Long before there was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, there were fantasy stories written by such writers as Walter de La Mare, John Masefield, and Hope Mirrlees. Of this coven of fantasists writing in the first half of the twentieth century, arguably the one who has remained most influential upon contemporary writers is Lord Dunsany.
Amongst the vast and highly varied collection of poems, plays, essays, short stories, and novels which Dunsany produced, his novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (originally published in 1924, and republished a number of times since) is widely recognized as one of the classics of the literature of the fantastic. In the wave of interest in fantasy literature which occurred after the publication of Lord of the Rings, The King of Elfland’s Daughter was republished in 1969 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. From this era in fantasy literature’s popularity came not only a generation of fantasy writers who claimed Dunsany’s writing to be highly influential upon their own work–writers such as Michael Moorcock, Peter S. Beagle, and Neil Gaiman–but a generation of musicians who wove the fantastic literature they read into their music.
Thus came about one of the more fantastic–in all senses of the word–concept albums of the 1970s: The King of Elfland’s Daughter, written and produced by Bob Johnson and Pete Knight of Steeleye Span fame.
ÊTo summarize Lord Dunsany’s story, it begins when the Parliament of Erl demands that the King of Erl send his son, Alveric, to steal the King of Elfland’s daughter and bring her back to Erl so that the people of Erl may be ruled by magic. Once Alveric has brought back the princess and married her, however, the people of Erl discover that magic is an elemental force which, like the Princess herself, is not so easily controlled by mortals.
It’s a wonderfully allegorical story which, in Dunsany’s poetic language, practically begs to be set to music. It is also as dark and mysterious as any of our own contemporary fairy tale retellings and, as in many fairy tales, there is a lesson regarding the magic of language and being careful what you wish for.
While Dunsany’s rich and elaborate story is scaled down tremendously to fit into the abbreviated format of a single LP–the vinyl LPs were much more restricted in how much could be fit onto them than our current CD format–the shortened storyline captures much of the feel of a fairy tale, where characters are often more archetypal than complex and the pace is kept up with descriptions of action and brief but powerful sketches of the strange and spooky landscapes.
Christopher Lee performs the roles of both narrator and the King of Elfland, which provides the listener with some hint as to precisely what sort of dark and menacing place this fairyland can be. Frankie Miller plays Alveric, the Prince of Erl, who must travel beyond the borders of the human world into the liminal space of fairyland. Mary Hopkin is Lirazel, the Princess who, like many fairy wives, feels no compunction to conform to the strictures to which human wives conform, while P.P. Arnold is the distinctly eldritch witch who forges Alveric’s magic sword and whose song is a wild chant to the storms of lonely places and the lightning over which she has mastery. Equally dark is the song performed by British blues legend Alexis Korner as a troublesome troll sent by the King of Elfland to be a scourge upon the land of Erl.
Balancing out these darker enchantments is the poetic invocations of fairyland such as in “Alveric’s Journey Through Elfland,” with its haunting refrain “to venture into timeless days beyond the fields we know and into Elfland…” This fairyland could be any one of those mysteries which fascinate humans: the land of magic, the land of the imagination, the land of Death itself.
While some of the musical tracks may sound somewhat dated–the over-the-top performance on the first music track, for instance, or the overuse of reverb–these were, for me at least, forgiveable sins in contrast to the still powerfully enchanting and evocative performances on the rest of the album.
Anyone who is interested in folk rock of the 1970s, fantasy media, fantasy in song, or filking should give this album a listen. I also expect it would be very popular with children who will be able to follow the fairy tale structure and the relatively shortened format quite easily, along with the action-filled lyrics that beg to be enacted.
While the original vinyl LP is rare, one can still find The King of Elfland’s Daughter available in CD format from various vendors on the Internet.