Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published as short stories in The New Yorker, and first collected in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books to be published in her lifetime. Although some of her books were among the first to be published as Virago modern classics in the late 1970s and her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), with its witch protagonist, is now well known, there was a period when Warner was chiefly remembered for her role in the anti-fascist generation of 1930s writers. Along with her life-partner, Valentine Acland, she joined the Communist Party and worked in support of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Kingdoms of Elfin, with its enchanting and enigmatic tales of fairies scattered across Europe and beyond, seems far removed from such political concerns and yet under the surface there is something inexorable which gives these stories an exquisite, but nonetheless mortally sharp, edge.

Warner’s fairies are fascinated with the short-lived humans around them but not overly bothered about their individual welfare. In the first of these stories, ‘The One and the Other’, a changeling accidentally kills the human he replaces – who has already grown old and been evicted from the fairy kingdom he was taken by – while experimenting on his blood, but consoles himself with the thought that he can probably sell the body to the anatomists in Edinburgh. In ‘Elephenor and Weasel’, Elephenor finds himself working as the assistant to a travelling necromancer – involving, amongst other tasks, deploying his wings to imitate the devil – and loving every minute: ‘To have a great deal of power and no concern was the life for him’. In ‘The Occupation’, a group of fairies drive a Scottish clergyman mad by making a home in his manse and even attempting to clean it. In a rare but neat political twist, his wife leaves with the children ‘to live with her sister above a grocery shop in Glasgow, where she was much happier, just as dirty, and insisted on her standing as a Minister’s wife’. 

Yet, if humans and their foibles are relentlessly subjected to dispassionate scrutiny, Warner’s fairies, themselves, are also often shown as the victims of capricious fate. Or, at least, that is how it appears when viewed from a conventional perspective, but perhaps Warner’s greatest achievement is to encourage readers to dispense with their pre-existing moral frameworks, which are made to look narrowly time-bound in comparison with a more fluid fairy temporality. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, the dying Queen Tiphaine (Warner’s fairies are not immortal but have lifespans of centuries) of the Scottish elfin kingdom of Elphane, relives her relationship with the human Thomas of Ercildoune, making love outside whether in the dew-drenched grass, rain or even hail: ‘Love was in the present: in the sharp taste of the rowanberries he plucked for her, in the winter night when a gale got up and whipped them to the shelter of a farm where he kindled a fire and roasted turnips on a stick, in their midnight mushroomings, in the long summer evenings when they lay on their backs too happy to move or speak, in their March-hare cuvettings and cuffings.’ Here, the pure moment contains all of existence and thereby encompasses eternity as opposed to the insubstantiality of the conventional human present, enslaved by causality and condemned to endless unfulfilling repetition.

It’s not that fairies don’t have their problems. There is rather a lot of overly formal court procedure and an annoying class system that constrains those of the higher ranks from some of the more bodily pleasures, such as flying. However, being fairies, these boundaries are frequently transgressed. Long after they find themselves ejected at the text’s end on to the cold hillside, the memory of these tales will haunt readers with the lingering sense that we could live differently.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

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