Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 26, 2010

Beyond the fields we know

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (1924), Ballantine, 240 pp.

If you’ve read anything about this author, you know that he’s considered the grandfather of fantasy lit. His children, no doubt, include C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, and H. P. Lovecraft might be a nephew (I’ve never read anything by Lovecraft, but plan to; NB: Lovecraft was friends with Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and subject of the film, The Whole Wide World, which is well worth viewing). There must be plenty of Dunsany’s grandchildren among modern fantasy writers.

But this post is about the book, not its author. My brother raved about it when I was growing up, and I finally read it in the late 1970s. Then again in the 2000s. And again now. Each time, I’m drawn in as much by the language as by the plot. Tolkien beats all for world-building, but Dunsany beats all for cadence and music. Critics mention the influence of the King James Bible on Dunsany’s style, and you can hear it in the repetitions and the long, compound sentences.

Here’s the hero (Alveric) approaching Elfland:

To those who may have wisely kept their fancies within the boundary of the fields we know it is difficult for me to tell of the land to which Alveric had come, so that in their minds they can see that plain with its scattered trees and far off the dark wood out of which the palace of Elfland lifted those glittering spires, and above them and beyond them that serene range of mountains whose pinnacles took no colour from any light we see…. Know then that in Elfland are colours more deep than are in our fields, and the very air there glows with so deep a lucency that all things seen there have something of the look of our trees and flowers in June reflected in water.

I know this style of writing is out of fashion, but it seems so appropriate for Dunsany’s subject.

The people of Erl wish to be ruled by a magic lord, so their current lord sends his son (Alveric) into Elfland, to find and bring back the King of Elfland’s daughter. With the aid of a magic sword of power, Alveric makes the journey and returns with the princess, whom he weds.

All goes well, for a while, until the princess, Lirazel, is lured back to Elfland, and Alveric must find her again. Reaching Elfland a second time won’t be so easy, for the King of Elfland has raised protections against Alveric’s magic sword.

Unicorns, trolls, magic runes, wizards and witches, lands that warp time or remain just beyond one’s reach — Dunsany may not have been the first to use each of these tropes, but he has combined them to make one of the most beautiful stories about yearning for something beyond what we have — beyond the fields we know.


  1. […] catching up with Gaiman. Stardust reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which is not a bad thing. Gaiman even uses the line, “beyond the fields we know” as […]

  2. […] catching up with Gaiman. Stardust reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which is not a bad thing. Gaiman even uses the line, “beyond the fields we know” as direct […]

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