Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter


Opening Passage:

In their ruddy jackets of leather that reached to their knees the men of Erl appeared before their lord, the stately white-haired man in his long red room. He leaned in his carven chair and heard their spokesman.

And thus their spokesman said.

"For seven hundred years the chiefs of your race have ruled us well; and their deeds are remembered by the minor minstrels, living on yet in their little tinkling songs. And yet the generations stream away, and there is no new thing."

"What would you?" said the lord.

"We would be ruled by a magic lord," they said.

"So be it," said the lord....

Summary: Once upon a time there was a little land called Erl. It was happy and peaceful and prosperous. But alone of all the lands of the world it had no claim to fame or recognition. Unnoticed and unremembered, it continued on its way in the fields that we know, and the Parliament of Erl decided to remedy this by seeking some magical wonder that would make their land famous. If the lord who ruled them was in some way magical, this would make them the wonder of that part of the world. Now as it happened, the lands of the Elfking bordered on the land of Erl in those days.

Therefore the lord of Erl, in obedience to the Parliament of Erl, set for his son, whose name was Alveric, a quest to pass beyond the fields we know and enter the dominions of the Elfking, and travel through that perilous realm until he reached the palace that can be described only in song. More perilously, he was to return with the King of Elfland's daughter, that they might marry. To this end the lord gave his son the sword of his fathers.

But Alveric knew that no human sword could avail anything in the realm of the Elfking. Therefore he sought out the witch Ziroonderel. She bade him gather lightning bolts from her garden, where they had fallen from the heavens, beyond both the realms of the Elfking and the fields that we know, and with his help she forged a magical sword. With it Alveric journeyed in the direction of the Elfin Mountains, which lay blanketed in a perpetual twilight of extraordinary beauty and color. He passed over the border of that twilight and through the enchanted wood and came to the palace of the Elfking, the palace that can be described only in song. And there he met and spoke with the King of Elfland's daughter, whose name was Lirazel, and told her stories of the fields that we know. And she sighed to know them and experience the beauty of their passing, for our lands and the land of the King of Elfland are very different. In the fields that we know, Time is master, and hurries us from moment to moment whether we will or nill; but the lands of the King of Elfland have no allegiance to Time, and there no moment passes until the fullness of it has been experienced.

Then Alveric was set upon by the guards of the Elfking, who were protected by mighty runes; but the runes were broken by the power of the magical sword. And when he had slain the guards, he and Lirazel fled the realm of the Elfking and returned to the fields that we know. There Alveric found that ten years had passed on this side of the border, and that his father was dead. Then he and Lirazel went to the holy place, that the Freer might wed them in a Christom wedding. And although the Freer knew that she, like a mermaid, was beyond salvation, he wed them, and they soon had a son. They were happy for a time, and Lirazel, though she had lived in the calm of Elfland, and had been raised in the palace that can be described only in song, loved her life with Alveric. But there was nonetheless a great gulf between the two. Who can truly understand our ways who does not understand allegiance to Time? Many of the things done by men and women remained utterly beyond her comprehension, nor could she ever learn.

So it was with the stars. Of all the things that pertain to the fields we know, the stars are most wondrous, and Elfland in its endless twilight knows nothing of them. Lirazel loved the stars, and reverenced them; but she was soon told that she must not pray to them, or show them reverence, for it was a heathen thing. Thus she called her son Orion, for the stars seemed most worthy of reverence of all the things in the fields we know, and thus it seemed she must honor them, but she could not show them any overt honor.

Now there was in the possession of the Elfking three mighty runes, the greatest powers and defenses of his realm. One he used to restore the lives of the guards killed by Alveric. The second he placed on a parchment and gave to a troll to give to the Princess Lirazel. This the troll did. But Lirazel did not read it, placing it instead in a casket.

Not long after, Alveric took her to the Freer to learn the reverencing of the bells and the other holy things; but the ways were strange to her. When walking in the fields at night, she drew out of the stream four large stones, and began to use them to practice reverencing the things of the Freer, one for a candlestick, one for a bowl, and so forth. Alveric found her praying to the stones, and he was angry, for it was a very heathen thing. And his anger pierced her through, because she had only been trying to learn how to worship his holy things in order to please him. And their life grew unhappy together, until one day Lirazel out of petulance drew the rune out of its casket. All day she played with her son, the rune in her hand. It had been only a petulant whim that had led her to take it up, and the whim would have passed on its own; but the rune was in her hand, and she read it.

Great magic poured across the border from Elfland, and a great wind came up and blew Lirazel to her former home. Alveric set out to return her, but the King of Elfland could sense the magic of his sword as it drew near to the borders of Elfland, and he put forth his might hand and, wherever Alveric drew near, drewn in the border of Elfland, so that Alveric might never return.

Alveric, however, would not desist from his attempt to be reunited with Lirazel, and continued to seek the borders of Elfland, abandoning his kingdom. And Orion grew and became a mighty hunter.

Slowly over time, Orion brought magic to the kingdom of Erl, first by killing a unicorn, then, in an attempt to catch one again, by bringing into Erl some of the magical creatures who live on the borders of Elfland. For once he had captured a unicorn, his heart could not rest with the game of the fields we know. And this continued until the Parliament of Erl, the same who had demanded a magic lord, grew afraid, for everywhere in the land of Erl there was now the dancing of will o' the wisps and the gibbering of trolls.

In Elfland, Lirazel was with her father in the palace that can be described only in song, and although she was calm as all things in Elfland are calm, nonetheless the memory of the fields we know could not be undone, and it disturbed the tranquility of Elfland. She thought of Alveric and Orion passing away in the lands that owe allegiance to Time, and begged her father to bring them over the border into Elfland, where they would be free from the passage of Time, and perhaps also to bring over violets or cowslips or others of the simple flowers of our fields that she had grown to love. But her father had only one kind of magic that could cross the borders of Elfland in this way, and that was the last of the three runes, the last great defense of the realm. Without it the material powers beyond his borders, which could grow and increase, and put into bondage the powers on this side of the border; and without this last great defense, they would have nothing to fear in Elfland, which would become only a fable. He was loth to use such a thing and risk the fate of his realm. Yet her sorrow was unconsolable, and disturbed the calm of Elfland, until at last he used the third rune.

By the power of that rune, Elfland flooded forth, its borders expanding, drawing into itself what once was outside it, until at last Erl was drawn within its borders. And there Erl passed beyond all human history. Unnoticed and unremembered, it dreamed in the calm of Elfland, for it no longer belonged to the fields that we know.

In his introduction to his selections from the tales of Lord Dunsany, W. B. Yeats says:

His travellers, who travel by so many rivers and deserts and listen to sounding names none heard before, come back with no tale that does not tell of vague rebellion against that power, and all the beautiful things they have seen get something of their charm from the pathos of fragility. This poet who has imagined colours, ceremonies and incredible processions that never passed before the eyes of Edgar Allen Poe or of De Quincey, and remembered as much fabulous beauty as Sir John Mandeville, has yet never wearied of the most universal of emotions and the one most constantly associated with the sense of beauty; and when we come to examine those astonishments that seemed so alien we find that he has but transfigured with beauty the common sights of the world.

Although Yeats was speaking of other works, it is very much true of The King of Elfland's Daughter, for much of its power is that by setting the fields that we know beside the kingdom of Elfland, he shows us things in "the common sights of the world" that we have never noticed, or that, if we have, we have long forgotten. Knowing nothing but Time, we hardly see the wonder of the things that pass until somehow they are caught, impossibly suspended by some power we cannot fathom, each moment rich with infinite significance. And seeing things from Lirazel's eyes, or the eyes of the trolls, we learn the strangeness of the magic of Time itself, which takes beauties away almost as soon as they are born, and pushes them out of the fields that we know. The human mind learns to appreciate things by contrast. How, then, can we fully appreciate the beauty of the only world we know unless we see it compared with a world we have never known? And how can we know the significance of Time until we compare it with the calm of Elfland?

Favorite Passage:

"They die," said the grizzled troll. "And the others dig in their earth and put them in, as I have seen them do, and then they go to Heaven, as I have heard them tell." And a shudder went through the trolls far over the floor of the forest.

And Lurulu who had sat angry all this while to hear that weighty troll speak ill of Earth, where he would have them come, to astonish them with its quaintness, spoke now in defence of Heaven.

"Heaven is a good place," he blurted hotly, though any tales he had heard of it were few.

"All the blessed are there," the grizzled troll replied, "and it is full of angels. What chance would a troll have there? The angels would catch him, for they say on Earth that the angels all have wings; they would catch a troll and smack him forever and ever."

And all the brown trolls in the forest wept.

"We are not so easily caught," Lurulu said.

"They have wings," said the grizzled troll.

And all were sorrowful and shook their heads, for they knew the speed of wings.

Recommendation: Despite its shortness, this is a book that should only be read when you have leisure time to appreciate its descriptions. However, I recommend it highly.

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