Lord Dunsany, known to his friends as Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), is often mentioned as one of the pioneers of modern fantasy literature, and influential to Tolkien and others. Naturally I've been curious to read something of his for a while, and this summer I got hold of and read The King of Elfland's Daughter. The King of Elfland's Daughter, published in 1924, is a short novel that's almost more of a prose poem. The plot seems far less important than the atmosphere. The language is self-consciously poetical and even Ye Olde, but -- and this is really saying something -- Dunsany actually manages to pull it off without slipping into ridiculousness. I think he succeeds because his language is so very exuberant that you can feel the honest joy he had in it. Instead of coming across as manipulative and fake, his over-the-top prose feels Shakespearean - by which I mean that he, like Shakespeare, was so madly in love with language that he wasn't afraid to revel in it like Scrooge McDuck in a pile of gold coins. (I'm deeply familiar with that feeling myself, so I have a definite sympathy with all my fellow sufferers. You might be interested in my earlier post In Defense of Purple Prose. On the other hand, you might also want to check out the winners of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for prose that doesn't merely slip into ridiculousness - it leaps in with both feet forward!)
But back to Dunsany, here's a sample passage: And 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 of 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.
(That one struck me particularly because I wrote a passage on the same theme in Vision Revealed, where the bard Svarnil learns to read and write.)
Dunsany refers to the normal human world as "the fields we know," and there are sections of the book in which every paragraph ends with the phrase, like the refrain of a poem. (I can't offer a sample because I had to return the book to the library already. Sorry!) The descriptions are long, the characterizations short, the plot simple, though evocative. This is not a book for everyone. It certainly isn't an action adventure, and it certainly isn't a story in which you come to feel true affection for the characters. (My favorite character was the troll named Lurulu, who is rather charming, but not exactly someone I cared deeply about.) What this book does have is a wonderful vision of the magic and atmosphere of Fairyland. I love the thought of the realms of magic lying next to those "fields we know" across a border that ordinary mortals refuse to see, but which foxes and unicorns can slip through at dusk, as through a wavering curtain of pure, cerulean light. I love the idea of that border receding like a tide, leaving the land bare behind it...
(Regarding the unicorns, one thing I could not stomach was the glorification of the hunting of unicorns. But of course Lord Dunsany, though he might have had a reputation for eccentricity, was not so crazy a member of the aristocracy as to consider The Hunt anything but magnificent!)
All in all, I definitely enjoyed the book, though I was not so smitten with it that I rushed out to procure everything else from Lord Dunsany's pen (which was allegedly a quill pen, by the way.) It was beautiful and evocative. It was also instructive, in showing how the stage got set for so many other later writers (for good and ill!) Dunsany's work was an influence on writers as diverse as W.B. Yeats, Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Tolkien. For anyone with an interest in the genre of fantasy I highly recommend seeing for yourself what the fuss was all about.
[Picture: Fox, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls;
Unicorn, wood block print with multiple blocks by Falls, both from ABC Book, 1923.]