The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

The King of Elfland's Daughter.jpgAm I still allowed to be a fantasy fan? I found this book senseless, unimaginative and so boring and poorly written that it felt painful to read.

This book seems to have gained legendary classic status because of comments from some of the genre elites including Tolkien, LeGuin and Lovecraft as well as, seemingly every other fantasy author in existence. I secretly believe that none of them actually read it, they just said it was great as part of a great hoax that all authors swear to participate in upon getting published — I’m pretty sure it’s in the contract you sign with your publisher.

I really wanted to like this book. I’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and I love the otherworldly feel of the magic and fey worlds that Susanna Clarke has built up. I was expecting more of that strangeness. Instead I got something bland and senseless.

First there is a group of men who say, “we want the prince to marry somebody magical because that sounds cool.” So he goes on a quest into the elf lands and comes back with the King of Elfland’s daughter. They get married, seemingly because she thinks it might be kind of fun since it’s rather boring being in elfland as all you ever do is sit on your father’s lap and sigh contentedly.

She has a son and there is a very brief hint that there might be a story when her husband won’t let her follow her fairy beliefs and she doesn’t understand what’s wrong with talking to the leaves but Dunsany is far to clever to actually tell a story so he quickly abandons that topic.

Then she decides to go back to elfland so the prince — who is now King — asks the local witch to raise his son for him because he’s suddenly obsessive to the point of completely abandoning his entire kingdom and following a madman on a quest for the next twenty years.

Never mind the fact that this witch has lived here the entire time and been doing magic — making the point of the original quest somewhat moot.

The boy grows up spends many long drawn out chapters hunting unicorns on the edge of elfland with portentous language to make it sound like finally, maybe, against all odds, there will be some consequences to somebody’s actions that might actually mean something interesting. But, we are saved once again by Dunsany’s inability to actually talk about anything beyond tritely repeated phrases. Nothing comes of it, we get a chapter inserted in the middle that tells us about the Pope and his unicorn horn (this chapter actually tells us that people want the story to have something that will make it sound like it is real history so here is a made up bit of history for those people), then the story returns to mindlessly wandering prose that seems to have gotten lost following the same madman as the absent hero.

It ends eventually after carrying on for far longer than any book this bad has a right to and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that it was finally over and I could go do something more pleasant like pluck out my beard of rub sand in my eyes.

There is a lot of high praise for this book and seems to be one of the seminal works of fantasy. However the prose is viciously repetitive — using the phrase ‘the fields we know’ (108 times in 240 pages according to Google) so often that it will forever be ingrained on my brain. The people do not talk or behave like real people and don’t seem to care much about anything until they are demanded to react in that Arthurian dramatic fashion that is completely insane. Alveric, the Prince, and Lirazel, the titular daughter, don’t really get along, don’t seem to care for each other at all — the text even says that they were troubled by each other’s presence and felt uncomfortable together — but when she decides to return to her father’s kingdom he abandons sanity and camps outside with a madman on a never-ending quest to find her.

This is not love. This is pure idiocy.

Author and reader of many books Jo Walton has said that Dunsany “isn’t at his best writing characters, which gets peculiar at novel length.” I would argue that he isn’t at his best at keeping focused on telling a story or on making sense, or on being interesting in any way.

I can’t say that I recommend this book even as an interesting piece of literature. It really holds no merit to me.


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