J.G. Keely's Reviews > The King of Elfland's Daughter

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
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's review
Jul 16, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: fantasy, novel, reviewed, uk-and-ireland, favorites
Read in July, 2009

In fantasy, I've seen magic used in many ways: as plot device, curio, religious allegory, and the personification of morals, but rarely do I find a book where magic is truly magical. Too often, it's a convenience, a cliche, but for Dunsany, magic is pervasive, mysterious, unknowable, and lovely. He captures a sense of the 'sublime': something so unbelievably beautiful that it becomes overwhelming, even frightening.

Dunsany wrote his stories with a handmade quill in a single draft. His language is a precise and delicate thing: a crystal skein from which he suspends his story. The descriptions are constantly turning and surprising, glinting with unexpected revelations, so that the whole of his world, from the most mundane to the fantastical teems with sorcerous possibility.

His magic does not delineate between the knowledge of farmers and that of wizards. Beneath the surface, it is known in varying ways to all, and each has the sense that at any unlooked-for moment, it might bubble up into their own lives, should they look too long at its mysteries. These things we cannot control and cannot understand might snatch us up in a wayward minute, and cast us adrift within a terrible beauty.

It is here we see the inspiration Lovecraft drew from Dunsany: the unfathomable world lurking just beneath our own, kept at bay only by intense mediocrity. For Lovecraft and Dunsany, it is the artist and musician who catch the true notes of the beyond and give mankind the gift of a more palatable version, like blue-eyed blues.

However, the danger of Dunsany's mysteries is not the deadliness of Lovecraft's, instead the great fear is that we should love something too much--that we should see something which from that moment, we can never shake free, but remain ever after haunted and seduced. Like Milton's Satan, the danger is not that evil should destroy us, but that we should come to understand its mind: to sympathize with a devil.

Dunsany's dances freely with heathenry--his magic is not Tolkien's Christian allegory, but mocks austerity and fears any death that would bring on the overwhelming awe of Heaven. There are some downright sacrilegious sentiments for those who fall in love with magic, gladly forsaking their humanity and their souls.

Yet magic is not opposed to religion, it is simply unconcerned with the small, somber moments of mankind. These are remote, incompatible worlds, not sides of a coin. The town priest says as much, warning the villagers that all things of Elfland are cursed in the eyes of God, they have never even had a possibility of salvation, for they were not made by God, and are unrelated to Him and his aims.

Yet religion is not the central theme here, nor does the book take it much more seriously than the galloping trolls. What is interesting because is how much it differs from most fantasy, where magic is the personification of one or another chivalric ideal, heathen ideals long since taken in by monotheism.

This isn't to say that the Dunsany doesn't in some ways praise chivalry. It is a Fairy Story, and though it gestures to some complexities of philosophy, its gender roles and class distinctions are often played straight. They are not harped on, but neither are they subverted.

There is also a ponderous quality to the language and actions which might make it difficult for some readers. This gentle lulling is central to the book's tone (and the magical themes in particular). The story is told neither from the perspective of mankind nor of Elfland, but some shifting point between.

This book is markedly different in its central concerns from either the Christian Epics that proceeded it or the Genre Fantasy that followed. The conflict between madness and tradition appears also in Peake's Titus books, the shifting pale is reminiscent of 'The Mists of Avalon', and the suffusing mist of magic across the world can be seen in 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell', but other than Lovecraft few have picked up the thread of this intricately cracking brocade.

This book is otherworldly, existential, and thoughtful without a hint of pretension. It is whimsical and beautiful without being either condescending or a farce. More than this it brings a strange, new world to your door, a world that bears a grand, forgotten question. It recalls a remote place in childhood, before we had decided whether sanity or madness was likely to bear us finer fruits.

I begin to wonder if I chose wrongly.

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message 1: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Thanks for another scintillating review, Keely. I've heard so many good things about Dunsany but I don't know where to start. Would you recommend starting with this book?

J.G. Keely Well, this is the only full-length novel of his that I've read, so I can't really compare, but I liked it a lot.

Traveller If it's the style you love, you might then enjoy Jack Vance's Dying Earth.Tales of the Dying Earth

He's not quite as lyrical and poetic as Dunsany, (who can ever parallel Dunsany in sheer 'floweriness'?) but his prose has a similar glamor, and.. well, I need to actually read more of Vance myself. I'm told his Lyonesse series is actually better, but the Dying Earth style immediately reminded a bit of Dunsany.

(I've read some Dunsany short stories and they're equally lyrical.)

..and now of course if you ever get to read Vance, you're going to say he's a hack like all the rest... :( Anyway, you never know. Just thought I'd mention it. There's always the library. :P

J.G. Keely Thank you for the suggestion, I've actually got 'Dying Earth' on my to-read list due to the wide-reaching influence in fantasy. I hope I won't find that he's a 'hack'. Do people say that?

message 5: by Rob (new) - added it

Rob Vance is a remarkable prose stylist, but some find that style off-putting; very dry, arch, cool - a peculiar blend of archaic diction and sardonic dialog.

But I don't think I've ever seem him refered to as a hack. He was very prolific, but that's quite common in writers who got their start in the pulps.

Traveller Nah, I was being a bit facetious there. I'm almost afraid to recommend anything to Keely, lest he tear it down into sad, shredded pieces.

I've started pre-empting that keely will try and fit any fantasy he reads into some already familiar track, identify tropes, and damn the work into the the pile of 'been-there-already-so-this-isn't-original-enough'. Well Vance is fairly original, I think, so if anything, people have for the most part been copying HIM and not the other way around.

J.G. Keely Well, 'remarkable prose stylist' does sound appealing, especially for a pulp author. I do have a soft spot for the pulps, since they often wrote with such unbridled fervor. It's nice to see someone who exercises their imagination fully, and without pretension.

"I've started pre-empting that keely will try and fit any fantasy he reads into some already familiar track . . ."

Heh, I suppose my main method of understanding literature is connecting influences and movements through time. But originality of vision tends to be so central to any really good book, even ones that are otherwise just straightforward and fun. Not that I think it's bad for authors to take inspiration where they can; after all, every idea has its source.

I haven't found it to be a problem to recognize the difference between innovative authors from those who copy them, because the insight that makes an author original tends to put such a stamp on every aspect of their work, and almost none of the people who follow in their footsteps will be able to recreate the holistic vivacity of the original. The type of personality that develops a unique idea is just so drastically different from the type who follows along with the crowd, and that tends to come out pretty clearly in the written voice.

I'm definitely starting to see Vance on my horizon, and looking forward to reading him. Hopefully he won't disappoint. I really don't like to write negative reviews, but it's just so frustrating to read a disappointing book, and some part of me is determined to figure out what makes it disappointing so I can avoid the same thing in the future.

Traveller I haven't had time to go through all your shelves yet, Keely, to see if you have, but have you read anything by Tad Williams yet? He comes highly recommended by my fantasy loving friends, but I haven't had a chance to read him yet, and was wondering what more, er, discerning people might think of his work.

J.G. Keely I have not, nor can I recall anyone suggesting him to me.

Looking through the reviews of my friends here on GR, the consensus seems to be that he's a pretty average genre writer whose books are painfully long. Unfortunately, no really in-depth reviews, but I get the impression that might be because there isn't a lot of depth to plumb.

Traveller Thanks for the input. Just too much to read out there...

message 11: by Alan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Phelps What you had to say about the clinging to "mediocrity and habit" to keep the "terrible beauty" of magic at bay reminds me a lot of Schopenhauer's argument as recounted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, or just of Nietzsche's take on the Apolline versus the Dionysian in general. I guess Lovecraft certainly has elements of this in his work, and it's also clearly seen in The King of Elfland's Daughter.

J.G. Keely Oh, definitely. If you take the source of Apolline piety to be Virgil's Aeneas, and Dionysian self-actualization to be Homer's Odysseus and Achilles, it's not difficult to draw philosophical comparisons right on down through the epic tradition--meeting head on in Milton and then filtering out in different visions in Byron, Dunsany, Eddison, and Tolkien (though he doesn't really seem to 'get' the Dionysian identity). Eddison, in particular, shows a series of recklessly Dionysian heroes and villains for whom personal struggle is life and peace, death.

Dunsany's portrayal is more balanced, though I find it fascinating that he depicts the Slave Morality and the Master Morality as inhabiting mutually inconsistent realities. But then, magic is a symbolic externalization of human idea, so we can see in the physical layout of his world a depiction of philosophies so incompatible that they cannot clash, because they can never occupy the same mental space--their very foundations and origins are antithetical.

I find it endlessly interesting to see how existential skepticism plays out in depictions of the fantastical, from Milton's Satan onward. I admit it was a bit of a shock after reading the good vs. evil moral fantasies of Tolkien and his ken, to go back and see in what subtle, vivacious, cynical ways existentialism plays out in many earlier examples of the fantasy genre. It made me feel that Tolkien's conservative sensibilities really hindered him in his attempt to create a magical, epic world with stakes worth fighting for.

message 13: by Alan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Phelps Interesting. I've never thought to look at fantasy in the light of an Apolline/Dionysian hero before. It does make sense though. How do you feel Gormenghast falls into such a perspective?

J.G. Keely I thought you'd never ask. Actually, I thought no one would ever ask. It's actually a notion central to what I hope will someday become my Phd. thesis.

Gormenghast is definitely a continuation of the expansion on the philosophical role of the epic hero, and I think it is a very interesting expansion on the idea, especially since Peake's own writing philosophy tends to be more Ovid than Virgil: a restless and unpredictable pursuit of worthwhile struggle.

The theme of tradition vs. the individual is the central philosophical conflict in the series, and the defining struggle of Titus' own mind, which comes to its ultimate conclusion in Titus Alone, I quote from my review:

"Peake continues a thread of literary exploration which draws through the great epics, from Homer to Virgil, Tasso, Ariosto, and Milton, to Byron, to Eliot. Like these great works, Peake explores the role and nature of the hero, of his connection to tradition, and of the purpose chosen for him.

Originally, the hero was governed by his own mind, as in Odysseus, a mind devious beyond measure, it proved. Then Virgil created a hero of Piety, and of submission. His hero grasped hold of tradition, trusting in it to lead him. This was a message to the populace: trust in our ways, our traditions, and our Emperor to provide all that you need. While this message is useful to an empire, it can be rather destructive to the individual, asking that he give up himself to the greater good.

Milton eventually continues this tradition, except he promotes subservience to Church instead of Empire (though there was little difference at the time). However, Milton included the old, violent, self-serving hero as a cautionary tale. Humility and piety are Adam's strengths, while Satan has the 'false' strengths of warlike might and Odyssean skepticism.

Many later writers, including Byron, found that the Satanic mode of heroism was more appealing to the individual, especially the iconoclast and artist who was tired of being told to 'pipe down' and 'follow orders'. Nietzsche would carry this sense of heroic individualism to the cusp, when he stated that mankind would have to demolish all tradition and each individual would have to create a whole philosophy of meaning for himself, a philosopher of the future known famously as the Ubermensch.

Of course, there is a point when we all must question the whole of tradition, and just as we did when we first learned the art of speech, test what happens when we respond to all questions and demands with a resounding 'no!' These later rebellions, these existential crises can happen at any time, whenever we are trying to find a place for ourselves. . . the climax in Titus Alone is only a dress rehearsal for the true climax, which comes only at the very end, and which remains unsure until then, as pivotal and sudden as the twelfth book of the Aeneid.

This resolution is the culmination of Titus' childhood, of all his former conflicts, of his life and purpose and individuality. It is the thematic culmination of the bildungsroman. It is the philosophical conclusion of Peake's exploration of the role of the hero, the self, and of tradition. It is also the fulfillment of his vision, his unyielding artistic drive. It is the final offering to the reader, his companion and rival on this journey.

. . . many readers became comfortable with [Peake's] rebellion, his iconoclasm. They sympathized with his rejection of tradition, and then happily accepted that rebellion as their new tradition. Like Aeneas, they left crumbling Troy, trusting in their patron deity to carry them through. However, Peake was not content to simply add a new wing to his masterwork. He showed his authorial humility and his commitment to art by razing his own cathedral simply because it was more interesting than leaving it up.

I love how this Dionysian drive spurs on both Peake and his protagonist, and how Peake's own need to tear down, reject, and subvert makes Titus' ultimate choice a mystery up until the moment of revelation.

I really think it is my own Dionysian sympathy which allowed me to appreciate Titus Alone, which so many readers reject, because Peake is somehow able to thoroughly halt his own literary impetus and stretch out to reveal a completely unexpected conceptual space. It's easy to imagine how, without this iconoclasm, Titus Alone could have been just a familiar extension instead of a vehement counterpoint, and I think most readers would have preferred that.

What about you? What are your thoughts on the subject?

Traveller Keely wrote: "I thought you'd never ask. Actually, I thought no one would ever ask. It's actually a notion central to what I hope will someday become my Phd. thesis.

Gormenghast is definitely a continuation of ..."

Wow. Apologies for the interjection, but that is one of the best posts here on Goodreads that I have ever read.
*Traveller looks at Gormenghast with new eyes and scurries off to go and read Nietzsche.*

I hope you get to write that thesis. I even see echoes in your post of the discussion we had regarding the God Delusion, and some of my own thoughts about the shackles of tradition, and the need to rebel against it.

J.G. Keely Oh, I hope I get to write it, too. And yes, the stuff from the God Delusion does tie in, doesn't it? That's the great thing about learning: you gain the ability to synthesize disparate ideas into something larger, and even to develop a holistic life philosophy which takes into account all that you do.

And that all comes back to compartmentalization: whether or not a person is more likely to separate different parts of their lives, or to integrate them. Glad you liked the post, even if it was mostly just me quoting one of my reviews (kind of feels like cheating, but I just would have ended up typing the same argument again, anyways).

message 17: by Alan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Phelps I think that your future thesis will be a joy to read. Titus Alone is certainly an underrated work, and like you I enjoyed it for its deviation from the earlier entries to the saga.

I'm curious as to your take on Steerpike, him being to my mind a Dionysian figure in the guise of the Apolline (interesting note: the temple at Delphi served Apollo only two-thirds of the year. The remainder was devoted to Dionysus), perhaps in the same vein as Milton's Satan (seemingly serving others while truly serving himself only; but that in itself can be argued against), but less subtly so. What are your thoughts on this?

J.G. Keely Mmm, interesting, I hadn't thought as much about how it applies to Steerpike, since I developed the idea more while reading Titus Alone. It does seem profitable to think of how Steerpike approaches tradition, as opposed to how Titus does.

Nietzsche talked about the tragedy being fundamentally a conflict between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, that the protagonist is trying to make structure out of a life which is fundamentally chaotic. With Steerpike, we see an almost opposite pattern, where he approaches an Apollonian structure and tries to control it with Dionysian selfishness.

But then, the tradition of Gormenghast is not actually that well structured. It represents a sort of Apollonian endpoint, where the purpose has been lost and only the trappings of structure remain, which means that, as long as you follow the outward patterns, you are free to be as chaotic and self-obsessed as you like, which most of the characters are. In that sense, 'structure' only means an arbitrary set of rules by which the game of conflict can be played.

What's interesting about Satan is that he is so fundamentally structured. It has been noted before that, just because his rhetoric happened to prove untrue did not mean that it was not solidly constructed, and it is certainly persuasive. In that sense, he is almost Dionysian by default, since, in Milton's universe, nothing can be traditional or structured unless it is a part of god. In the same way that Satan is only weak in comparison to god, he is only chaotic in comparison to the pure unity of god.

Steerpike's motivations tend to be much less grand than Satan's, because Satan's are framed in terms of an unjust tyranny, while Steerpike's are unabashedly selfish. Certainly, Satan is Dionysian because he chooses to reject the great authority, but what is interesting is that he does not reject the notion of authority, or of the importance of structure and reason. Satan seemed willing to become the authority, had he won out, and it seems doubtless that this supplanting of authority was also his ultimate goal.

So which is the ultimate Dionysian act: to reject all authority and despise the notion of becoming one yourself, or to become the authority so that you can truly reach the Dionysian goal of being entirely unanswerable to the world?

message 19: by Alan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Phelps Given the figure of Dionysus as portrayed in myth, I'd say the latter.

message 20: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday wonderful review Keely. love that 2nd line in your 2nd paragraph.

message 21: by Scribble (last edited Jul 21, 2012 12:56AM) (new) - added it

Scribble Orca As ever, thoughtful, analytical, with much material to consider.

Vance is all that has been mentioned and also has an eye on the punters....there's no shortage of what would now be considered, for example, anti feminist. But that aside, he has some stunningly original ideas.

I hope you post your PhD thesis here on a chapter by chapter basis. Best of luck with it, Keely.

J.G. Keely Haha, that would be one way to do it. I'm sure that's still years off, anyways. I'll probably finish my novel before then, though, so I'll be posting something up.

But yeah, Vance seems interesting, though I've only read one of his books. Reminds me of the early pulp authors who were always flush with odd ideas, but rarely had a very sophisticated writing style.

message 23: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday you don't think Vance has a sophisticated writing style?

Traveller I must agree that that comment made me wonder as well.

J.G. Keely I didn't think his various ideas, modes, and tones coalesced very well, no. There was a lot there, but I did not come away feeling it was well-unified. I was also left unsure whether the goofy, ironic tone had any worthy insight beyond its own self-awareness.

Cecily The handmade quill you mention seems gloriously apt. Dunsay evidently valued quill and ink; one of my favourite quotes was this:

"Little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills."

I also like your analysis of the religious angle: I had noticed it, but not really thought it through as you have.

J.G. Keely Mmm, good quote, thanks for sharing it.

But yeah, the way Dunsany deals with spirituality in this book was very interesting to me--which is what spurred me on to try to work out what he was doing with it.

message 28: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald Dunsany is such a stylish master of prose.

J.G. Keely Yeah, as Ursula LeGuin points out in her essay 'From Poughkeepsie to Elfland', it seems almost every young fantasy writer goes through a phase where they're trying to approximate Dunsany--but he's really impossible to imitate.

message 30: by Adam (new)

Adam Gottbetter A good example of modern fantasy. - Adam Gottbetter

Colton King What do you mean by the "small, somber moments of mankind"?

Mandy Benanav This is a wonderful, thoughtful analysis. I haven't read this book in years but I'm thinking of re-reading it, and this may have pushed me over the edge.

Incidentally, if you like Dunsany's take on magic here you may also really enjoy Lud-in-the-Mist. It has that same quality of magic feeling truly magical instead of being straight-up Christian allegory. It's one of my favorite pre-Tolkein fantasies (along with Dunsany's work)!

J.G. Keely Mandy said: "you may also really enjoy Lud-in-the-Mist"

Yeah, I've heard good things about that one--thanks for the suggestion. Hope the reread goes well.

message 34: by Mary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mary Catelli On the epic issue: A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis goes into detail on the history of epic and would be rather relevant to anyone interested in the issues mentioned above.

Also, yes, Lud-in-the-Mist is one someone who likes this might like.

The Brain in the Jar I'm reading it - near the end, in fact. Prose-wise, it's hands down one of the best I ever read.

What I'm lacking though, is the point. What's the main theme that drives this? The purpose of telling the story? A story is a series of events which have meaning. Now, it's possible Dunsanny had the aim of telling a simply story. It works well enough like this, but I feel like there's more that I'm missing.

message 36: by Mary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mary Catelli yeah, Dunsany is weak on story. One reason why I like The Charwoman's Shadow better is that the story is stronger.

And a lot of people think his short stories are better.

J.G. Keely The Brain in the Jar said: " What's the main theme that drives this?"

I would say the central theme is one of personal growth and change, of this figure who has left his serene little corner of the world and encountered something larger than he could have imagined, something strange and vast, and the rest of the tale is him trying to come to terms with that, trying to live his life now that his perspective has been irreversibly changed. He wanders, he searches, he hunts, and yet never quite discovers the 'one answer' that will let him rest peacefully.

Like all artists (and madmen), he is compelled, he cannot return to the simple life he knew before, nor can he quite move on to 'the other side'--his eldritch knowledge makes such simple answers impossible to accept. He knows the world is much larger than that. And so he keeps moving, in the knowledge that the journey is much more important than the destination, that man is small and the world is great--and yet, his acceptance of this isn't a defeat, it doesn't lessen him.

This is perhaps the strongest parallel I see between this story and Gormenghast, that both the main characters are obsessed with searching things out on their own terms, and unwilling to accept the old traditions thrust upon them.

Colton King Keely, what relevance do you think the story of Alveric's son (I forget his name ) has to these themes, if any?

J.G. Keely Colton said: "Keely, what relevance do you think the story of Alveric's son (I forget his name ) has to these themes, if any?"

Off the top of my head, and so many years after reading it, I don't have a specific answer for you--interesting question, though.

Colton King Same here, although I don't think I had too much more to say directly after reading it either.

The Brain in the Jar I wish I read your comment earlier. I'm close to finishing this book and now it seems like I missed a gigantic chunk of it.

But yes, in retrospect I can see this theme creeping up again and again.

Alveric's son is trying to find wonder in our world, unlike Alveric. Alveric is out searching for greater things. Orion's story is about how the outside world will penetrate our little bubble. Unicorns come to his village and he can't ignore them. Even if he wanted to settle down, the outside world would show him its size.

J.G. Keely The Brain in the Jar said: "in retrospect I can see this theme creeping up again and again."

Yeah, and it parallels the theme of different, conflicting worlds overlapping in these characters lives: the alien, artistic elfland; the traditional, isolated world of the church; the 'normal' world of the average man, trapped between the influences of the others.

In that sense, we can look at the individual characters struggling to exist between these extremes as a commentary on real life, where there are many overlapping realities, different social classes, identities, beliefs, and backgrounds that we all have to navigate while living our lives. The fact that Alveric spends much of his life searching for an impossible place reflects the life of the artist, who has a vision of reality he spends his life trying to achieve, but may never get there.

Then there is his wife's attempt to live in his world, but she ultimately just doesn't fit in, and doesn't feel satisfied with that life. It's something people often do in relationships: trying to live life through someone else's expectations and assumptions, and eventually discovering that we cannot go on lying to ourselves this way, that we have to be true to our own sense of what is 'real'.

The Brain in the Jar Lirazel and Freer are just as conflicted as Alveric, though. Lirazel can't live in Elfland alone. Although she doesn't fit in the Fields We Know, after some time in it she's not satisfied in Elfland.

What about Freer? For all his cursing of magic, he uses it too. Isn't it a sign that the supposed lord of tradition isn't that traditional?

J.G. Keely "Although she doesn't fit in the Fields We Know, after some time in it she's not satisfied in Elfland."

Yeah, she's definitely another example of someone trapped between realities and unable to find a place that fits her.

"What about Freer? For all his cursing of magic, he uses it too. Isn't it a sign that the supposed lord of tradition isn't that traditional?"

Well, we have to remember that magic is traditional, that even the farmers in the fields sometimes take it for granted, and treat it as just another part of life. Magic used to be more prevalent, but has receded, just as Christianity is a relative newcomer to the scene. So, in being traditional, and reaching to the past, it makes a certain sense for a character like Freer to think of magic.

Think of the way that even into modern times, after centuries of Christianity, days and months are still named in reverence to pagan gods, because that's just how it's always been. I think of the use of magic by otherwise normal folks to be that sort of holdover from an ancient tradition--indeed, within the past few hundred years, ethnographers have still been able to find rural people who practice old, pagan rituals, and who pass on stories about fairies to their children, as old people would have done in the lands Dunsany himself grew up in.

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