The poetic style and sweeping grandeur of The King of Elfland’s Daughter has made it one of the most beloved fantasy novels of our time, a masterpiece that influenced some of the greatest contemporary fantasists. The heartbreaking story of a marriage between a mortal man and an elf princess is a masterful tapestry of the fairy tale following the “happily ever after.”
It’s time to finally write this review of the last book that I managed to read for my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge. I picked this book up because I felt it was time for a fantasy classic for a change. While this book is a classic that one doesn’t hear talked about very often, it is known among fantasy authors to this day. It was published in the twenties, and Lord Dunsany’s work influenced both Lovecraft and Tolkien. Neil Gaiman has written the introduction to this particular edition, so clearly his influence is still alive and well.
When I started reading the book, I was expecting it to be a story of a prince’s adventures on his way to the elf princess who he was planning to marry. Now, even you can see that I hadn’t read the back cover text very closely, for it’s said right there that this is a story of what happens after the “happily ever after”. The prince gets his elf princess at the very beginning of the book, and the rest of the story follows the struggles of an elf trying to fit in the human world, of her husband trying to understand his wife, and also of their half-human, half-elf son living between these two worlds.
One thing that can be said about The King of Elfland’s Daughter is that it is a very lyrical novel. “The poetic style and sweeping grandeur” of the back cover blurb are very much present. In the introduction, Neil Gaiman says that “his words sing, like those of a poet who got drunk on the prose of the King James Bible, and who has still not yet become sober.” This is a very accurate description.
At first I found the long sentences to be beautiful and charming, but I have to admit that later on they started to get on my nerves. Lord Dunsany is great at descriptions, great at the craft of writing, but there were times when the story was less than compelling, when the descriptive language became a slog to read through. The atmosphere feels more important than the characters. I have to say, though, that I was very captivated by the elf princess’s struggles to understand human habits.
To continue quoting from others, Jo Walton talks about Lord Dunsany’s writing style in this Tor.com article:
“His acknowledged masterpiece novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, is probably best described as good but odd. He isn’t at his best writing characters, which gets peculiar at novel length. What he could do, what he did better than anyone, was to take poetic images and airy tissues of imagination and weight them down at the corners with perfect details to craft a net to catch dreams in. It’s not surprising he couldn’t make this work for whole novels, when as far as I know, nobody else has ever quite made it work in prose. If it is prose. It’s some of the most poetic prose ever written, quite enough to get anyone drunk on words.”
I have no doubt that Lord Dunsany’s prose works better in smaller chunks, and I might yet look into some of his short stories. For now, I have to say that while I was enchanted by the book in the beginning, I grew a bit tired of the enchantment during the length of the novel.
3 out of 5 stars.