For most of my life I’ve had a prejudice against the fantasy genre. When I was ten I was crazy about the Oz books, but not long after that I discovered science fiction. I know it’s possible to enjoy both science fiction and fantasy, but I associate fantasy with the unscientific, with religions and myths, and with the belief in magic. On rare occasions I’ve fallen for fantasy tales, like the Harry Potter books and The Golden Compass trilogy. I believe they were acceptable to me because they were for kids and I assume fantasy stories are fine for children. Although, that might suggest that part of my prejudice against fantasy is because I believe fantasy is for children — and that at a certain age we should give it up.

However, I mainly dislike fantasy stories because fantasy embraces magic. I hate the concept of magic for scientific and philosophical reasons. I have always hoped that scientific thinking would supplant religious thinking. Christianity has a problem with magic too. Christianity has always hoped to supplant belief in magic, and I can understand why. Because for a new paradigm to take old the old one has to be erased. But for me, Christianity is just another form of magical thinking, and I expected science to replace it.

You might be thinking this is a weird way to review a book, but reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany deals with these philosophical issues — and I wonder if it’s message isn’t anti-magic. I’m not sure what it’s exact stance on the subject is, which is why I want to talk about it. And you might think I’m even more confused because I’m reading a classic adult fantasy novel when I just declared I’m too old for fantasy novels.

I decided to read The King of Elfland’s Daughter when the unnamed reviewer on Bookpilled, my favorite science fiction reviewer channel on YouTube, reviewed it. The Bookpilled guy praised The King Of Elfland’s Daughter so highly I felt I should try and overcome my fantasy prejudice and give it a read.

The King Of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924, and according to Wikipedia it made quite an impact. Over the years, some of my favorite science fiction writers from the mid-20th century mentioned an admiration for Lord Dunsany. In 1969 Ballantine reprinted the novel as the second book in its second series of Adult Fantasy novels. That series if often cited as reviving fantasy as a popular genre for adult readers. I remember that Ballantine Adult Fantasy books coming out back then, and I liked them for their covers, but never wanted to read them. Over the years, I have ended up reading a few of them. I wish I had bought and saved those Ballantine editions because many of them sell for hundreds nowadays.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter might not appeal to modern fans of fantasy though. It’s prose sounds like something out of Chaucer, and there is very little character development, dramatic action, or even dialogue. Lurulu, the troll, who is mostly a comic character seems to have had the most lines. I say that because in the audiobook edition I listened to the narrator did voices for the characters and about the only one that stood out was the troll’s. I also read along with a 99 cent Kindle edition from Amazon.

The story is set in the village/valley of Erl and the neighboring fantasyland of Elfland. The setting is sometime before 1530 — Dunsany makes a specific point of bringing that up. Erl is ruled by a hereditary lord who lives in a castle, but a Parliament of elders comes to visit the lord of Erl telling him they want more magic in their land. The lord tells his son, Alveric, to go into Elfland, find and bring back the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel, and marry her. This happens early in the book and they have a son named Orion. Unfortunately, Lirazel can’t adapt to human ways and returns to Elfland. Most of the rest of the story is about Alveric trying to find his way back to Elfland to recapture Lirazel, and Orion growing up to be a hunter, first of stags, but then of unicorns.

This novel was pleasant enough to read, but it’s structure was primitive, much like a long fairytale. Alveric and Lirazel have practically no personal traits at all, and there’s barely any for Orion. Lirazel is beautiful, and that’s about it. Orion is good at hunting and loves his hunting dogs.

On the other land, the prose is rather nice.

The real meat of this story is the contrast between Earth and Elfland. Elfland is another dimension that borders Erl on the east. Elfland is timeless. Immortal beings that leave Elfland to visit Earth age. When Alveric is in Elfland capturing Lirazel, ten years pass by in Erl. Lord Dunsany sets up his story so that Erl is Christian and its citizens believe they will go to heaven. But we’re also told there is no path to heaven from Elfland. The choice for some of the characters is between living, growing old, dying and going to heaven, or choosing to live in Elfland where nothing happens and everything is eternal. Dunsany constantly reminds us of the timelessness of Elfland.

Sometimes I picture everything in Elfland frozen in one beautiful tableau. When Lirazel returns she sits on her father’s knee the entire time Orion grows up. I tried to get Midjourney to create an image of that scene but it kept making Lirazel a little girl in her father’s lap. I settled for what I have above.

During that same time, Alveric is on a never ending quest to reenter Elfland. His quest is longer than Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War.

Eventually, Orion discovers the edge of Elfland and sees a unicorn. Now, in this story, unicorns are magical, but not special like in modern fantasy stories. In fact, Orion hunts them, and mounts their heads. I bet modern readers will be horrified at that. Orion also discovers trolls and the trolls start visiting Erl.

I’m not sure if I should tell the whole story, but I’m going to say that the Parliament of Erl come to regret their desire for more magic in their land. They thought it would make their valley famous, but instead magic scares them. And it’s here where I wonder if Dunsany isn’t making a case against magic. At one point the Freer (friar?) speaks to the village:

I won’t tell what the ending is but it involves a transformation that I can’t decide if it’s wonderful or horrifying.

My theory is belief in magic existed before Christianity all across Europe, and for two thousand years the Church has been trying to stamp it out. Lovers of fantasy hate to let magic go. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany’s book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter isn’t about that. On one hand, I tend to think Dunsany is siding with Christianity and is against magic, but on the other hand, I think he’s just as enchanted by the magical.

The reason why I believed fantasy is for children is because I felt pretending is something kids like to do. But I also assume when we grow up we need to get real. Now, I’m no longer sure if it is okay to allow fantasy in books for children. Too many kids never grow up. I thought reading science fiction was taking the road to realism, but I realized late in life that much of science fiction is just as magical as fantasy. The reality is we don’t like reality and wish it was something its not. On the other hand, fiction allows us to cope with a reality that is difficult to comprehend.

Back in the 1800s there was a lot of opposition to reading fiction. Serious people thought it rotted the mind. People thought fiction mainly appealed to children, women, and men who couldn’t cope with the real world. I’m not sure they were wrong. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany wasn’t touching on this issue in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

If I had the time I would like to make a case comparing the L. Frank Baum Oz books to The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There were 14 Oz books published from 1900 to 1920. The King of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924. I’d like to study what people thought of fantasy in the years 1900 to 1940 before science fiction started getting popular.

As a ten-year-old I wanted Oz to exist like Elfland. As a teenager, and even into my twenties, I used to tell people I never wanted to adultify.

Does anyone know of a good study on the evolution of fantasy fiction? I might not want to read it but I might want to read about it.

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/23

21 thoughts on “The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

  1. Many thanks for this review, Jim! I haven’t read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but I’ve read and enjoyed other stories by Dunsany. I’ve always liked fantasy as much as science fiction, using the term “fantasy” in a broad sense to include fabulist, magic realism, stories of the supernatural, etc. Science fiction and fantasy have always seemed to me intertwined. Robert Silverberg described science fiction as a branch of fantastic literature, albeit a specialized, technocratic variety.


  2. “Now, I’m no longer sure if it is okay to allow fantasy in books for children. Too many kids never grow up. I thought reading science fiction was taking the road to realism, but I realized late in life that much of science fiction is just as magical as fantasy. The reality is we don’t like reality and wish it was something its not. On the other hand, fiction allows us to cope with a reality that is difficult to comprehend.”

    If I may say so, Jim, your view of what literature should be seems rather stern, even puritanical. Many well-adjusted adults are lifelong readers of fantasy and science fiction, which often deal with reality in a roundabout way. But there’s also nothing wrong with SFF simply as entertainment.


    1. True, Carl, there is nothing wrong with SFF as entertainment. And I don’t expect people to follow my approach. But I’ve read thousands of books and that’s made me hunger for books that have something more than entertainment to offer.

      Susan and I never had kids, so I don’t know how I would raise one. I’d sort of expect them to grow up like me and do whatever they wanted. But on the other hand, I might discourage them from too much fantasy and science fiction. I would have tried to get them interested in doing things, and studying how things work. They may or may not have taken that encouragement.


  3. Some of the most childish adults I’ve had the misfortune of meeting didn’t seem to have ever read much fantasy literature, or read much, period. They instead batten on other fantasies, that if you buy this or that, pick on this or that person, or obey this or that rule you will get laid, be popular, go to heaven, etc. etc. etc.
    C.S. Lewis said in one of his essays that growing up meant putting away childish things, including striving to be very grown-up. I recall being horrified by some gruesome details in those Lang fairy books, and thinking he must have hated kids, and wondering if my library should have even had those books, but I went on to read other things. And I’m glad that the adults around didn’t ever restrict my reading, though I could have used some more preparation. (They thought nothing of blithely taking me off to watch the movie “Freaks” when I was 10. Not understanding a quarter of what went on in those interminable plays and movies was bad enough, but some of the stuff that didn’t go right over my head was pretty nasty. )
    Maybe we should reverse the current (?) order of things, and not let kids read or watch any fantasy, saving that for adults. Just science, and conventional realism with no simple happy endings. Kidding! Seems to me if a kid is reading instead of staring at a screen all the time, that’s a plus. I think variety, as well as the time taken to talk with the kid and listen to them too, is key.
    Lewis also said (in The Screwtape Letters) that more damage is done by what is kept out of people’s minds than by what is put in, and I can attest to that.
    Getting to the point–if someone doesn’t like fiction, of any sort, they don’t have to read it. (Unless they’re in school being forced to read something they might not get the full benefit of until years later, even if they are smart.) But I might think twice before condemning fantasy outright, nor, perhaps, mention the outlandish, violent thrillers and fatuous romances that pass for realism among some people. A smart person can pick up lessons from anything, and as one of you said earlier, entertainment is not a sin or a crime.
    Yes, I know Lewis had some problematic aspects. But he did drop some wisdom once in a while.
    The only Lord I have any time for is Dunsany.


    1. The only C. S. Lewis I’ve read is Out of the Silent Planet. I’ve been meaning to read the Narnia books and some of his nonfiction. I’m also inclined to give Lord Dunsany another try.

      I see a divide in fiction. There is fiction that helps us understand reality, and then there is fiction that creates its own artificial reality. Often books blend the two. But more and more, I feel fiction is becoming an alternate reality in which people find an escape from real reality. An analogy would be representative art and abstract art. I do find fictional worldbuilding to be creative, but I worry that we don’t spend enough time thinking about reality.

      If The King of Elfland’s Daughter was only a pure fantasy I would find it lacking. What kept me going was the hope that Dunsany was using his novel to say something about reality and doing so by using the language of fantasy.

      This morning I caught the latest episode of Pete Beard’s history of illustrators on YouTube, and he reminded me that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, a great number of popular books were about fantasy lands. I’d like to read a psychological study on why.


    1. Thanks. What format and reader do you use?

      Unfortunately, downloading them to a Kindle is problematic. To simplify things they should just sell them on Amazon. I’d gladly pay 99 cents for the convenience.


      1. I usually download the azw3 file and transfer it by cable to my Kindle. I recall that Amazon had a bug and wasn’t accepting this format (even though it’s their own!) through “send it to Kindle”. Maybe this has been fixed now.

        I recall that the option of selling on Amazon was considered, but there were some blocking issues…


  4. Anyone who wants to sample fantasy from that era, I would also recomment “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Eddison. It is heroic high fantasy written decades before Lord of the Rings. Public domain and available online in text and audio.


      1. Yes, one of those evocative SFF titles. The books themselves don’t always live up to them, as I found when I tried the Niven/Pournelle novel A Mote in God’s Eye. The title beckoned to me over the years, but when I finally tried the book itself, I found it a bit of a slog.


        1. I agree. The Mote in God’s Eye was okay. When I read it I was somewhat disappointed it didn’t live up to the expectations I had from the reviews.

          Right now I’m having trouble finding a good SF novel to get into so I’m open to other genres. Just finished The High Window by Raymond Chandler. It was wonderful to listen to because Chandler is quite vivid at describing scenes. I love that.

          I enjoyed The Kind of Elfland’s Daughter to a fair degree. So I’m open to something different like The Worm Ouroboros.


        2. Glad you enjoyed The High Window and The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

          Regarding “Mote,” others have said that the most interesting parts of the novel are the extraterrestrials (the Moties), more than the human characters, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.


      2. My apologies for all these comments on your post. I was going to say that the title of The Worm Ouroboros is another title that has called to me over the years. I first read about it at the age of eleven or so in an article in the Marvel Planet of the Apes magazine (which I read religiously). The article compared the circular nature of Eddison’s book to the five-part Apes series, with its circular storyline, and I’ve seen the book over the years. Maybe I’ll read it eventually.


        1. No apologies necessary. We’re having a good conversation. Even though I’m not fond of fantasy Ive been meaning to read the classics of the genre, especially those books in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.


        2. Yes, that was a wonderful series by Lin Carter! It’s a pity that those books are so far to find nowadays.


  5. Also “The Fortess Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth” by Dunsany, is a masterpiece of a short story from this era, considered to have started the Swords & Sorcery sub-genre. Also public domain available in text and audio.


  6. Jim, thanks for a wonderful essay on a subject that had never occurred to me. Among many other things, you do introspection very well. I have heard of “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” by Dunsany. I don’t remember if I ever read it or not, although I thought about reading it many decades ago. Sorry I can’t help you on a history of the evolution of fantasy; I’m sure there is one out there.


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