Completed 5/25/2020, Reviewed 5/25/2020
This book was published in 1924 and is considered a classic of fantasy literature. Like the early classics of science fiction, it may not be as accessible to modern readers. I found it hard to get into because of the language and style, but after about twenty pages, it just flowed. It has been described as poetic, and indeed it has a lot of beautiful language. It is rather short on plot and characterization. Critics have said that his style was better suited to short stories. I would agree with that statement. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully written work with just enough magical subplots that it kept me going until the end.
The people of the all but forgotten land of Erl asked their lord that their land be ruled by a magic lord. In response, he sent his eldest son Alveric to Elfland to win the hand of Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. He steals her away, but as time is different between Earth and faerie, the lord has died and Alveric becomes the new lord and Lirazel his lady. Together they have a son, Orion. Lirazel, however struggles with the fact that she must worship the same god as Alveric. So she practices on the stars and stones. Thinking this is heathen behavior, Alveric constantly reprimands her. She despairs. In the meantime, her father, who was not happy that she left Elfland, has sent her a rune that would whisk her back. In her despair, she says goodbye to her son, reads the rune, and is blown back to Elfland. Distraught, Alveric begins a search for her, leaving Orion to grow up under the care of his nurse, who is a witch, and under the influence of two hunters. Orion becomes a skilled hunter, but longs for his mother.
The best part of the book is the prose. It is perhaps the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. However, I felt the prose got in the way of the plot. There are many times throughout the book where nothing much really happens. For example, there’s one whole chapter about a troll who sits up in the pigeon loft of the castle, feeling lonely, looking down upon Erl and its people, and wishing he could communicate with the pigeons. It was a little tedious. But hey, there is a troll. There’s also a witch, a unicorn, and a magic sword. It’s all these magical things that make keep the prose from becoming too oppressive.
Even though the plot description above sounds like it could be exciting, it really isn’t. There isn’t much that happens between Lizarel blowing away and the ending. Life simply goes on. Orion becomes a great hunter like his fathers before him. He hunts stags, and later unicorns. He befriends the troll who becomes part of his hunting party. Lizarel pines for Alveric and Earth. Alveric hunts for Lizarel. There aren’t many perils along the way for anyone. There’s no real action to speak of. And there’s no real character development. Everyone just is. I liked the witch though. She has a good soliloquy about using magic against magic.
I give this book four stars out of five. I was going to give it only three, but it is too beautifully written. You have to remember that this was published a few years after Tolkien had started writing his Lost Tales. If you read that and the Silmarillion, you can see the style isn’t all that different, although Tolkien’s stories had more plot and character development. Still they are tough reads, though written beautifully, as this book is. I think when you read this book, you have to wipe your mind of everything you know about fantasy and let it be a new experience. Try not to think of who was influenced by Lord Dunsany, and try not to criticize it for being boring. Fantasy at this point wasn’t even a genre yet. If you cut it some slack, you’ll better be able to appreciate it.