Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter

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Dunsany makes it seem so easy. When people think of fantasy, they think of bricks full of descriptions and histories of non-existent worlds. I hear often how people don’t read fantasy because they don’t want a life commitment, because it’s more like studying the history of something rather than actual stories. If Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are anything to go by, they have point.

What’s bizarre is why these type of literature is so popular and so often written. In 1924 Dunsany wrote a simple novel. In terms of difficulty, the only thing difficult about it is that sentences can be long and the language is slightly archaic. Compared to more modern fiction though, the prose flows more smoothly. The story is about a person who seeks out a magical bride and gets astonished by the Huge World Outside. Wikipedia sums up the story in one paragraph and it’s okay. Why didn’t more authors replicate this?

That’s because artists don’t just try to sell a product. They sell importance. Importance in art is important. Rappers keep those crappy Boom Bap beats because it’s important and real, and so people who hate music will keep listening to them. Tolkien’s overlong saga was important, and so every Fantasy author wants to be seen as important and pile on the words. Writing a book like Dunsany’s may be easier, but it doesn’t look as important. Too bad that importance has little to do with musical quality. Manic Street Preachers aren’t as famous as David Bowie, but “Stay Beautiful” is better than anything on Ziggy Stardust.

Writing and storytelling devices serve the themes, not the opposite. Dunsany writes simply because that’s the best way to express his ideas. This novel isn’t fantasy just because the world is invented. ‘Fantasy’ is the theme of this novel. For a generation that explored all physical frontiers, it’s quaint but the sense of wonder Dunsany explores can apply to anything life.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is about seeing something so majestic, so beautiful that we become obsessed. It’s something that we also can never capture. We will continue searching for it and never find it. It’s not just Elfland. Alveric gets party members, each with his own obsession. We’re all mad when the right thing strikes us. No one is exempt from this. Even the people of Elfland, once they see Earth become obsessed with it. Everything is a place of wonder if you look at it from a distance. The constant usage of the phrase “Fields we know” emphasizes this. These fields look ordinary to us only because we know them, and the narrator has our point of view. For Lirazel, Earth is just as wondrous.

The price of such beauty is no satisfaction. You’re either yearning for it, or don’t fit in. Alveric constantly searches. When Lirazel can be in Earth, which is wondrous for her, she can’t find her place and never feels at home. Man is torn by his lust for wonder and his need for a stable home. Notice how Alveric carries a tent on his journey – even while traveling he needs something resembling a home.

Some do try to settle down. Another way to react to these wonders is fear. Alveric’s party have their obsession, but theirs isn’t as concrete as Elfland. When they see what real wonder looks like, they want to back away to their normal lives. Alveric himself despairs a little – that’s another price of seeing wonder. Back in the village we see that settling down doesn’t work. If we don’t go seeking the world, then it’ll just finds its way to us. You can be obsessed with it on your territory or not, but you’ll react to it. Even denying it is a reaction.

All these paragraphs of analysis – and I’m sure others can go something more in-depth – for such a simple book. That’s because Dunsany’s theme come before style and story. There are no digressions, no meaningless paragraphs of exposition. A chapter involving a man with a dark coat may at first seem like a digression, but even without the revelation it’s an exploration of Dunsany’s idea. In that chapter, magical creatures themselves aren’t infallible. They can get obsessed with something and follow it to things unknown.

Dunsany’s world isn’t physical, but is aware of ‘idea space’. His descriptions are always what it feels like, rather than what actually is. Worlds in fiction never exist. Telling me how tall a spire is, doesn’t actually tell me anything. So what? When Dunsany describes palace as “can only be told of in song”, it creates an image more mythic than any other physical description. If Dunsany’s book is difficult, it’s because of how expressive his language is. Nothing is described in direct physical traits, but every description is dripping with expression and poetics. Repetition never dulls the power of these words, because “fields we know” says more about them than anything else could.

He’s one of the few authors who can go off on long descriptions. Sometimes, his descriptions drip with so much wonder and awe that it speaks for itself. He describes flowers, in the same sentence, both as ‘unwithering’ and that time never touches them. Such repetition is redundant, but in the contexts it makes sense. Elfland is so wonderous that you have to traits in it using different ways, and you still wouldn’t capture it.

The result of such expressive and non-physical language is that Elfland and the Fields We Know feel actually feel real. We don’t experience the world in numbers. The Earth may move around the sun quite fast, but we don’t feel this speed. Fiction is never about displaying facts but about the human condition, since it is, after all, products of human thought. By tapping into how things feel like rather than how they actually are, Dunsany writes like how human beings experience the world.

The book’s only flaw, which must be deliberate, is that its characters can be fairly shallow. They’re clear archetypes, symbols that exist to explore ideas rather than complex human beings. It doesn’t detract too much, since the story is simple and demands such simple characters. Still, it would be nice if Dunsany dedicated a few more paragraphs to how his characters experience the world in their unique ways. He shows us their obsessions, but not how they deal with other things in the world. The book may explore its main topic quite well, but its lack of psychology and other subjects makes its vision too narrow. Great works of fiction have their main topics, but they also tend to dispense some unrelated views. Dunsany already shows great skill, so it makes you wonder what else he has to say.

The small flaws prevent this from being an all-time great book, but everything else makes this a cornerstone of the Fantasy genre. This is the book we should namedrop constantly when we discuss Fantastical fiction. Dunsany’s prose isn’t just beautiful, but his method of ‘worldbuilding’ is more engrossing and meaningful than other famous authors. Beyond the symbolic layer, it’s also a cute romance about two lovers who can’t let the kind-of-dimensional distance between their worlds separate them. Both as a love story and an exploration of human obsession, it’s a great book.

4.5 fields we know out of 5

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Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5