“The King of the Elves” was first published in Beyond Fantasy Fiction in September 1953. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 329–345.
Shadrach Jones is an aging operator of a fuel pumping station in the insignificant town of Derryville. He makes only a little money but has few needs beyond his basic subsistence. One day three elves arrive at his fueling station. Two are holding a platform, one the platform is one who declares himself to be “the King of the Elves.” (Note: These are not the Tolkien elves. Rather they are small, wear ridiculous colored clothing.) Shadrach invites the weary travelers into his home.
The king explains to Shadrach that they were attacked by trolls near the Towering Mountains (a local ridge) and they escaped on the Endless Path (the highway). The elves are very apologetic for bother Shadrach but insist that their situation was dire. Shadrach has his doubts but the truth of what he sees is confirmed when an elf announces that the king has died.
The elves explain to Shadrach that they do not elect a king. Instead each king names his successor. In this case, before dying the late king named Shadrach his successor, prophesizing that the he will win victory over the trolls.
The next day, at the filling station, Shadrach meets an acquaintance Phineas Judd and tells him that he is King of the Elves. Later another acquaintance Dan Green asks if he really is King of the Elves. The news spread fast and most of the people in Derryville take Shadrach as crazy, or hiding some unseen motive for making himself King of the Elves. Phineas expresses the most concern over Shadrach.
That night, Shadrach is approached by elves who announce that the trolls are on the move, trying to take advantage of the death of the late king. Shadrach goes out to meet his enemy out of a sense of duty. Phineas sees this and tries to stop him, eventually convincing him to come over for a cup of coffee.
Over that cup of coffee, Phineas manages to convince Shadrach that he should relax and take a bath that evening. However, under the evening light, Phineas appears to Shadrach to have beastly features. He confronts Phineas on his true identity just as trolls pour out of Phineas’ basement. Shadrach, with the help of the elves, fights off all of the trolls, killing Phineas in the process, who is revealed to be the Great Troll. After the victory, Shadrach is about to retire as king but instead decides to take on his responsibility and King of the Elves and abandon his old, rundown filling station.
I would like to argue that Philip K. Dick is largely a writer of the world as it is. His themes and perspective comes from the world around him. He is not unique in this. Much of the power of science fiction is that it is social and politically engaged. “The King of the Elves” seems to be the story of someone falling deeper and deeper into a fantasy delusion. I cannot say for certain what Dick’s views of the fantasy genre were. He wrote largely in science fiction and made efforts at mainstream fiction. His only fantasy works are from early in his career. He may be saying that Shadrach is an allegory for the fantasy genre. That is, it is completely detached from reality. By rejecting his career at the filling station and going on to become King of the Elves, Shadrach embraces fully this detachment. Interestingly, during the Dungeons and Dragons scare—something I remember from growing up—the great fear was that fantasy would lead to a detachment from the world. I post an article below on how this seems unfounded. Not only has fantasy become mainstream, it has proven itself capable of tackling big moral and political questions.
There are few good reasons to take Shadrach’s perspective seriously as truth. The only other witness to the ceaseless battle between the trolls and the elves is Phineas. The perspective of the town is that Shadrach is going crazy. Phineas, who seems to know Shadrach best, is the most openly worried about his deteriorating mental condition. This is not because he secretly knows the truth and wants to prevent Shadrach from helping the elves. He was just being a good friend. So what really happened on that night, was something like this. Shadrach is invited in by his neighbor, who tries to talk in down from some of his delusions. In a moment of madness, Shadrach murders his neighbor and succumbs totally to his delusion. Becoming the King is this total surrender from reality. Unfortunately, the murder of Phineas is very real.
At the same time, if not for the murder of Phineas (the Great Troll), I do not see much wrong with Shadrach’s delusions. The rest of the town sees Shadrach’s stories as a source of amusement. Shadrach is nearing retirement and has few needs, no family, and only a handful of friends. Life has given him very little. “Enough to buy him tobacco and firewood and magazines, so that he could be comfortable as he waited for the occasional cars to come by.” (329) He is being left behind by his community in the same way that global capitalism has been leaving the town of Derryville behind. The road is in disrepair and most traffic takes another route. He is actually a good candidate for village wacko, if not for the murderous turn his delusion takes near the end.
There is a movie in the works based on “The King of the Elves,” by Disney. The track record on Philip K. Dick movies is not that good, but it has been improving with Radio Free Albemuth and A Scanner Darkly. The movie has been in and out of production. I cannot say what the theme will be, but I doubt that my interpretation will be Disney’s. If they want to do it justice, the final scene should be a blood soaked Shadrach shuffling down the old, dilapidated highway in a shot revealing at the last moment that the elves are merely a fantasy.
But the resistance continues.