Dunsany’s Faeries- the background to the ‘King of Elfland’s Daughter’

ardly fairy music
Ardly, Fairy Music

I have discussed Lord Dunsany’s 1924 fairy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, in a previous post.  Here I put this classic novel in the wider context of Dunsany’s fantasy writing.

My starting point is a phrase that tolls throughout Dunsany’s classic.  Elfland is repeatedly described as being ‘beyond the fields we know.’  The phrase appears in the first chapter of the The King of Elfland’s Daughter and numerous times after that; its encapsulation of the mystery beyond the homely and familiar sticks in the memory.  I’d like to examine how this concept evolved.

lord d

The Author

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (1878-1957), was an Anglo-Irish writer and dramatist who wrote more than ninety books, including many hundreds of short stories, as well as plays and essays. He achieved great fame and success with his early work.  Dunsany was born and raised in London, but lived much of his life in Ireland, where he worked with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.  In addition, during the First World War he became familiar with the young poet Francis Ledwidge, who was in his regiment, and promoted his work after he was killed.

The Sword of Welleran

In his earliest books, Dunsany accepted the conventional lore on fairies and their dwellings.  For example, in the story The Fortress Unvanquishable (1908), “the race of fairies and the elves and the little scared spirits of the trees and dreams” live in woods; in Poltarnees, of 1910, the country people are “kind to the little woodland things and any rumour of the fairies or old legend.”  The wills of the wisp, meanwhile, are depicted quite properly as the denizens of East Anglian marshes in the 1908 story The Kith of the Elf Folk.

Even so, Dunsany’s own unique conception of the location and nature of fairyland was already beginning to form.  His 1910 collection, Dreamer’s Tales, touched on this issue in numerous of the stories included in the book.  The story Carcassonne concerns an imaginary city to which “the elf-kings with their fairies had first retreated from men, [they] had built it on an evening late in May by blowing their elfin horns.”  We’ll hear those horns again, ringing out across Elfland, just as we’ll discover that Faery is a fabulous city just beyond the reach (and vision) of humankind.  In the same collection, in the story The Field, the narrator describes walking to escape from the urban sprawl of London.  What draws him away from the traffic and noise is the call of country uplands:

“The call is from afar both in leagues and years, for the hills that call are the hills that were, and their voices are the voices of long ago, when the elf-kings still had horns.”

Fairyland is distant in both space and time, it seems.  There is a danger of fairyland, and all it represents, being lost.  This melancholy theme was the subject of his (very) brief story, The Giant Poppy, which was published in Fifty-One Tales in 1915.  It’s so brief I can reproduce it in full:

“I dreamt that I went back to the hills I knew, whence on a clear day you can see the walls of Ilion and the plains of Roncesvalles. There used to be woods along the tops of those hills with clearings in them where the moonlight fell, and there when no one watched the fairies danced.

But there were no woods when I went back, no fairies nor distant glimpse of Ilion or plains of Roncesvalles, only one giant poppy waved in the wind, and as it waved it hummed “Remember not.” And by its oak-like stem a poet sat, dressed like a shepherd and playing an ancient tune softly upon a pipe. I asked him if the fairies had passed that way or anything olden.

He said: “The poppy has grown apace and is killing gods and fairies. Its fumes are suffocating the world, and its roots drain it of its beautiful strength.” And I asked him why he sat on the hills I knew, playing an olden tune.

And he answered: “Because the tune is bad for the poppy, which would otherwise grow more swiftly; and because if the brotherhood of which I am one were to cease to pipe on the hills men would stray over the world and be lost or come to terrible ends. We think we have saved Agamemnon.”

Then he fell to piping again that olden tune, while the wind among the poppy’s sleepy petals murmured “Remember not. Remember not.””

The Book of Wonder

In his next collection, The Book of Wonder, published in 1912, Dunsany developed these ideas much further.  In The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men, Dunsany describes his trio as heading towards the ‘Dubious Land,’ which is to be found at the edge of the world, overlooking the abyss.  On the way, they pass through Rumbly Heath, a place whose “stormy hillocks were the ground-swell and after-wash of the earthquake, lulled for a while.”  This is very suggestive (to me, at least!) of the fairy knolls of British folklore.

The idea of Faery as being at the edge of our known universe was elaborated throughout the collection.  Pombo the Idolater, in the account of his Injudicious Prayers, travels from London to the village of World’s End, where, at the furthest end of Last Street, he finds steps leading down over the edge of the world to Lonely House, the House of Nowhere and from there over a precipice to the stars and constellations.  The Quest of the Queen’s Tears takes its hero, Ackronnion, on a hunt for the Gladsome Beast, which lives underneath fairyland, at the edge of the world.  Along with his page, Ackronnion “set out through the fields of fable until they came to Fairyland, a kingdom sunning itself (as all men know) for leagues along the edges of the world.”  As they approached, the wind blew in their faces from the void, bringing “a kind of metallic taste from the roving stars.”  Ackronnion seeks directions from the Old Man Who Looks After Fairyland, whose house windows look star-ward, away from the world, and he explains how to climb over the edge of the precipice, looking out over space, to find the Gladsome Beast.

The City of Never is a story about a child who visits a dream city that once again stands at the edge of the world, although it can be reached somewhere beyond the Surrey Hills.  This ‘Ultimate City’ exists in a perpetual twilight and we’ll encounter this mysterious half-light again in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.  It’s also highly reminiscent of the light found in many subterranean fairylands, where a permanent evening exists without sun or moon.

As the quest of Ackronnion for the Gladsome Beast implies, Dunsany was developing his own mythical menagerie as well.  He frequently referred to elves, fairies, gnomes (and even centaurs), but he was beginning to play with the established species.  As the Three Literary Men head towards the ‘Dubious Land’ across Rumbly Heath, they see “the harmless little mipt, half faery, half gnome, giving shrill contented squeaks on the edge of the world” whilst nuzzling dead white bones.  The Hoard of the Gibbelins is concealed within their evil tower which “is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge.”  The skilled thief, Nuth, concocts a plan to steal emeralds from the ‘gnoles,’ who live in a wood infested with elves and fairies.  The nearest human village (wisely it seems) was “some miles away, with the backs of all its houses turned to the wood and without one window at all facing in that direction.  They did not speak of it there…”  These creatures may echo, or resemble, imps, goblins and gnomes, but they aren’t quite the same.  They are, though, uniformly dangerous.  This peril explains the reluctance of humans to even acknowledge their existence, let alone discuss them, and we’ll encounter this attitude once again in the King of Elfland’s Daughter.

As well as the obvious peril of creatures that kill and eat humans, there are other features of Faery that may prevent a person ever returning.  As the heroine discovers in Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance, the passage of time is different:

“But whether the centuries passed her or whether the years, or whether no time at all, she did not know.  If anything indicated the passing of time, it was the rhythm of elfin horns blowing upon the heights.  If the centuries went by, the spell that bound her gave her also perennial youth…”

The Last Book of Wonder

In his next collection, The Last Book of Wonder, which came out in 1916, Dunsany consolidated this evolving mythology.  The jewel thief, Mr Neepy Thang, who features in the story of The Bird of the Difficult Eye, also has to journey to the Edge of the World to steal gems for his clients.  He is asked to steal emeralds from the nest of the Bird:

“So Neepy Thang set out. He bought the purple ticket at Victoria Station. He went by Herne Hill, Bromley and Bickley and passed St. Mary Cray. At Eynsford he changed and taking a footpath along a winding valley went wandering into the hills. And at the top of a hill in a little wood, where all the anemones long since were over and the perfume of mint and thyme from outside came drifting in with Thang, he found once more the familiar path, age-old and fair as wonder, that leads to the Edge of the World… he went down that path going further and further from the fields we know… The glamour that is at all times upon those lonely lands that lie at the back of the chalky hills of Kent intensified as he went upon his journeys. Queerer and queerer grew the things that he saw by little World-End Path. Many a twilight descended upon that journey with all their mysteries, many a blaze of stars; many a morning came flaming up to a tinkle of silvern horns; till the outpost elves of Fairyland came in sight and the glittering crests of Fairyland’s three mountains betokened the journey’s end.  And so with painful steps (for the shores of the world are covered with huge crystals) he came to the risky seas of Shiroora Shan and saw them pounding to gravel the wreckage of fallen stars, saw them and heard their roar, those shipless seas that between earth and the fairies’ homes heave beneath some huge wind that is none of our four. And there in the darkness on the grizzly coast, for darkness was swooping slantwise down the sky as though with some evil purpose, there stood that lonely, gnarled and deciduous tree. It was a bad place to be found in after dark, and night descended with multitudes of stars, beasts prowling in the blackness gluttered [see any dictionary, but in vain] at Neepy Thang. And there on a lower branch within easy reach he clearly saw the Bird of the Difficult Eye sitting upon the nest for which she is famous. Her face was towards those three inscrutable mountains, far-off on the other side of the risky seas, whose hidden valleys are Fairyland.”

The Long Porter’s Tale shares many similarities.  A man called Gerald Jones once, as a child, caught a glimpse of fairyland and heard a fairy song on a Yorkshire Moor. He has longed all his life to witness these again, and is told how he might do so at the Edge of the World in the town of Tong Tong Tarrup, a place known to be visited by elves and gnomes.

“The ways to that town are winding; he took the ticket at Victoria Station that they only give if they know you: he went past Bleth: he went along the Hills of Neol-Hungar and came to the Gap of Poy. All these are in that part of the world that pertains to the fields we know; but beyond the Gap of Poy on those ordinary plains, that so closely resemble Sussex, one first meets the unlikely. A line of common grey hills, the Hills of Sneg, may be seen at the edge of the plain from the Gap of Poy; it is there that the incredible begins, infrequently at first, but happening more and more as you go up the hills.”

Jones is able to gaze out over “the twilight of the World’s Edge” and, in the abyss, he glimpses a fairy woman and hears a snatch of the lost song again- but is then cast out of Tong Tong Tarrup.

“Yet it may be that the devastation wrought by Time is merely local, and that outside the scope of his destruction old songs are still being sung by those that we deem dead. I try to hope so.”

In parallel with these stories, Dunsany wrote others that showed that he built his fantasies upon a solid foundation of authentic fairy lore.  The City on Mallington Moor demonstrates this.  The narrator has heard of a mythical city that is sometimes seen on a distant English moor, perhaps in the Pennines.  He travels there to discover the truth and gets directions from a local shepherd.  Setting out, he follows a track that “was no more than the track of a hare- an elf-path, the old man called it, Heaven knows what he meant.”  Such narrow paths through gorse and heather are called pixie-paths in Cornwall, so we are clearly heading in the right direction.

A mist descends and the searcher has to lie down in the heather to wait.  When the veil of fog lifts, a wondrous oriental city is revealed.  It seems to have simply materialised or settled in this remote spot, but the visitor is able to enter its walls, wander its streets and speak to its exotic people.  Eventually, he finds a hostel where he can rest for the night and falls asleep to the sound of singing.

The story ends: “A small wind having arisen, I was awakened by a sprig of heather that beat continually against my face.  It was morning on Mallington Moor, and the city was quite gone.”  This conclusion confirms that Dunsany was well aware of the widespread British folklore tradition of people who stumble across celebrations in houses or find inns in places where they did not think anyone lived.  They are well entertained and given a luxurious bed for the night, only to wake the next morning to find themselves asleep on the open moorland.

In 1919 Dunsany published another collection of short stories, Tales of Three Hemispheres, in which he looked “Beyond the fields we know, in the Lands of Dream…”  Five years later, he revealed what he had found there.

sidney sime- dunsany
Sidney Sime, The King of Elfland’s Daughter

The King of Elfland’s Daughter

Dunsany’s triumph, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, represents a summation of all his learning and experimentation.  The story is set in the Vale of Erl, which “is very near to the border beyond which there is none of the fields we know.”  The people living near the border build their houses turned away from it, and refuse to acknowledge that Elfland exists so near to them.  Alveric, son of the king of Erl, sets out to seek Lirazel, the king of Elfland’s daughter.  To do this, he must cross the “boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace that is only told of in song.”  Continually, too, from Elfland, the silver horns ring out and the sound drifts across the twilight barrier, audible to those that wish to hear.

In Elfland, time passes very differently.  For the king’s daughter, “time had had no value or meaning … She did not dream what time means to us here.”  The damage done by the passing of time to humans, and the fact that Elfland is “unvexed by Time” is a constant refrain of throughout the book.   Many of the ideas and themes he had sketched out in his earlier stories were brought to masterful fruition by Dunsany in this novel.

The novel was later turned into a folk rock opera.  details will be found in my 2022 book The Faery Faith in British Music which is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).

Later Work

Dunsany lived until 1957, so many books followed The King of Elfland’s Daughter.  There is evidence that he lost some of his fairy faith in his later years.  His 1939 novel, The Story of Mona Sheehy, concerns a girl who believes that she is daughter of the fairy queen.  The book charts how she is disabused of this fantasy and comes to accept the realities of her life.  Dunsany’s short story Helping the Fairies (1947) is even more down-to-earth and cynical.  A newcomer to the Irish village of Rathgeel has cut down a fairy thorn tree- “one that the Little People had danced round for ages.”  All the villagers expect the fairies to have their revenge and to take the man’s luck away.  Instead, though, he has a run of incredible good fortune, placing winning bets and making lucrative deals.  The villagers become uneasy at the way in which he is insulting the Little People with his prosperity and, in the end, they take matters into their own hands and the stranger is murdered- at which point it can be said that the Little People have exacted their vengeance, just as everyone knew they would.

Despite these two strongly rationalist works, however, Dunsany retained his detailed knowledge of fairy-lore.  His 1949 poem, The Fairy Child, is very much in the spirit of verse by W. B. Yeats, Dora Sigerson Shorter or Nora Chesson Hopper (see my Victorian Fairy Verse).  It is imbued with the darker perceptions of Faery that are drawn from authentic British and Irish folk tradition.  It differs markedly from the fairyland of Lirazel, but is true to its roots; it is a story of abduction and of substitution with a stock or changeling.  It’s notable, too, that Dunsany describes Faery as being not being “Heaven or Earth or Hell,” but somewhere else.

From the low white walls and the church’s steeple,

From our little fields under grass or grain,

I’m gone away to the fairy people

I shall not come to the town again.

You may see a girl with my face and tresses,

You may see one come to my mother’s door

Who may speak my words and may wear my dresses.

She will not be I, for I come no more.

I am gone, gone far, with the fairies roaming,

You may ask of me where the herons are

In the open marsh when the snipe are homing,

Or when no moon lights nor a single star.

On stormy nights when the streams are foaming

And a hint may come of my haunts afar,

With the reeds my floor and my roof the gloaming,

But I come no more to Ballynar.

Ask Father Ryan to read no verses

To call me back, for I am this day

From blessings far, and beyond curses.

No heaven shines where we ride away.

At speed unthought of in all your stables,

With the gods of old and the sons of Finn,

With the queens that reigned in the olden fables

And kings that won what a sword can win.

You may hear us streaming above your gables

On nights as still as a planet’s spin;

But never stir from your chairs and tables

To call my name.  I shall not come in.

For I am gone to the fairy people.

Make the most of that other child

Who prays with you by the village steeple

I am gone away to the woods and wild.

I am gone away to the open spaces,

And whither riding no man may tell;

But I shall look upon all your faces

No more in Heaven or Earth or Hell.

3 thoughts on “Dunsany’s Faeries- the background to the ‘King of Elfland’s Daughter’

  1. Thanks for sharing this! The stories you have presented all sound fascinating and the prose reads very poetic and dreamy. I’ll add them to my reading list. I had read The King of Elfland’s Daughter a few years ago. Indeed, it’s a marvelous novel.


  2. Many years ago, I lived for a while in a Dunsany Road. I knew nothing of Lord Dunsany then. Several years later, around the time I discovered I’d photographed the ‘mythical’ Green Isles, fairy isles, without realising; I found that I’d also taken a photograph of a fairy amongst the flowers in the Dunsany garden.


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