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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