The King of Elfland's Daughter is one of the most perfectly beautiful fantasy novels ever written. Yet, in the sea of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.R.R Martin clones it appears to be a forgotten relic. This is a shame - not only because of the sheer aesthetic delight of Lord Dunsany's writing - because many fantasy authors could learn from this novel, the value of subtlety and artful storytelling. In a sea of blatant plots and unmagical magic structures, Lord Dunsany's work is a wondrous and magical delight - worth being labelled a true classic of fantasy and literature.
The story begins as many do - with an act of legislative parliament.
"'What would you,' said the Lord.
'We would be ruled by a magic lord,' they said."
The reader is never made truly aware of why the parliament of Erl wishes to have a magic lord in command. There is the suggestion that this is desired simply so that humanity can possess something new, as all humanity is want to do. There is also the suggestion that this is Lord Dunsany's way of reflecting on how humanity will always want to enslave that which it cannot grasp easily, or understand. To possess a magic lord, in the world of Lord Dunsany's story, is to possess the wonders of life itself.
The plot then follows the Lord of Erl's son as he proceeds to enter Elfland, the world of Faery, and romance the King of Elfland's Daughter. The story becomes a symbolic struggle between two men fighting over the one beautiful women to a degree - the King and Alveric, the Lord's son. The daughter of the King of Elfland is therefore, within the rest of the narrative tragically divided between the mundane world of men and the magical, eternal and ethereal world of the Fae. This novel is, therefore, to a great extent, a tragic romance of epic proportions, situated around the concept of a world divided between the unknowable other and the mundane.
Lord Dunsany makes great reference to the world of Erl and humanity as "the fields we know." His story is fixated greatly around this concept, and beyond being merely a beautiful work of fairytale art, is a story of borders. It is a story about the borders, more than anything, between the spiritual and the normal, but it is also centred around the borders between that which the reader understands and that which is incomprehensible.
Beautiful, profound, eternally and sweetly blissful - this is the tone of Lord Dunsany's masterwork. A work equal to that of J.R.R Tolkien with his mythical history of elves, dwarves and men. It is a work also equal to Mervyn Peake with his gloomy, haunting and gothic castle of oddity. And it is a work that stands on its own at the same time. As Elfland is connected to Earth and yet separate, with this story being about the process of Earth connecting to elfenkind, so too is Lord Dunsany's novel connected to and outside of traditional fantasy. The King of Elfland's Daughter is essentially a novel with greatness and with a lovely wistfulness found in the finer touches of detail which mark all true creation. It may be a novel of trolls, elves and unicorns, but it is not the novel of trolls, elves and unicorns that you have read before.