Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An old favorite

Regular readers out there may recall that "I Hate Evil." I recently had occasion to reread an old favorite of mine in the 'medieval fantasy novel' genre: Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. And while I didn't recall it at the time I wrote that earlier post, I see now that one reason I love the book is because there's not a bit of evil in it--though there is plenty of foolishness, plain old madness, and even a little willfulness to spare. And there's magic just about everywhere.

Dunsany's book was first published in 1924, and if you needed any further proof that it's a pre-Tolkien work, it's the hugely bearded King of Elfland: what self-respecting post-Tolkien elf could possibly exhibit his masculinity so clearly? But that's exactly part of the book's charm and why its such a shame that it's so rarely read these days: it reminds us so powerfully that there's another way to write fantasy, and that magic doesn't always have to be linked up to a great and terrible evil force. (And as final confirmation of the power of Tolkien's vision in the contemporary world, I'll just point out the the spell-checker here on blogger.com marks "Dunsany" as suspect, but is perfectly okay with "Tolkien," which must therefore be in their dictionary. Dunsany apparently once had five plays on Broadway at one time, and in the 30s and 40s was, undoubtedly, a much larger literary figure than Tolkien--but not on blogger.com)

Instead of evil, the characters in The King of Elfland's Daughter struggle against things all too familiar to the rest of us: the power of time to bring change, on the one hand, and the feeling that stability is only a tiny step away from stasis, on the other. Even more remarkable, given these conflicting powers and anxieties, virtually all of the major characters in the book end up getting pretty much exactly what they ask for: it's a happy ending all around.

And the miracle of the book is that there's still a sadness to that happy ending that makes it even sweeter.


Michael said...

I think I have an old mid-70's paperback of the Dunsany book moldering in my mom's basement. Maybe I'll dig it out for some fall Halloweeny reading. I just bought Joe Hill's collection of horror stories, 20th Century Ghosts (he's Stephen King's son) based on a friend's recommendation, and can hardly wait for the leaves to start flying so I can be in the mood to read it. She says Hill is disturbing but occasionally sweet.

Tom said...

Ballantine reprinted this book (and one or two other Dunsany titles) in their "Adult Fantasy" line in the early 70s: the whole series has since become collectible and I've sold more than one copy of The King of Elfland's Daughter on eBay. "Adult Fantasy", BTW, was not intended to indicate what we would call "adult" content, but to distinguish these books from fantasy written for kids--an association that apparently already had some cultural force in the early 70s.