Mulling over the idea of visiting a fantasy realm of my choosing, I think immediately of Lord Dunsany’s Elfland. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is less of a novel and more of an unexpected passport to enchantment – a visit to a realm lost in a half-glimpsed direction. Who would not wish to vacation in Dunsany’s Elfland?
In this tale of human aspiration and doom, a young prince of Erl named Alveric quests to marry the daughter of the King of Elfland. Alveric journeys with a magic sword made from thunderbolts, forged by the witch Ziroonderel (Tolkien could well have been inspired by this weapon to forge Turin’s sword, Anglachel, from meteoritic metals).
Seeking his doom, Alveric enters a twilight boundary, a misty haze at the edge of the fields we know. Passing within, his first sight of the fabled peaks of Elfland is exquisite: “The pale-blue mountains stood august in their glory, shimmering and rippling in a golden light that seemed as though it rhythmically poured from the peaks and flooded all those slopes with breezes of gold.” With his magic sword in hand, Alveric soon achieves his quest. He returns to Erl with his new bride, Princess Lirazel.
Spectacular mountain ranges rippling in golden light might be found in many lands, but an unearthly quality of magic that matters in Dunsany’s Elfland is a quality hidden deep in our minds. Alveric finds an unexpected transcendent consciousness in Elfland: “…so strong lay the enchantment deep over all that land, that not only did the beasts and men guess each other’s meanings well, but there seemed to be an understanding even, that reached from men to trees and from trees to men.”
Lirazel’s innocence of the ways of humankind make her a perfect tourist. One might think that a Princess of Elfland would know matters of wonder beyond anything we might presume to imagine. But the beautiful and gentle motion of the stars in the night sky startles Lirazel, giving her something marvelous to worship.
Wonder is a relative thing, very elusive to define. Perhaps it is the act of peering from one side of twilight to the other. Crossing boundaries surely inspires the sense of “elsewhere” that is essential to our sense of wonder.
But there is more to consider. If I were to ever visit Dunsany’s Elfland, I would want to have the wise insightful amusement of Lurulu, a troll entrusted with delivery of a rune of power from the King of Elfland to Lirazel. Lurulu the tourist sets fresh eyes upon our familiar world. We see that it isn’t just the act of crossing a magic boundary that matters. An ability to sense deeper sidelong truths is essential if we wish to glimpse unseen wonders in our journeying.
For most of us, the commonplace of time provides us with a routine fact of life. But for Lurulu the tourist, time is a thing to laugh at and to marvel over. The astonishing perpetual motion of time inspires in him a charming impudence, a droll sense of mystical regard: “He contrasted it, in wonder, with the deep calm of his home, where the moment moved more slowly than the shadows of houses here, and did not pass until all the content with which a moment is stored had been drawn from it by every creature in Elfland.”
Tolkien’s Lothlorien is a fabulous Elfland which would be great to visit – I would certainly plan a vacation to the swaying flets of the Golden Wood. But if I had to choose only one version of Faery to visit, I would prefer Lord Dunsany’s Elfland. We flit from character to character in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, looking through their eyes, gazing upon the nature of wonder from different angles.
Discovering that Lirazel has wafted back to Elfland, caught up by the rune of power, Alveric sets forth on a hopeless quest. He has a mad yearning to return to Elfland, now made elusive by the magic of the King. We mortal humans always aspire to find our heart’s desire. Often the road proves unforgiving, but we must yearn for something in life – why not quest for even the merest rumor of enchanted realms?
At the end of the story, the witch Ziroonderel witnesses the coming of Elfland to Erl: “…looking down from her height, she saw, behind the myriad-tinted border, the deep green elfin foliage and Elfland’s magical flowers, and things that delirium sees not, nor inspiration, on Earth; and the fabulous creatures of Elfland prancing forward; and, stepping across our fields and bringing Elfland with her, the twilight flowing from both her hands, which she stretched out a little from her, was her own lady the Princess Lirazel coming back to her home.”
Dunsany knew that imaginal tourism holds the possibility of transforming everyday realities into fantasy. What we find unremarkable, a tourist may find hilarious and astounding and mysterious. To see Elsewhere, one must look for curious worlds situated at an angle to the ordinary realms that we think we know. Seeing unexpected pathways curving inside the familiar trails before us, we transcend our comfortable boundaries of familiarity – we enrich ourselves with the essences of fantasy.