During the four years that I have been writing this Fantasy Reads blog, my most-read post as been the one on the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013). I’m pleased by this, since Wilde is one of my favourite authors, but a little surprised. It does suggest that there are plenty of people out there who enjoy literary Fairy Tales, so this week I’m recommending a collection of sophisticated stories about fairies by British author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978). Her “Kingdoms of Elfin” came out in 1977 but most of the stories in this collection were first published in The New Yorker. There were several paperback editions during the 1970s and it is still easy to find cheap copies of these. Sadly “Kingdoms of Elfin” doesn’t yet seem to be available as an ebook.
The sixteen stories in this collection don’t have the standard plotlines of traditional Fairy Tales. They are stories about fairies, and the humans unlucky enough to interact with them, set in the Elfin courts of Europe and the Near East. This book should really be called “Queendoms of Elfin”, since each of the Fairy Realms is ruled by a Queen. The male Consorts and Favourites of these long-lived Queens have little power or security of tenure. According to the original blurb, this is the “first authoritative account of Elfin life and manners to appear in mortal language.” There is a sharp and scholarly tone to the authorial voice in these stories. Townsend Warner wrote about fairies as if she had been studying them for years, or even lifetimes. According to her, fairies “are about four-fifths of ordinary human stature, fly or don’t fly according to their station in life, and after a life-span of centuries die like other people – except that as they do not believe in immortality, they die unperturbed.”
In this book, Townsend Warner describes numerous small kingdoms, such Elfhame in Scotland, Brocéliande in Brittany, Castle Ash Grove in Wales, Zuy in the Netherlands, and Catmere in northern England. Each kingdom has its own particular history, customs, fashions and etiquette. Each Fairy Queen has a different form and personality – from 720 year-old Tiphaine with her weakness for human lovers (in “The Five Black Swans”), “irritable and arbitrary” Queen Balsamine whose only soft spot is a fondness for marmots (in “The Blameless Triangle”) and the lethal Queen of the Peri who has wings “the tranquil colour of moonstones” (in “The Search for an Ancestress”) to hospitable Morgan Spider “so titled because of her exquisite spinning” (in “Visitors to a Castle”) and the shrewish child Queen, Serafica, of Castle Blokula (in “The Mortal Milk”).
The author delights in richness of detail, listing the love gifts given by True Thomas to the Queen of Elfhame ( “acorns, birds’ eggs, a rosegall because it is called the fairies’ pincushion, a yellow snail shell”) and the complete ingredients of a dish called Hunters’ Pie (in “The Power of Cookery”). These include capercaillie, grouse, pheasant, partridge, pimentos, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper berries, anchovy fillets, salami and grated chocolate. It sounds amazing but the consumption of the pie leads to a near death, royal hysteria, and an unjust dismissal. This is typical of the whimsical yet sinister tone of these stories.
Townsend Warner has drawn on the darkest aspects of Fairy lore and stresses their incomprehending cruelty towards humans. In one of the saddest stories (“Foxcastle”) a scholar romantically longs to meet fairies but when he does they view him as an object of scientific curiosity and then casually discard him. A number of the stories follow the fate of changelings; human babies who have been stolen from their cradles and replaced by “sickly and peevish” fairy children. In Elfhame, human children have some of their blood drunk by weasels and replaced by “a distillation of dew, soot, and aconite” to prolong their lifespan ( in “The One and the Other”). They are treated like pampered pets but once their hair begins to turn grey, changelings are thrown out to starve; that is if they haven’t been strangled first for some trivial misdemeanour. Shocking violence lurks in Townsend Warner’s throwaway sentences. Dissident fairies often suffer as much as humans do from the caprices of their Elfin rulers. They may be forced into exile or even condemned to be burned at the stake for daring to suggest that fairies have immortal souls (“The Climate of Exile”).
At this point I must make a confession. Normally I only review books which I have enjoyed but this time I’m recommending a body of fiction that I admire more than like. For me, these exquisitely written stories lack heart but perhaps Sylvia Townsend Warner was accustomed to having to hide her heart. She was a complex woman with multiple talents who knew many of the most famous writers and artists of 20th century Britain (you can find out more about her on the website run by The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society). Her biography of Fantasy author T.H.White is still well worth reading and one of the stories in “Kingdoms of Elfin” ( “The Blameless Triangle”) could be interpreted as a satirical commentary on the intellectual pretensions of wealthy Bohemians like the Bloomsbury Group.
Bisexual Townsend Warner seems to have had an interesting love life before settling down with the poetess Valentine Ackland. “Kingdoms of Elfin” dates to her sad, and perhaps cynical, old age after she had lost her beloved Valentine to alcoholism and breast cancer. The leading characters in many of these stories strive to break away from the conventions of the Elfin courts but usually have their modest hopes or ambitions crushed. There is plenty of black humour in Townsend Warner’s take on Fairy Tales but few happy endings. Still, if you are in the mood for something that is more sour than sweet, this may be just the book for you. Until next time…