, I know there are those out there who read Tolkien and think the same thing, but seriously….Dunsany spends a full chapter devoted to a troll ‘thinking’.
And the plot? What plot? The plot literally ends in the first five chapters, and then the rest of the book is just words. And as I complained about in my review of the Perilous Gard, aside from Lurulu the troll, none of the fantastical creatures do much of anything more than sit around. But I digress; let’s break it down:
We start out in a place that’s probably England, but we’re not sure….Dunsany just refers to the setting as ‘the fields we know’ for human places, and ‘the fields we don’t know’ for the magic places; which seemed like a bit of a ridiculous craft choice when he takes the trouble to name the town Erl in the first few pages. Why couldn’t we just refer to it as Erl, or England, and then the magic as Elfland? But no, every time we talk about setting it’s ‘the fields we know/don’t know.’ Every time.
Then there’s King Alveric and his quest to wed the daughter of the Elfin King who lives, you guessed it, in ‘the fields we don’t know.’ But first he has to stop at a witch’s house, conveniently located near his castle to pick up a magic sword made of thunder. This is not explained; he just knocks on her door, and she makes him a sword that’s exactly what he’ll need to get through the magical barriers of Elfland.
Skip five chapters of Alveric wandering in search of ‘the fields we don’t know’ and he breaks through the Elf border and low and behold, there’s Lirazel, the elf princess, just hanging out on the lawn. No cute-meet, no ‘hey, I’d like to wed you and bring magic to my lands.’ She just is like ‘oh a human; they’re interesting,’ and goes with him back to earth.
The only positive thing I can say about this reading experience was that I was pleased that Dunsany has Alveric and Lirazel arguing for most of their marriage because she refuses to understand anything about humanity, and he refuses to accept that she’s an immortal elf with no concept of human things. It actually felt real. The unhappy marriage ends after Lirazel’s son is about 3 years old and her father calls her back to Elfland.
Alveric gets pissed because how could his wife who he didn’t understand and argued with every day leave him and go back to her father? So he goes on a lifelong quest to find Elfland again and get her back. This fails since Daddy Elf keeps moving the Elfish border every time Alveric gets near it.
The rest of the story chronicles their son, Orion’s life as he becomes a great hunter and goes on to employ a bunch of Elfland trolls to be his dog-sitters, and they all go on hunting sprees to kill unicorns. Like for literal months, he just leaves his castle and hunts unicorns with a bunch of trolls. Who the heck’s running your kingdom? Dunsany never talks about advisers or second in commands. The castle’s apparently just empty while Orion chases giant white unicorns around.
I skimmed the last 20% of the book waiting for something to happen; for Alveric to find Elfland, for Orion to realize killing unicorns doesn’t get the taxes collected, for Lirazel to go back to earth. Nothing. Happens. Everyone stays where they are, no one seems to learn anything, and the peasants of Erl just keep going on about their business.
I realize this book is a product of its time. I also realize that it sold massive amounts of copies in the 20s and 30s and was one of the most popular fantasy books until Tolkien came along. I see it’s merit, and I see where it’s been riffed, hacked, and borrowed from on every page. It’s important to the history of the fantasy novel; it’s important to literature in general, and for that it gets to retain a star. But I hated reading it, and I’m glad it’s over.