I came to the Irish writer Lord Dunsany several months ago because of a friend, who often tells me about what he is reading, which, in turn, sends me back towards a writer I have long loved or a new one whom I had not heard of before. In this way I get to remember what I love most about writers I have read for years or perhaps experience something new that I never expected, and fall in love with someone new, which is the exciting thing about literature. In short order I found myself with an interesting collection of stories and plays written by Lord Dunsany (who would have a profound effect on Tolkien and other writers of fantasy some decades later), published in the late 1910's or early 1920's, their leather bindings worn in places, some clad in clear plastic covers cracked with time. Some of the books have the names of previous owners written inside or emblazoned on nameplates; sometimes I run my fingers over the faded ink or engraved nameplates and wonder about those people who once held these books in their hands, flipped through the pages, lined their bookshelves with volumes of plays and fantastical stories in their gold-stamped covers.
However, my copy of The King of Elfland's Daughter is from the late 1960's or early 1970's, and therefore has a slightly psychedelic cover, bright colors illustrating various scenes from the novel, which I believe was the style of the times. (Lord Dunsany, otherwise known as Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, was then enjoying rather a bit of a renaissance due to the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien and his stories). I read it in a haze some time during the winter and come back to it now because of Neil Gaiman, who owes much to Lord Dunsany (which he acknowledges) in his writing, particularly Stardust, when the young Tristran Thorne heads off "beyond the fields we know," a direct homage to The King of Elfland's Daughter and its repeated refrain.
The young Alveric, eldest son of the Lord of Erl, is summoned by his father and commanded to cross into the lands of faery in order to wed the King of Elfland's daughter, Lirazel. In Elfland Alveric finds the beautiful Lirazel, and they flee through her lands back into earth, where one day in Elfland finds some ten or twelve years have passed in Erl, the old Lord long dead. And so they are married (all this in Dunsany's clear prose which makes the most fantastical lands and happenings seem possible), and the years pass. They have a child, but the pull of Elfland and the rune sent by her father the King finally loosen the strings that bind Lirazel to her life on earth and sweep her back to the lands of her childhood, far from the fields we know. For happiness between men and those who belong to faery is fleeting, as they are drawn apart by their worlds and their own people.