Tolkien Gestures: Book One: The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Right then, we’re off and reading.

As already mentioned, I was always torn about which book would start Tolkien Gestures as fantastical literature has been around for yoinks, and particularly in the early part of the century, a lot of the genre lines are pretty blurred. In the end i settled on Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, partly because i wanted to read some Dunsany anyway, and partly because it often crops up on lists of influences on other writers from contemporaries like Lovecraft and Howard to modern writers like Moorcock and Gaiman. It’s certainly an interesting read, and as a starter, one that lives up to many of both my hopes and fears for the whole year’s reading.

TKoED is in many ways more a fairy tale than a traditional “fantasy” novel, at least as I understand them. Sure, it has elves, and a quest, but theres none of the manichean “good vs evil” gubbins going on or any of that stuff. What we have instead is a tale of the Village of Erl, whose Men form a parliament to ask their King to make them ruled by a Magical Lord, rather than a mundane one, so the Kings sends Alveric, his son to go to Elfland and marry the Kings Daughter, so they can have a son who will be the Magical Lord they desire. Of course, in true Fairy Tale fashion, this is a story of being careful what you wish for, when all is said and done.

The first half of the book is by far the stronger. In it, Alveric travels to Elfland, runs off with Lirazel, the eponymous Daughter, and returns to Erl to set up home. Dunsany writes very poetical prose, which lilts along wonderfully, and treats the characters almost as archetypes simply acting, with little in the way of thought process or insight, which actually works really well. The first trip into Elfland, a reason-less land of contradiction, where things just are, is really enjoyable, and Lirazels instant love fits her Elfish nature. Alveric, well prepared to fight the Kings guards, flashes his sword about, and they make their escape, at least in part because, well, that’s the nature of the place.

The second half – the bolder half, in many ways, the half which is about “what happened next”, is let down chiefly as many of these strengths turn against the narrative. See, the thing is, that Lirazel, Alveric and later their son, Orion, should be good, interesting characters, all torn between different worlds and desires. They need to be fully realised, not archetypes. Alveric and Lirazel love each other, but in the end it’s not enough, as Lirazel’s Elfish nature, and Alveric’s human one, can’t be overcome, as their worlds are too different. Orion, later caught between the two, should be a more interesting character…but he just doesn’t have one. What makes the first half work, the distance from the characters, giving it a fairy tale air, works a lot less well in the second when you want to see these people as, well, people. (or not, in Lirazel’s case).

Lirazel becomes unhappy, because she’s an Elf in a human world and it’s all strange and will never make any sense to her, so her Father reaches out and calls her home. (Presumably) grief stricken, Alveric sets out to recover her, abandoning his son and kingship, and sets off with a company of the lonely and mad to get back into Elfland. Orion grows up to hunt things with dogpacks. And the story just sort of stagnates. And its a shame, because in theory its really interesting; if we seeing more into the hearts of the characters. Dunsany does occasionally chuck in the odd “and in his heart he felt…” but there’s little intimacy, and you lose any connection to them.

That’s not to say there isn’t some lovely writing; Dunsany’s lyrical style is very evocative, and even though I’m critical of the second half it has some lovely moments that flare out of the narrative, at the same time as it sort of bogs down. But at key points, that lack of….depth, i guess, means that the emotional depth of a story that is deceptively dark doesn’t quite come though. When Orion finally hears the Horns of Elfland, and the Fae side of him starts to awaken, it should be a bigger moment than it is – because its hard to connect to the character.

I think the problem is that the book is too long, for all that it’s actually really short.

So, a verdict? Well it was an interesting read. It’s certainly influential – for a start Neil Gaiman’s Stardust lifts a lot of the feel and prose style but adds Gaimans more humanist approach to character, for a much warmer book. Overall i think i enjoyed it; with a lot of the middle excised I’d probably have ended up wanting more, and it would have given the book a brevity that the shallow character exploration merits. But i can’t take away from Dunsany the style, the feel of it as a piece of prose, and that, if nothing else, was worth the time.

Next Time: Grinding of Fantasy Books Beneath my Sandled Feet, by Crom! I read a load of Robert E Howards’ Conan the Barbarian stories.

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: