Month: December 2015

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Apart from the element of piety, court life at Brocéliande was much the same as in other Kingdoms. There were fashions of the moment — collecting butterflies, determining the pitch of birdsongs, table-turning, cat races, purifying the language, building card castles. There were expeditions to the coast to watch shipwrecks, summer picnics in the forest, deer hunts with the Royal Pack of Werewolves.

Few books that I’ve desired to read have been as difficult to track down as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 anthology, Kingdoms of Elfin. There isn’t a single copy in the Australian library system, no local booksellers had heard of it, it is currently out of print and the Reid library, which has everything else of STW’s including her letters and diaries, does not have it. I have known of the book’s existence for years, since I first discovered The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Manguel & Guadalupi 1980) in which there is a map of the Kingdoms. Being reminded of it by a reference in a journal article, I decided it was about time to find it and managed to order a copy (a UK first edition) through a bookseller in New Zealand. I have to admit that its very obscurity attracted me to it, as I love to discover under-appreciated treasures.

Kingdoms of Elfin is certainly a treasure. A collection of short stories previously published in The New Yorker, about various fairy courts throughout Europe and Asia, it is a forgotten gem of 20th century fantasy. Unlike many collections of folk tales, or stories based on fairy lore (such as Susanna Clarke’s brilliant The Ladies of Grace Adieu, 2006) these tales do not commonly feature human protagonists who encounter fairies* but rather focus on elfin protagonists who, in some way, revolt against the culture and expectations of the courts they inhabit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, not only are the majority of STW’s characters inhuman, they are entirely other, with an alien set of values, they appear amoral from a human perspective. In doing this, STW captures not only the amorality traditionally associated with ‘the fair folk’ but manages to create characters that are eccentric outsiders within a culture already incompatible with our own. Through the Kingdoms (which are actually Queendoms) she is able to highlight the cruelties and vanities of humanity, particularly the decadent courts of early modern Europe. The shocking traditions of the elfin monarchies are made even more so when compared to their historical counterparts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also proves herself, through this collection, an expert scholar of the fairy tradition in both literature and folklore. You will meet Robert Kirk, Thomas the Rhymer and James Hogg (wonderfully oblivious) wandering through the pages, and find allusions to Shakespeare, Aristophanes (“Of all the mortal writers, Aristophanes is nearest the Elfin mind”) and Partonope of Blois. Of particular interest are her choice of names, and I highly recommend looking up any that seem unfamiliar or original, as by doing so I uncovered several obscure sources which have been added to my own reading list! STW has clearly read her Katherine M. Briggs cover to cover, but rather than retelling old folk tales she invents new ones. In each the reader feels privileged to a unique view and access to the elfin world, from within that world, rather than from the traditional perspective of a human outsider.

The prose itself is crisp and lyrical; “She was a very pretty shade of green- a pure delicate tint, such as might have been cast on a white eggshell by the sun shining through the young foliage of a beech tree. Her hair, brows and lashes were of a darker shade; her lashes lay on her green cheek like a miniature fern frond… The smell, of course, was that smell of elderflowers. This passage made me think immediately of Randolph Stow’s The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980) and I can’t help but wonder if he read it. The stories also feature STW’s trademark wit; “‘Heresy,’ said Sir Bodach obligingly, ‘Is to believe in what other people don’t believe in. It is an offence against society.’”  But what may lead to some confusion and frustration, to anyone not familiar with her rather individual style, is the complete lack of regard for narrative convention. STW starts a new story, quite often, with a description of the particular ‘kingdom’ then introduces one or two characters, any of whom may turn out to be the protagonist, or may die before the protagonist even appears. She ends the story when she seems to grow tired of it, with little concern for denouement. Somehow, this flippancy adds to the elfin nature of the texts, as the fairy disregard for human morals is transferred onto our idea of how a story should be told. It is characteristic of STW in both life and writing, that she always seems to have done exactly as she pleased, and become a master of breaking the ‘rules.’

This style of narrative may explain, in part, why this book has fallen out of print and circulation. I would further suggest that, although I have called it a fantasy, Kingdoms is not something that could be marketed to a genre readership in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. It fits instead, into that other vein of 20th century fantastic fiction that includes the likes of Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen (her uncle by marriage) and the writers of Weird Fiction, although despite its moments of horror, I would not place it in that sub genre. Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose to be published during her lifetime, but it was a wonderful introduction to her work, which I will continue to pursue and write about with great interest.

Skye M. W.

Yule, 2015

*With the exception of Foxcastle, which follows this motif, and The One and The Other which is the tale of a human changeling.

A brief biography and bibliography of STW’s work can be found at The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, William Blake, c. 1786

 

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Reading on Public Transport

There is a singular advantage to public transport over the freedom of personal conveyance; since all responsibility for directing the vehicle is given over to another one can use the time usually stolen by a journey to read.

There are, of course, other ways to make use of this idleness. Staring out the window and contemplating any subject that drifts across one’s awareness may be equally profitable, as might sketching other passengers, or in lieu of pen and paper, inventing clever projects and ambitious ideas without any obligation to get up and initiate them. Some choose to have loud personal conversations, seemingly oblivious to their being surrounded by thirty curious strangers. These too, may provide a diversion, though, like a hospital waiting room with the television playing midday soaps, something that can only be endured for so long.

Reading, however, is the best of these options. To begin with there are so few portions of a busy day in which no guilt need be attached to something as indulgent as a good book. Public transport and in particular buses, which are never in a hurry, provide an opportunity like no other. This is also an ideal time to engage in reading something arduous or long unfinished, as the option to switch to a more exciting book is removed. The activity of reading additionally acts to separate the reader from fellow travelers in such a way that few dare approach or speak to them, so solemn they appear. While statistics are currently unavailable it seems likely, based on anecdotal evidence, that passengers are less inclined to sit next to an individual who is reading and, if forced to, will keep to themselves out of respect for this sacred state of concentration.

The varieties of transportational reading are many. Newspapers were once a popular choice but seem lately to have fallen out of favour. Paperbacks are conveniently lightweight and still widely available. Students may be easily identified by sheaves of exam notes, text books or unit readers, and indeed university routes provide a final chance to at least glance at those readings one is about to confidently discuss. For particularly long or scenic journeys, audio books provide the perfect solution, likewise for overly noisy or crowded buses, or when one does not wish to advertise their choice of fiction. Failure to remember to bring reading material has led to resourceful alternatives, such as surreptitiously reading over a neighbour’s shoulder or developing an unusual fascination for bus timetables.

It should be noted that there are various potential dangers involved in this occupation. The most prominent; becoming overly engrossed in the text and missing one’s stop. This can, however, have the benefit of extending the journey so that a few more chapters might be got in and a charming anecdote made of the late arrival. Another threat is the rare but persistent friendly reader. The friendly reader, unlike the genuine bibliophile, does not subscribe to the code of introversion generally accepted among the truly bookish. He will start by asking what it is you are reading (even if the cover is angled in such a way that he can read the title for himself) and then proceed to engage you in conversation, despite any aggravated tone of voice or raised eyebrow you might employ as deterrent. This discussion will quickly veer from your choice of book to his personal tastes and reading habits and soon become a monologue from which there is no easy escape. The best you can hope for is that his stop comes before your own and, failing that, it must be considered how far you are willing to walk.

The question then, is how best to select reading material for such occasions. On a practical note, the book should be neither overly large, heavy or fragile, as one may be forced to read standing up, in which case it must be held in a single hand. Short stories are an excellent option, as one or two may be completed during the journey, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction. One should never carry a book they are ashamed to be seen with. This is, after all, public transport and one’s choice of book is as likely to draw notice as one’s hat. Some readers have even been known to select books entirely on this criteria, choosing an impressive French or Russian novel to complete their look. These frauds can be easily identified by how often they turn the pages. Finally, anything overly popular or controversial at the time should be avoided, as this is likely to attract the attention of both the friendly and over-the-shoulder reader.

Despite the inherent dangers, the avid reader should take full advantage of public transport for the opportunity it presents to both catch up on neglected reading and feel infinitely superior to those playing video games on their phones.

This mock-essay was inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (which you can read here.) The Merriam-Webster assures me that ‘transportational’ is indeed a word, though the OED begs to differ.

Skye M.W.

 

The Essays of Hope Mirrlees

After recently developing nothing short of an addiction to Sylvia Townsend Warner (a proper post on her forthcoming), I was reminded of another obscure talent of the early 20th century who moved on the periphery of more famous literary circles – Hope Mirrlees. I came to Mirrlees as most do, through her extraordinary work of pre-Inklings fantasy, Lud-in-the-Mist. I went on to read her poetry which has received some praise lately (particularly Paris) and then discovered, buried at the back of her collected poems,¹ six essays.

The majority of the essays were originally published in The Nation & Athenaeum. They cover diverse topics ranging from literary criticism, to travelogues, history and religion and show a lively, broadly educated mind able to make nimble observations and develop them into a personal philosophy that is somehow both conservative and subversive. Mirrlees makes brilliant little similes and turns everyday experiences into clever anecdotes. She is able to pull, from a vast memory of literature, disparate threads with such deftness and weave them in so neatly that it never seems mere name-dropping, but more like sitting in on a dinner conversation between herself and everyone she has ever read (Mirrlees would doubtless have a far better metaphor for this!)

As one of the few published articles on Mirrlees states: “she emerges as a travelling modernist in a broad sense, moving across overlapping coteries, from the intellectual circles of Cambridge to literary London and lesbian Paris. Elegantly dressed, relatively wealthy, accomplished in languages and the classics, she can be seen as a kind of intellectual flâneuse, working across literary genres, exploring and commenting on both the past and the present, never lingering long enough to be easily identified with a single group. “² The essays certainly give credence to this intriguing persona.

Some Aspects of the Art of Aleksey Mikhailovich Remizov is ostensibly an exploration of that author’s style, with a good deal of praise. However it quickly becomes a game of comparisons, with such tangents as the real meaning of ‘Shakespearian’ and the nature of Russian patriotism. She is at her best when accidentally poetic, “But for Russians in exile? All Moscow is in flower, and everything is so sweet that bees swarm on the tower of Ivan the Great.” The essay conveys a deep familiarity with the breadth of English literature and concludes with several insights into the nature of reading and writing.

Listening in to the Past muses on the ways in which we receive history, through the metaphor of a wireless tuned in to distant voices, catching fragments of conversation without answers. She argues that it is in the records of law, and not in literature, that we find honest voices, but I would disagree and say that it is both. To (clumsily) carry her metaphor; you might hear both the news and the song of the day on the wireless, and both will tell you something about when and where you are.

An Earthly Paradise is an amusing account of her stay in a Paris hotel, where she waxes lyrical about the library. She inserts little declarations which I think, reflect both her privilege and character: “And Life, if you make your demands with a pistol to her head, is apt to stand and deliver.” I liked best her clever descriptions, stories in themselves, “One was apt to see nuns in that street, on an average, say of two a week; and just as one begins to suspect by slow degrees that somewhere in one’s garden is concealed a nest of insects, so in time we came to realise that the grim taciturn buildings that lined one side of the street were all of them contraband nunneries.”

The Religion of Women would, I think, give gender studies scholars a bit of trouble. It begins with an unflattering examination of middle aged women (of the middle class in particular), but ends, after an enchanting musing on the lack of seasons on Jupiter and how that might effect poetry, in a rather more dolefully feminist tone, “One of the duties of slaves is to mourn their master, and women are the slaves of Time.”

Gothic Dreams investigates the development and influence of Gothic fiction. Mirrlees connects the Gothic to a negative form of medievalism and fear of Catholic superstition. It brought to mind Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment and the later witchcraft trials. She discusses the dreamlike quality of Gothic romance and points out the wide influence of writers like Radcliffe who, “though undoubtedly a goose” was read by far more than the Catherine Morlands of her time.

By far the best of the essays though, is Bedside Books. It begins by exploring the sort of books suitable for bedtime reading (“Above all, they must not be dull”) with a wry humour and lyricism that will warm the hearts of book lovers; “To extract the last drop of sweetness from this delightful hour, we must be conscious of our bed as well as of our book, and a detective story emphasises the conceit that our bed is a hare’s form, a warm secret refuge from hunters and hounds – while outside our sanctuary there is terror and flight, and the surging enemy, mute and terrible.” This introduction does not prepare the reader at all for the rest of the essay, except perhaps, by acting as a lullaby itself – which is a whirlwind  tour through Mirrlee’s own favourites, with which she has an intimate familiarity – imagining Lucretius in bed reading Epicurus for example. She extols Burton, “The A-na-tomy of Me-lan-choly. The syllables are made of poppy and mandragora” and gets carried away with Homer. In this essay, even more than the others, we are exposed to the full power of her agile intelligence and also her whimsical and mischievous creativity – she somehow gets in a parrot.

It has been suggested that Mirrlees did not publish more because her financial independence gave her no need earn a living by her letters. If, however, she is right in that “the measure of a writer’s greatness is the disparity between the things he says and the things he knows” I’m left wondering how very much she knew, compared to how sadly little she wrote. She certainly manages to say a great deal in her few short essays.

Skye M. W.

La Quema del Diablo, 2015

¹ Mirrlees, H., and Parmar, S., Collected Poems. New York, Carcanet, 2011. All direct quotes are taken from this edition.

² Boyde, M., “The poet and the ghosts are walking the streets: Hope Mirrlees-Life and Poetry”, Hecate, 35(1), 29-41, p. 321, 2009. – I haven’t given much biographical information on Mirrlees, but Boyde gives a good account as does Parmar.