the fields we know

la belle dame sans merciThey had wished for magic, and now it had come.”

You cannot read fantasy fiction for very long without running into the name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany.  Lord Dunsany was a prolific author of novels, stories, poems, and plays.   He wrote fantastical stories (his relatives considered him a bit odd) that sold very well and many famous genre authors (Lovecraft, Moorcock, Gaiman, LeGuin) cite him as  influence and inspiration.   He is in fact credited with inventing many of the standard fantasy tropes we know and love (magical kingdoms, enchanted swords, etc.)  Sadly, although his work commonly appears on lists of the best fantasy fiction ever, it can be surprisingly difficult to find.  He wrote mostly in the early 20th century and mostly in an antique style of writing that people find inaccessible today.  And although his works are intensely visual very few of them have ever been adapted into more visual media.

Lord Dunsany’s most famous work and possibly his best is The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Set in Erl, the land of Man, which borders on Elfland, the realm of all magic, it tells the story of men who wish to bring magic into the world in hopes that it will profit them.  I have wanted to read this book for a very long time and finally found a copy on Amazon.

In some respects the book is kind of slow.  It’s not a long book and not much happens.  If the reader looks for dashing and derring do and triumphal conflict with dark forces, they should probably look elsewhere.   The magic in this story rests more in the telling than in what is told.

Erl is a small out of the way place, somewhere in England, somewhere in the past.   It has a competent and benevolent lord who is so accommodating that when a parliament of twelve men of Erl come to him and say they want to be ruled by a magic lord, he sends his only son and heir off to wed the King of Elfland’s daughter.    The son, Alveric, has a local witch make him a magical sword and off he goes.  Lirazel, the beautiful daughter of the King of Elfland, is enchanted to meet a Man for the first time in her life and she gladly steals away with him back to world of  Men.  They are wed, with some misgivings, by the local clergy in Erl, and eventually have a son together, who they name Orion.

When Orion is still very young, his mother, who pines for her old home and her father, has a minor argument with Alveric and speaks a rune that immediately transports her back to Elfland.   Once she is home, her father withdraws the border of Elfland so that Alveric cannot find her.   Alveric sets off to search for her, leaving Orion in the care of his nurse, the same witch who made Alveric’s enchanted sword.   Twelve years pass and Orion has grown into an avid and accomplished hunter,  so accomplished that he hunts unicorns along the border of Elfland.

Orion’s dalliance with things magical eventually causes an influx of magical beings into Erl.   As trolls and will o’ the wisps cavort in the town, the men of Erl come to regret their longing for magic and take refuge with the priest, who curses all magical beings.  Alveric, who has wandered fruitlessly for twelve years, returns home.   Lirazel, who misses her husband and son and yet loves her father, begs the King of Elfland to work some kind of magic that would bring Erl and Elfland closer together so that she can be in both worlds at once.  Eventually he does as she asks and speaks the most powerful rune available to him.  Like a wave rolling over the land, Elfland engulfs Erl and Lirazel and Alveric and Orion are reunited.   Presumably they live happily ever after.

I have noticed sometimes that with the very best fantasy books, the actual plot is really not all that important.  In fact, trying to tell the story often does it no justice.  The King of Elfland’s Daughter doesn’t have much of a plot.  Very little happens.  It is somewhat repetitive.  The characters are cardboard.  But yet it is truly magical in a way that most “sword and sorcery” stories can’t even approach.  The magic isn’t in the details of who is who and who goes where and who does what.  The magic is in the telling.   The magic is in how words can make immediate a world that is not real.   The magic is in how the storyteller uses the most mundane of words to breathe life into the fantastical.  Lovecraft did it.  Eddison did it.  Tolkien did it sometimes.  Dunsany does it.   This is the sort of book you put into the right peoples’ hands and say  “Read it.  It’s magic.”

The book reads as if it were meant to be spoken out loud, like a poem or a saga.  There are cadences to the prose; throughout the book the same phrases are repeated over and over within sentences, paragraphs, chapters, the book itself, until the repetition becomes like music.  Erl and Elfland are repeatedly contrasted, to neither’s detriment.  In Elfland, there is no time; nothing ages or dies.  The land lives in a perpetually beautiful twilight, full of colors and smells and sounds that are beyond description (there is an enchanting scene in the book where the King summons the first dawn that Elfland has ever seen to ease his daughter’s sickness for Erl).   Erl is the world of Men; it is victim to Time and all its ravages.  Yet its days and nights, its seasons, its passage of years, all the things missing from Elfland, are described lovingly.  Its beauties, spring flowers, stars (which do not shine in Elfland), hay during mowing season, children’s’ laughter, are all given the same attention to detail that  Elfland receives.  You can understand why Lirazel misses it and longs to return to it.   Creatures that move across the border come to share the traits of both worlds; dogs for instance recognize the touch of magic in the foxes that weave back and forth between worlds and the trolls that live in Elfland are fascinated by the haughty unicorns who cross into Erl to eat its grass.  The place where the borders touch is a place of mystery for both sides; in Erl, humans will not look east, into magic.   Throughout, the familiar is contrasted with the strange, but it goes both ways.  Erl is just as wonderful and fascinating to the folk of Elfland as Elfland is to the men of Erl.  In the end the desire of the Men of Erl for “something new” to put their little land on the map leads to the absorption of Erl into Elfland as the Princess brings her world with her when she comes to find her husband and son.  The coming of Elfland into the world of men is described like a wave rolling over the land, but it is not destructive.  Instead it is a thing of wonder, a “star like line of blended twilights of old lost Summer evenings sweeping over the fields.”  So magic comes to Erl and Erl itself becomes magic and passes out of all remembrance.

There is no evil in this book, no dragon to be vanquished, no Ring to destroy, no horror to confront and conquer.   There are only the differences between one place and another and the choices that men make.   And there is magic.

Welcome to Elfland.

“Aye”, she said.  “You desired magic.  Has it come to you yet?”

Score:  Meh.  Good meh though.

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~ by gun street girl on January 29, 2010.

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