From the Editor
The White Hart -
Coffee, Food, and Books
Defender of the Faith
by D.G. Hart
Christianity and Liberalism
by J. Gresham Machen
The Right of Fantasy:
Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter and Tolkien's On Fairy-Stories
The Right of Fantasy. . .
The King of Elfland's Daughter
By Lord Dunsany
Del Rey, 1999
(240 pages, $13.95, paperback)
The Tolkien Reader
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Del Rey, 1986
(272 pages, $7.99, paperback)
Within what little literacy this mere reader has gained, there lies a large, mostly barren field – for I lack the virtues and talent required for reading fiction. I probably can count on two hands the fictional works of any length that I have read since my college days in the 60s. And I must further lessen the credibility of what follows by confessing to the friends of Inklings Bookshop that I have read only the first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia , just weeks before the latest film was released, and I have read only a few pages of Tolkien's fantasies.
But during my college days I did happen to read The Fall of Babbulkund, a short fantasy story by a writer with a mysterious name, Lord Dunsany. And I have remembered down the years how captivated I was by that story and its prose. So last summer, away from home and wanting to read something different from my normal non-fictional fare, I searched the fantasy section of an unmentionable bookstore and found Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.
The first page disappointed. It seemed to lack the power that I vaguely recalled at the beginning of The Fall of Babbulkund. The craftsmen of Erl, wanting something new in their land and its greater glory in the minstrels' songs, gather in parliament before their old but stately lord and make a request: “We would be ruled by a magic lord.” The lord of Erl grants their request and blesses them and they depart to resume their ancient crafts.
But then on the second page, the lord of Erl summons his eldest son Alveric and gives him the following command:
“Go forth,” he said, “before these days of mine are over, and therefore go in haste, and go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that clearly pertain to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”
“What do you bid me do,” said the son, “when I come to that palace?”
And his father said: “To wed the King of Elfland's daughter.”
“My people demand a magic lord to rule over them. They have chosen foolishly,” the old lord said, “and only the Dark Ones that show not their faces know all that this will bring…It may be some spirit of wisdom they have not known may save them even yet. Go then with your face turned towards that light that beats from fairyland, and that faintly illumines the dusk between sunset and early stars, and this shall guide you till you come to the frontier and have passed the fields we know.” (2-3)
Now I was hooked. For here again was that mellifluous, almost biblical prose (King James version) that had enchanted me years ago. I was drawn onward and onward, by the story to be sure, but also by Dunsany's poetry. I could not wait to read what new wonder of words each page would bring.
Dunsany's predominant style in this work is called, very infelicitously, the freight-train style. It features independent clauses and sentences linked together mostly by and. As one writing guide says, “the style suggests the continuous flow of dreaming” and imitates the “mental state of fantasy.” For me, in Dunsany's hands, it evokes not a freight train, but a powerful yet quiet, slowly rolling river.
Alveric makes it to Elfland, instantly wins the heart of the King's daughter, Princess Lirazel, and they escape back to “the fields we know.” (Dunsany is renowned for this oft-repeated phrase.) And thus begins a long tale, replete with a good witch and trolls and unicorns, of the marriage of Alveric and Lirazel, the happy birth of their son Orion, a tragic misunderstanding and separation, a son's famous hunting exploits, and a husband's lifelong quest for a lost wife, all followed by a happy ending that Tolkien says is essential to all good fairy tales.
In his chapter entitled “The Longaevi ” (the longlivers) in The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis describes “the three kinds of Fairies or Longaevi we meet in our older [medieval] literature.” Dunsany's King of Elfland and his daughter Lirazel most resemble what Lewis calls the High Fairies, who display a “hard, bright, material splendour,” live in a luxurious realm, and possess beauties that are “symbolical or significant?of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage.” These features, Lewis points out, are similar to those of angels and saints in the Christian faith.
Dunsany's Fairies show other characteristics of the medieval longaevi that Lewis describes. If not “the dead, or some special class of the dead,” the King of Elfland and his realm clearly have some strong relationship to the past. When Efland passes over the houses of Erl, they become “like homes remembered out of a long-past age by the sudden waking of an inherited memory.” (238) And when the good witch Ziroonderel merely stands on Elfland's border, “there came to her old ears clearly the sounds of songs returning again to our fields out of the glens of Elfland, wherein they had lain so long, which were all the old songs lost from the nurseries of the Earth.” (238)
The King and Lirazel also seem to fit another medieval theory that Lewis describes about the nature of the longaevi: that they are a third rational species, between Man and Angel, and having a nature that “is middle between Heaven and Hell. . .they reign in a third kingdom, having no other judgment or doom to expect forever.” Indeed, a fundamental antagonism between Elfland and “Christom ways” (Christianity) plays a key role in Dunsany's tale.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18 th Baron Dunsany (1878-1957) possessed amazingly diverse experience and talents: army officer in Second Boer and First World Wars, avid huntsman and sportsman, chess and pistol champion of Ireland, prolific writer of fantasy stories and novels, poetry and drama (he once had five plays running on Broadway at the same time). Writers and readers of 20 th century fantasy consider him one of the early leading godfathers of that genre, influencing many who followed, including even Tolkien to some degree. In one interview I have read, Tolkien acknowledged Dunsany as a linguistic influence, and I have come across, but cannot find at the moment, one possible echo in Tolkien of Dunsany's phrase “the fields we know.”
Since this poor reader has read but three works of fantasy in his adult life, I felt that before attempting to review one, I should consult some authority in the genre to help me understand the impact of Dunsany's novel. So I sought out Tolkien's nearly seventy-page essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
This now famous essay is based on the Andrew Lang Lecture that Tolkien presented at the University of St. Andrews on March 8, 1939. Tolkien first published it “with all too little revision and excision” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947. He revised it and republished it in 1964 in Tree and Leaf , which remains in print now in The Tolkien Reader .
What a feast! Obviously I am no expert in the matter, but I would think that this essay should be “must reading” for all adults who venture into reading fantasy and want to understand the genre and its allure, especially Christians.
Tolkien addresses three main issues: the definition of fairy stories, their origins, and their proper use. In addressing the last issue, he discusses “the values and functions of fairy-stories now” first for children and then for adults. For lack of time and space, I must skip the first two-thirds of the essay, and focus on its last sections:
If adults are to read fairy-stories as a natural branch of literature – neither playing at being children, nor pretending to be choosing for children, nor being boys who would not grow up – what are the values and functions of this kind?
Tolkien holds that in addition to
that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms…fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people. Most of them are commonly considered to be bad for anybody.
Against the critics of Fantasy, Tolkien argues that it takes greater powers of imagination, greater mental control, and more art to create a “Secondary World” in fantasy that has the “inner consistency of reality,” because the images and arrangements of material in that world are so unlike those in our “Primary World.” It is stupid and malicious, Tolkien says, to confound Fantasy with “Dreaming, in which there is no Art,” or with mental disorders, delusion, or hallucination, in which there is no mental control. Still he cautions before his final apology:
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? … Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. (empasis mine)
By Recovery, Tolkien means regaining the ability of “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them,” through “clean windows” without possessiveness or triteness (which is the penalty of possessiveness). “Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery… Humility is enough.”
As for Escape, Tolkien maintains it is “one of the main functions of fairy-stories” and he does not “accept the tone of scorn or pity” with which it is commonly treated. The critics of Escape, Tolkien argues, clearly confuse (sometimes on purpose) “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls.
And finally Consolation. All complete fairy-stories, Tolkien says, must have a happy ending, a good catastrophe, a joyous turn. Such an ending in a fairy-story, denying the final triumph of sorrow and failure, serves as a distant echo of the Great Eucatastrophe in the Christian Gospel. Such an ending is a lesser “ evangelium , giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
So, does The King of Elfland's Daughter exhibit Tolkien's four primary values of a fairy tale?
Of course, the story is creative and artful Fantasy. But I never have the impression that Dunsany lets the fantastic get out of control. The magical elements are mild, almost natural. And even Elfland's transcendent glories seem but earthly beauties intensified and prolonged in a pervasive, enduring calm.
Is there Recovery as Tolkien defines it? Does Dunsany clean the reader's windows enabling her to see things as they are meant to be seen? His countryman, the poet William Butler Yeats, seemed to think so: “We find that he has but transfigured with beauty the common sights of the world.”
That word “transfigured” provides a clue, I think, to one aspect of Dunsany's technique. For often I had the feeling that he was not merely using a common sight of the world to describe an imaginary event, but was transfiguring that common sight with a new interpretation, enchanting his reader into seeing something ordinary in a new way. As in the scene in which Lirazel drifts away from the valley of Erl :
And at that moment a wind came out of the northwest and entered the woods and bared the golden branches, and danced over the downs, and led a company of scarlet and golden leaves, that had dreaded this day but danced now it had come; and away with a riot of dancing and glory of colour, high in the light of the sun that had set from the sight of the fields, went wind and leaves together. With them went Lirazel. (63)
What is primary in this passage? Lirazel's departure or an enchanted view of autumn leaves blown off trees and away in the wind? The King of Elfland's Daughter is full of such transfigurations of “the common sights of the world” and I think they at least draw the reader closer to the humility that Tolkien says is the other, undoubtedly preferable path to Recovery.
Does The King of Elfland's Daughter provide Escape from any prisons that hold us? Certainly Dunsany's transfigurations can entice his readers' thoughts beyond the increasingly artificial and barren fields of contemporary urban and suburban existence. More than once after reading this book, while driving home from a long day in front of a computer, I have turned expectantly toward the Blue Ridge and, like Alveric gazing at Elfland, have “looked at those pale-blue mountains to see with what color their peaks would astonish the evening.” (10) And perhaps, when next I pass a quiet lake, I will think of an “ageless repose, of which deep green pools in summer can barely guess.” (240) Or when next, on some winter morning, I see tracks in new-fallen snow, perhaps I will see also that “the world lay like a book that was newly written by Life; for all the story of the night lay in long lines in the snow.” (113)
I do not detect in The King of Elfland's Daughter a great moral beauty such as the good death in George Macdonald's Phantastes that C.S. Lewis says baptized his imagination. But I do think Dunsany's tale provides a real, but more subtle liberation. In The Discarded Image, Lewis says that in the medieval worldview the longaevi “intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty” into a theological model of the universe that “is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, a little too luminous.” Perhaps classic fairy tales like Dunsany's serve a similar purpose in our day, by instilling, not a belief in, but at least a hunger for, a reality beyond the cramped, lifeless fields of a reductionist scientific secularism, in a world where, as the King of Elfland warns his daughter, “material things stand fierce and strong and many, and have the power to darken and to increase, for they have wonders too.” (222)
And is there finally Consolation in The King of Elfland's Daughter ? Is there a glimpse of the great Evangelium? It is easy for this mere reader and mere Christian to see in Lirazel's story, or read into it, a pattern similar to the Incarnation. She descends from Elfland for love of Alveric, relinquishing some of her elfin powers, for “her crown of ice had melted away”(27). She rejoices in overlooked beauties of the Earth “bringing a beauty to our fields more delicate even than that the wild roses brought,” (27) as another magical Child long ago graced the fields of Galilee and led us to see providence in regal lilies and humble fowls of the air. After a family crisis, she ascends to rejoin her father on the throne of Elfland, though without promise of return, leaving her spouse to a long pilgrim existence.
But these echoes of the great Evangelium are faint and perhaps too farfetched. The clear echo rings out in the second coming and glorious reunion in Dunsany's gently apocalyptic ending. It is a happy ending that should give any reader, as Tolkien believed, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world,” and an ending that should stir any Christian's longing for the glory that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard, that cannot be told of even in song, a glory far, far beyond the beauties of the fields we know.