Dean Spanley

Who would have thought Lord Dunsany would get a film adaptation in 2010? Even in these post-Potter, post-Jackson-LOTR days when fantasy is enjoying a filmic boom, he’s hardly the author you’d expect to be the beneficiary of a decent film budget. And even then, would his short 1936 novel, My Talks with Dean Spanley, be the one to choose over something more flashy and Hollywood-friendly, like, say, The Sword of Welleran or The King of Elfland’s Daughter? As fantasy goes, Spanley is really quite mild, being about a dean who, under the influence of his favourite wine, Tokay (which has something of a fantasy pedigree, as it appears in the first chapter of Pullman’s Northern Lights, too), falls into reminiscences of his previous life as a dog. No car chases, no fights, no massive effects sequences — no effects sequences at all, as far as I could tell. No romance, either. The cast is all male, apart from one ageing housekeeper.

But what a charming film!

Partly this is down to the excellent cast. Peter O’Toole is the frankly frightening Horatio Fisk, an unforgiving, staunchly unemotional old man, teetering on the awkward edge between wilful rudeness and outright dementia. Jeremy Northam is his son, painfully trying to get his father to open up just a little bit about the deaths of Northam’s brother (during the war) and his mother (afterwards, from grief). Sam Neill is the rather unsociable Dean Spanley whose Tokay-induced reminiscences have to be coaxed out of him, but who, once going, provides a wonderful insight into the life and worldview of a dog, and his relationship to “the master”.

But also, the film’s particular charm comes down to that rare thing in films these days, particularly fantasy ones (he says, having recently reviewed the Clash of the Titans remake) — a story that’s not only good, but which is allowed time to breathe, to develop, to gather momentum, to bring out its subtle emotional undercurrents and let them build into full-size waves. At first, I must admit, the story was so slight I wasn’t sure there was even going to be one. Just how much, after all, can you get from the reminiscences of a closemouthed dean about a previous canine incarnation? But before I knew it, the gentle pace, mild manners and the sheer, quiet, confidence of the film won me over, and suddenly I found it was packing a real emotional punch. In one scene near the end, Peter O’Toole’s face, so impassive, not to say death-like at the beginning, suddenly — and so subtly — thaws, with just the tiniest of shifts in expression, and suddenly the whole tone of the film is changed.

Really a lovely film.

Bob Johnson & Pete Knight’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter

I can’t believe there’s never been a prog rock band called Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, but if there had been, this is the album they’d have released. Based on the 1924 novel by the real-life Edward John (etc.) Plunkett — better known, of course, as Lord Dunsany — The King of Elfland’s Daughter, released in 1977, was actually helmed by two ex-members of folk-rock band Steeleye Span, accompanied by a small cadre of vocal talent including the likes of P P Arnold, Mary Hopkin, Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee — yes, Christopher Lee, ex-Dracula, ex-Lord Summerisle, and Saruman-in-waiting. Lee has quite a prominent role on the album, in fact, providing the narration linking the tracks (taken from Dunsany’s own prose), as well as singing/performing (it is the most actorly piece on the album, verging between being sung and spoken) “The Rune of the Elf King”.

I’ve been trying to get hold of this album for some time, even going so far as to make my one and only (entirely unsuccessful) venture into the world of BitTorrents (which I try to avoid, as I much prefer the artists involved to get their dues). Fortunately, a recent Amazon search turned up a CD reissue from Second Harvest, apparently dating from 2007, though it must have appeared on Amazon only recently. It’s a no-frills digipack (it would have been nice to have had a lyrics booklet and something about the history of the album), but at least the music is there. And the music is, I’m glad to say, very good.

Dunsany’s novel is written in that fairy-tale-for-grownups mode that was one of the cultural casualties of the Second World War (along with the more fantastic aspects of Art Nouveau, which it could be said to embody in prose), and, like Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (another example of the genre, from 1926), is as much about fantasy as it is a tale of fantasy. It opens with the men of Erl approaching their lord with a request that, I can’t help feeling, many would like to make of our current administration: “We would be ruled by a magic lord.” (Or at least one who can make us suspend our disbelief in politicians.) And so the Lord of Erl sends his son, Alveric, into nearby Elfland, to woo Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. This Alveric succeeds in doing, much to the dismay of Lirazel’s father, who does not want to see her made mortal. And so he sends a troll with a rune to fetch her back.

Johnson & Knight retell Dunsany’s novel in nine songs and nine brief pieces of narration (which are, annoyingly, joined to their respective tracks on the CD reissue. I spent a bit of time dividing them up before importing it into iTunes.) The style veers between the delicate folkiness of Mary Hopkin (who provides the voice of Lirazel, and sings the album’s anthemic closing piece, “Beyond the Fields We Know”), the bluesiness of Alexis Korner (as the Troll), and the weird wildness of P P Arnold (as the Witch), whose vocal acrobatics on “Witch” would recall Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”, if only they didn’t precede them by a year. Christopher Lee’s “Rune of the Elf King” is the most dramatic, though least song-like piece, with Lee’s delivery of the line “Why should my daughter be taken by pitiless years?” achingly desperate and expressive. Catchiest tune of the lot, though, must be “Too Much Magic”, sung by the wonderfully-named Derek Brimstone, along with a chorus of school children. It’s a cheery mix of hand-clamped-to-his-ear folkish lilt and old-time singalong. You could imagine the mock-Edwardian audience of The Good Old Days joining in with its chorus:

Magic, magic everywhere,
Magic in the very air
Elfin horns are blowing, there is
Too much magic.
We dare not go a-wandering
For fear of what the night may bring
A curse upon all elvish things,
Too much magic.

(For full lyrics, and details of the album’s release, see this page.)