Saturday, January 16, 2010

You've GOT to Read This IV: The King of Elfland's Daughter

Dunsany, Lord. The King of Elfland's Daugher. Del Rey. 1999 (The book was originally published in 1924.)

How lucky I am to have chosen this as my second read for my TBR Challenge. If I'd chosen another one that was as difficult to get through as that first one was, I might have had to re-think my whole list. But -- ahhhhh! -- that didn't happen. Instead of yawning, I'm writing my first "You've GOT to Read This" post of 2010.

Some of you may know this much about me: give me a book that presents me with a young man on a quest to Elfland to meet and marry the King's daughter (who is, of course, beautiful) and who stops by a witch's house to receive a sword made of lightning bolts and runes to aid him on his quest, and well, I'll be in so deep, I'll almost forget to come up for air. Oh, and don't forget the poetic prose doing what poetic prose always does: defying my bold claims that "I'm not real big on poetry." Some of you may remember my gushing over The Faerie Queene, Book One, which just completely proved what a liar I am about poetry. However, it also proved that quests and witches and Elflands spin magical webs around me that perhaps just help me forget how much I struggled through poems that made no sense to me in high school and college (many of which break my heart today, now that I've had a little more life experience).

Anyway, I am not a big fan of superlatives when it comes to talking about books (sort of the same way I'm "not real big on poetry"). I'm always afraid I'm going to announce, "That was the funniest book I've ever read," and some extremely literal person is going to be standing beside me saying, "Oh, come on. Have you never read _____?" You fill in the blank. Whatever it is, I will immediately think, "Uh-oh, he's right. ______ was funnier," and then I'll have to add all kinds of tiresome qualifications. Or else, I'll be thinking, "Well, no, I haven't read ______. Could it possibly be funnier? Does she know something I don't know?" sometimes setting myself up for a huge disappointment (or worse yet, wondering if there is something wrong with me) if I decide to read _______ and don't even crack a smile while doing so.

But my wariness of superlatives be damned: this -- ohhhh, this book that had me sighing from its very outset -- is the most beautiful book I've ever read. No tiresome qualifications. It just is. Disagree with me, please. If you can suggest something more beautiful, I want to read it.

Here we have great beauty. I've already told you about the quest and the witch and the magic sword. What else do we have? Why, unicorns, of course. And trolls. We have imagination and wisdom and thought-provoking passages all stirred together to create one of those masterpieces I like to call "perfection disguised as a book" (and did so when emailing the friend who recommended it to me).

It's funny. There were shades of Hope Mirrlees in this one (as there is with all good fantasy, I suppose, because good fantasy taps into the universal) when Dunsany wrestled with the whole issue of real v. magic, or rational v. irrational, or head v. heart, or whatever you want to call it. Passages such as this one seem to point to the futility of separating the rational from the romantic, despite the fact it's in our nature to do so, because we end up with ignorance:

Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till Earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. (p. 7)

It was a theme that ran throughout the book, and I loved it, but what I loved most was the way Dunsany weaved the whole concept of time into this theme.

Elfland is a place, you see, where time more or less stands still. It's a difficult concept for those of us who've never been there, and I had a hard time with it (I don't advise your trying to explain it to your spouse who hasn't read the book). Ultimately, you have to slap the "rational" side of your brain around a bit (if you can't get hold of some of Mirrlees's "fairy fruit," which I can't seem to find at any of Lancaster County's many farmers markets) and banish it to the corner. Those of us who dwell on Earth and not in Elfland, are basically slaves to time, which is why we are so often drawn to worshiping the rational, not wasting time on the magical.

You would think that would make this book like so much contemporary fantasy, that we would be made to look upon the Earth dwellers with pity, but Dunsany makes it more complicated than that. You see, just as we humans (some more than others) are drawn to the magical and long for a place where time stands still, those magical creatures who live in Elfland are drawn to explore Earth, even if it means aging and dying in a way they don't in Elfland.

That means we have unicorns who cross the border on occasion to eat our grasses (which is why humans sometimes spot and kill them). We have a troll who comes here and sits in a field just to watch time go by, something he can't do in Elfland, because time doesn't move quickly like it does on Earth. We have the King's daughter, completely torn between the two places, not happy in whichever one she finds herself.

In other words, we have "the grass is always greener" on a huge scale. I like this twist on the romantic that doesn't make it superior to the rational. In so much fantasy, those with magic who live in magic places, don't often long to be like humans or to live where the humans do, although humans often visit magical realms and long to return to them.

But I've barely managed to touch on all the wonders of this book. There's so much more in it than what I have inadequately described here (I just don't have the runes to turn the visions in my head into black and white words on a screen). Perhaps you can understand a little more from this passage, a perfect example of the sorts of imaginative, meaningful fun Dunsany provides with almost every turn of the page,

...he saw at evening a woman in the hat and cloak of a witch sweeping the heath [yes, that is "heath", not "hearth". Don't let your eyes play tricks on you or assume a typo here].
...He asked her what she was doing there, on the heath with her broom in the evening.
'Sweeping the world,' she said.
And Alveric wondered what rejected things she was sweeping away from the world, with grey dust mournfully turning over and over as it drifted across our fields, going slowly into the darkness that was gathering beyond our coasts.
"Why are you sweeping the world, Mother Witch?" he said.
"There's things in the world that ought not to be here," said she. (pp. 182-183)

See what a way he had with words? See what fun he was having? See how inspired he was?

Guess who agrees. Neil Gaiman. Here's what he had to say in his Introduction to this edition:

Today, fantasy is, for better or for worse, just another genre, a place in a bookshop to find books that, too often, remind one of far too many other books (and many writers today would have less to say had Dunsany not said it first); it is an irony, and not entirely a pleasant one, that what should be, by definition, the most imaginative of all types of literature has become so staid, and too often, downright unimaginative. The King of Elfland's Daughter, on the other hand, is a tale of pure imagination (and "bricks without straw" as Dunsany himself pointed out, "are more easily made than imagination without memories"). Perhaps this book should come with a warning: it is not a reassuring, by-the-numbers fantasy novel, like most of the books with elves, princes, trolls, and unicorns "between their covers." This is the real thing. It's a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola. So trust the book. Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly. (p. xiii)

There you have it: come join Neil Gaiman and me on this side of The King of Elfland's Daughter. After all, you couldn't ask for better company (well, unless we were all sitting atop a unicorn).


Rebecca said...

Oh yes, I loved this. And what was so astonishing was that there were no real precursors, Dunsany just went off on his own. I think Gaiman is right - so much contemporary fantasy is comforting in its familiarity. But Dunsany and Mirlees have nothing to do with that, and so they are still strange.

litlove said...

I said I'd read more fantasy this year and I have never heard of this author. I will look out for it - Neil Gaiman might get it wrong but you, Emily - never!

Stefanie said...

I thought I had heard of the book before but couldn't figure out where until you mentioned Neil Gaiman. I think both James and I would enjoy this one. I'll be on the lookout for a copy.

Melwyk said...

I've always intended to read this - even Lord Dunsany's name sounds magical somehow. You have made this into a book I must run out and read, though, right away.

Tai said...

I am so excited to read this book after reading your review and the passages you've quoted. I was about to call it a day and put the tea kettle on, but am literally on my way to the bookstore instead.

Emily Barton said...

Becky, yes, that is what was astonishing. And I find myself thinking, "I've been reading fantasy all backwards," because I didn't start with those two first.

Litlove, definitely a perfect place to start if you're planning on reading more fantasy this year.

Stef, I don't know enough about James, but I am absolutely certain, based on what I know about the books you read and like, that you will certainly like this one.

Melwyk, ooo, don't you love it when people do that to you? I hope you also love the book.

Tai, so glad to have helped sell this wonderful book. Let me know what you think of it.