Original blog post here.
In Pre-modern folklore, “fairy” is basically shorthand for “any magical creature from Otherworld” and is basically synonymous with “Elf“, a fact that modern Pop Culture has sort of lost sight of, due largely to the aforementioned “fairies-as-tiny-women-with-butterfly-wings” thing and concurrent “Elves are pointy-eared and better than you.”
Now, I think this largely stems from the fact that most modern Fantasy essentially boils down to “Tolkien, but less talented“. Now, Tolkien’s Elves are, in fact, better than you, but Tolkien was also a wise enough and theologically-minded enough man to work out a complicated metaphysical justification as to why — the short version is that Elves and Men have souls that operate in fundamentally different ways.
Tolkien’s Elves also retain certain traces of traditional folkloric Elves: the magic, the weapons and artifacts, living in a realm outside the mortal world. But, of course, most subsequent readings of the Legendarium have been rather superficial, so the state of modern Fantasy Elves has made them much, much less interesting.
Now, I am, in fact, going somewhere with this, I promise. All that preamble is to drive home the whole “Elves as Fairies” tradition, because my current recommendation is quite literally a Fairy Tale.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Boy meets Girl, Girl is Elf Princess, Boy marries Girl, Girl can’t find joy in the world of mortals and goes back to Elfland, Boy goes on epic quest to find Girl. Magic ensues and eventually, everybody lives happily ever after.
And that’s basically The King of Elfland’s Daughter. A book written by this handsome fellow:
Lord Dunsany is notable for being one of the prolific Fantasy authors to predate Tolkien. Granted, Tolkien didn’t invent the genre, but due to his singular influence upon said genre, remains a pretty handy point of reference to compare everything that came before with everything that came after.
Also, given that Lord Dunsany was writing about Elves even before Tolkien was, it’s not exactly surprising that he’s also drawing from the “Elves as Fairies” traditions and depicting Elves that are a lot closer to Irish folklore than Dungeons & Dragons.
In general, Lord Dunsany’s stories tend to be really outlandish and just plain weird — that’s not a bad thing, by the way. The King of Elfland’s Daughter isn’t really an exception to that, as you’d perhaps expect from a book about a dude questing through the world of the Elves.
It’s pretty weird top-to-bottom: weird characters do weird things, events and places are described with weird imagery and turns of phrase, the plot doesn’t really get into boring, mundane details. It feels less like a modern novel and more like an old Fairy Tale. Hardly surprising, given that it is, like I said, literally a Fairy Tale.
The upside to this is that the prose itself is so well-written and evocative that even when the story is dragging on (which it definitely does towards the end of the middle third, or so), actually reading the story is still worthwhile because the style of how its written and the choice and use of words and language is always just so sublimely overawing.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call The King of Elfland’s Daughter hugely influential on me in and of itself. Especially not where Realmgard is concerned, given that my Elves are Romans. However, I have to admit that the kind of story that The King of Elfland’s Daughter is has indeed been hugely influential on some of my non-Realmgard stuff.
I’m working on some stories about a mortal warrior in love with an Elf woman and I am consciously drawing on the thematic elements of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, along with a depiction of the Elves more in line with Lord Dunsany and Tolkien’s Elves than most modern Elves.
Also, I absolutely, positively love Lord Dunsany’s phrase “the fields we know” to refer to the mortal world and the idea of going beyond the fields we know to cross into Elfland.
Also, I named my first Fire Emblem Awakening character Lirazel in honour of the character that “King of Elfland’s Daughter” refers to.
So, yeah, take a chance on visiting the Perilous Realm and going beyond the fields we know. Just be mindful of finding your way back…
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from an original post written 2020.
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