The Parliament of the Erl, a small area on the edge of England, came to their king and requested to be ruled by a magic lord, because nothing new ever happened, and they wanted Erl to be reknowned among the lands. The king knew that this was unwise, but it was the first time in five hundred years that the Parliament had come with a request. So he gave the family sword to his son Alveric and told him to go to Elfland and marry the king of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel. Alveric knew that no earthly sword would be of any help, so he went to a witch who lived on a hill near a castle. She had him gather thunderbolts from the garden, and when he had done so, she placed them in a fire, said magic runes that made the fire so hot she had to stand far away to speak the runes, while Alveric piled on logs. While the sword cooled, she sang to it, and embedded magic in it. So Alveric took it and set off for Elfland, which was to the east. He traveled all day, and spent the night at a farmer’s house, who gracious fed and lodged him, but refused to speak of Elfland even though Alveric could tell that he and his wife knew of it.
The next day, he saw the border of Elfland along the field, a shimmering twilight, with blue mountains in the distance. He crossed over and there was a stillness and peace, because in Elfland time does not pass. He could tell that animals could be communicated with, although he did not know how to. After traveling a while he could see the King of Elfland’s palace, which can only be told of in song, and a great forest surrounding it. The trees tried to prevent him from entering, but a slice from his sword drained them of the magic they had been imbued with and left them ordinary trees. Likewise, the sword dispatched the magic guard who tried to prevent him from coming to Lirazel, for the King had once had a wife from Earth, but time had ravaged her and his daughter was all he had left. Lirazel was excited that a man had finally come for her, and she insisted that they set off immediately for the border, because her father had three runes against which no magic could prevail. Even as they fled he saw what had happened, and climbed up the stairs of the tower to speak a spell to prevent them from leaving, but just as he did so, they crossed over to Earth.
On arriving back in Erl, Alveric found that ten years had passed, and that his father was dead. He went to the Christom Freer to be married, which put the Freer in a quandry, since Lirazel happily admitted that she was from Elfland, and he knew that all who lived in Elfland were beyond salvation. But after searching in his books, he came on a service for a wedding of a mermaid that had forsaken the sea, who was likewise beyond salvation, so he had her forsake Elfland. She was not willing to say the words in the book, for she said that no words from here could reach Elfland, and if they could, the words would be powerless before her father’s magic and his three (now, two) runes. But Alveric implored her, so she said it, and they were married according to the service of a mermaid who had forsaken the sea.
Alveric and Lirazel had a baby boy, and the Parliament met at their beer hall and excitedly foretold all the good things that would come, now that they had a magic lord. He tried to find a nurse for the baby, but found few who were worthy, and those who were worthy were afraid of the light that sometimes seemed to come from the baby’s eyes, so in the end he asked the witch to be the nurse for his child, for she was the only person who knew anything of Elfland, and Lirazel never did learn anything of Earth. So the baby learned about Elfland as well as Earth as he grew.
In Elfland it was still the same day, and the King went to his treasury and wrote one of his three runes beyond the power of any magic to resist down on a parchment and summoned his guard. The guard did not come, and when he investigated, the king knew that there had been magic at work. He spoke the second of his runes, to recreate the guard, who had been with him from before he conquered Time. Then he summoned a troll to bring the scroll with the rune to his daughter. The troll leaped and rolled happily, asked directions of the fox (who goes between the border of Earth and Elfland) and mocked the dogs that he outran, came to the castle, and gave the scroll to Lirazel. She locked it in a casket, because she suspected it was her father’s rune and would waft her away.
But Lirazel never understood the ways of Earth, which her husband expected that she would. For was her beauty not enough, having brought a man from beyond Elfland? She loved Alveric and desired to please him, but she did not understand why it was important to know which of the Freer’s candlestick or bell was holier, and why she could not thank the stars for their beauty (which Alveric thought was worshiping them), which were so beautiful and were not in the perpetual twilight of Elfland. She named the child Orion after those stars, after her husband rejected an unpronounceable name from Elfland. She lived by whatever blew out of the southeast, and Alveric thought she should be anchored to good earthly custom. So one day she was so frustrated that she opened the scroll, and indeed, it untethered her from Earth, and she floated away on the breeze back to Elfland.
Alveric was distraught and hunted for his wife, ultimately deciding that she had been taken back to Elfland. So he set out again, but found only lifeless desert in the field where the border to Elfland was, and he could not see the mountains of Elfland. He returned for provisions, then journeyed eastwards for a week until he knew his provisions would run out before he returned. Apparently Elfland had left, although Orion said he could hear the horns of Elfland blowing at twilight. So perhaps he could get around to it from the north, where it might not have retreated. So he organized an expedition, but the only people he could find willing to go with him were a lad who loved a girl who lived him not, a shepherd who had heard a song that made him always thinking of impossible lands, and a lad who had slept under the bright moon one summer and ever since would say what the moon showed him.
Alveric left with them to the north. They bought a big tent, and the three helped him set it up, and told him stories of far off lands and prophecies from the moon. They wandered for years along the edge of the fields where Elfland used to be, becoming something of a legend themselves. Alveric would pay for food when they ran out, but otherwise they camped out on the edge of the lifeless desert where Elfland used to be, roaming up and down. They would sometimes be seen in the evening, but the next morning the tent would be gone. In Elfland, Lirazel returned to her father, and both rejoiced in their companionship. But the King could sense the magic of Alveric’s thunderbolt-iron sword, and sang a song with words Lirazel had never heard which unmoored Elfland and allowed it to recede from the sword. So wherever Alveric was, Elfland was not, but it returned to where it had been after he passed.
Orion grew up and loved hunting. One man would take him hunting quietly in the woods, and so he learned the ways of the woods, and could come and go silently without the woods being aware of his coming or going. Another man excelled in archery, and so he learned to kill all kinds of animals. One day, when he had grown, he was hunting stags with his dogs, and he was come near to the border of Elfland at twilight. Unicorns, which, like the fox, go between Elfland and our world because they like the rich grass of Earth, were grazing. Orion gave chase to one, running it down until it, himself, and his dogs were two weary to go farther. He killed it, and the dogs lapped the rich, magical blood, and having once tasted it, yearned for more. The Parliament, returning from their beers, so the unicorn go by and wondered. At the next meeting, they discussed it, and some thought their hope had arrived, but others not, so they took a vote, and it was decided that they had not seen a unicorn. When Orion came back with the unicorn’s head, though, they agreed that it was magic. And the Freer cursed it and them and all things magical.
Orion hunted unicorns all winter and into spring, but could not catch any, because they would only come a few feet across the border. He almost lost some of his hounds into Elfland, where they would not be able to hear his horn, because they thirsted after the magical blood. One evening in the spring he saw the troll, Lurulu, that had delivered the scroll, and asked if he would carry the whip for his dogs, and Lurulu said yes, for though they were dogs, they had pleasant thoughts. And he was very sure with the whip, keeping the dogs on target, which made the dogs respect him even though he was no higher than they were.
Lurulu slept in with the pigeons above the hounds in the barn. He marveled at all the changes that Earth had, for the pigeons came and went (once they got used to him), and the sun crossed the sky, making the shadows move across the land. He offered Orion to bring more trolls to carry the whip, and Orion thought it quite handy to have a tiny intelligence controlling each hound, so he agreed. Lurulu went back to Elfland and told such stories of the amazing changefulness of earth that even the old naysayer, who was old because he had spent time in Earth and had been touched by Time, was intrigued.
Now Alveric had come across a wizard in his travels, and paid a fee for him to see the future. So he climbed up into his tower at evening, and the wizard read in his book of the future that Alveric should not come into Elfland while he had his sword. Alveric was sad, because what hope had he of recovering Lirazel in a magical land with a sword that only men fear? One of his men had left and gone back to Erl, and the other two now knew that Alveric followed something other than fantastic visions and the sayings of the moon. Some time later Alveric came across a woman sweeping with her face towards Elfland—men and women never face towards Elfland—for she was the witch, sweeping out things that should not be on earth. She told Alveric that the King of Elfland was afraid of her magic in the sword, that had bested him once. And she gave him a stone to rub along the sword to take away the magic, and then a parchment with writing on it to bring the magic back once he was within Elfland. That night he rubbed the stone surreptitiously along his sword, because he suspected that the other two would not approve. And the other two appeared to sleep but observed him.
The next day they saw the twilight border over a hedge, and Alveric went and called for Lirazel and tiredly winded his horn, and would have gone in, but his two jealous followers pulled him back: “Do I not have enough dreams?” “Is not my moon enough?” And they continued traveling with him, but they kept Alveric effectively their prisoner.Meanwhile, all sorts of magic had been coming to Erl from Elfland. Trolls roamed the town and made the dogs bark. Lurulu came up with a plan to hunt unicorns, so he went to the marshes and lured the will-o-wisps, who normally lure others, and got them to help him, for the will-o-wisps did not love the proud unicorns. Now in addition to trolls there were lights that moved about, and that made the people nervous. So the Parliament decided that maybe they had too much magic and asked the witch if she would say a spell to remove the magic and she flatly refused, for magic and wonder were what she valued most.
Now that first evening, when Alveric blew his horn, Lirazel had been contentedly sitting with her father, and was on the point of joyously giving herself to Elfland when she heard Alveric’s horn, and it reminded her of Earth, and brought back longings for those she loved. She asked her father to say a rune that would bring Alveric and Orion to her in Elfland. He replied that the weight of earth was too much, and he hand no power there, and indeed, there was no power that he had over earth except the one last rune, which should be saved for the peril of the day that was glowing just out of the reach of even his fore-vision. She wept. And since the happiness of Elfland came from the palace in its center, he determined it was best for Elfland that his daughter be happy, rather than it be safe, and so he said the last rune. So the border of Elfland moved out and brought Erl into Elfand, and the Parliament looked out their window and saw that they were no longer in the fields that they knew.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a beautiful story, which is
strange because I do not find the description of Elfland particularly
beautiful (although that is perhaps because I think of “twilight” as
“almost dark”). The story wanders meditatively, starting off as a fairy
tale, but rapidly becoming unpredictable and unlike any fairy tale or
fairy story I have encountered. Part of the story seems to be Lord Dunsany
celebrating and yearning for nature, wonder, and beauty, which he calls
Magic and Elfland. However, Dunsany also is old enough to know about
people, and he captures our conflicts in a way that appreciates both
sides. This is perhaps the other part of the story—the story of lovers,
the man who wants to be grounded and the woman who brings light and joy,
the separation and search and the resolution. Somehow it is done with a
love for all parties, and it is the narrator’s sense of beauty, wonder,
and even sadness, in people’s motives that makes the story beautiful.
It saddens me that the portrait of Christianity—clearly represented by the Freer (“Friar”) of Christom (maybe from “Christendom”)—is the opposite of beauty and wonder. Here Christianity is part of Earth, it is a set of arbitrary rules based on tradition, and why it is wrong to thank the stars for the beauty, anyway. Sadly, that is the experience, and I imagine especially so in the liturgical setting of the Church of England. After 2000 years, the Church has accumulated a lot of traditions that are based in values that have become obsolete. I ran across the Holy Sponge, recently, which sounds like a Monty Python sketch, because venerating an ordinary object just because it was part of Jesus’ life is just not an idea compatible with modern ideas. We think one sponge is the same as another, whether it was soaked in vinegar and offered to the dying Christ as a drink or not, and the idea of an ordinary object being holy because of its history is closer to our ideas of superstition. Yet, it is God where beauty comes from, since he is the one who created everything. How can one create something beautiful without understanding beauty?
Anyway, the story is a very unusual story. It seems to have some aspect of allegory at the foundation, in the sense of painting a picture of some common story of life, but it is incorporates enough elements to fit many things, to awaken many longings. There is not much in the way of dialog, and even the plot is not much more complicated than a fairy tale, but it is always surprising, and filled out with loving, almost poetic, observations of character, nature, and the quality of the light of evening.