First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories

By Tam J Moules

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 short story collection, is one of her oddest and most fantastical works, the culmination of “a progressive shifting away from realism toward the explicitly anti mimetic modes of allegory and fable” (Castle, 1993), a departure which “seemed calculated to irritate and confuse a great many readers.” (Harman, 2015, p. 312) The tales were written over a period of several years, originally published separately in the New Yorker, before being published as a collection about a year before Townsend Warner’s death in 1978. They are loosely satires of class systems and aristocracy, as Harman describes: “She used Elfindom as a mirror to society, although all the satire in her elfin stories is very casually arrived at; she seems too uninterested in human dealings to aim at them with any care” (Harman, 2015, p. 313). Elfin (or fairy, the terms are often used interchangeably by both author and critics) society is portrayed as deeply decayed and corrupt, with a rigid class structure and archaic rituals dependent primarily on the whims of the powerful, disintegrating under the weight of their own isolationism and greed, and in opposition to the mortals of the tales, who are “almost universally working class”. (Priest, 2010)

There are two main layers to the class division in these stories. The most prominent is the division within Elfin society, between “flying servants [and] strolling gentry” (p.93). The division between Elfin and human society is also stratified along class lines, with the aforementioned working class mortals forming the main part of the human characters. The intersections between both of these stratifications will serve as the basis for my exploration of Warner’s treatment of class.

Claire Harman, in her 1989 biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, describes the Elfins as “anarchic [and] amoral”. Harman is likely using ‘anarchic’ in the colloquial sense, to mean ‘chaotic’, however, in contrast to the literal sense of the word, we see that Elfin society is deeply hierarchical, and the power of flight, through the possession and usage of wings, is frequently employed as a symbol of the delineation of those hierarchies. It’s a physical power, an inherited characteristic, a visual marker to differentiate between Elfins and those they consider to be their human inferiors. It serves as a marker of the differences between Elfins and humans, a demonstration of Elfin superiority that is tied in with human religious symbolism. It also serves as a class marker within Elfin society, between the working classes who must rely on flight for labour and transport, and the upper classes who consider it beneath their dignity. We are told quite flatly of the theoretically simple social position of flight: Elfins “fly or don’t fly according to their station in life”, and the aristocrats “marked their social standing by scorning to use their wings” (p. 66). The stories frequently concern themselves with instances in which these social rules are transgressed.

I am resisting the impulse here to taxonomise every symbolic function of the power of flight in these stories, to fit them all into some universal system, since this runs counter to the playfully and deliberately contradictory nature of these stories. Partly this is due to their being written over a long period of time, changing style and tone to suit the needs of particular stories, and partly it is an artefact of the stories’ function as social satires. Though some critics have discussed her “attempt to construct a typology of fairies” (Simons in Davies & Malcolm eds. 2006), I would disagree that she makes any such attempt. It is possible to read a typology into the book, but I’d argue that this requires flattening a lot of the apparent contradictions. Flight is forbidden, except when it’s not. Contact with humans is forbidden, except when it’s not. Religion is irrelevant to them, except when it’s not. She sets out a theoretical typology, then throughout the collection she explores the complications and violations and contradictions of this typology. It might be more accurate to say that the book is a typology of contradictions, and in laying out the Elfin contradictions we are led to consider the human ones.

In writing about Warner’s treatment of animals in her fiction, Mary Sanders Pollock discusses Warner’s project to “suggest ways that Marxist thinking might permeate and complicate the boundaries […] between the “human” and the other lively beings” (2015), which I would suggest applies equally to her treatment of the Elfins as it does to her treatment of animals. We see a convergence of these two concepts in the tale ‘The Mortal Milk’, which concerns “the Royal Pack of Werewolves” (p. 68) in the Court of Brocéliande as they sicken and die. They are described as both men and beasts, as both unnatural and mortal, as a liminal state between sapient and animal, and their treatment mirrors the treatment of the human children raised in Elfin. Permeability is a recurrent symbol in these stories, be it the permeable geographical boundaries between the two worlds, the permeable species boundaries between humans and Elfins, or the resisted permeability of class boundaries.

In the first story in the collection, ‘The One and the Other’, which concerns the parallel fates of a human child in Elfhame, and the changeling that replaced him in the human world, we learn several things about Elfin attitudes to flight:

Elfindom is an aristocratic society, and jealous of its privileges. Before an elf-baby is sent into the human world its wings are extirpated and it is dosed with an elixir of mortality, compounded from the tears and excrement of changelings. Neither process is wholly satisfactory. The transfers die, but tardily and with extreme difficulty, and some have been known to hover briefly in the air- a phenomenon called levitation and usually ascribed to saintliness.

(Townsend Warner, 1977, p. 5)

Townsend Warner establishes that flight is a privilege, one which is removed (in a rather unpleasant fashion) from those rejected by the Elfin. The practice of exchanging human babies for changelings is an odd one, and definitely fits with the characterisation of the Elfins as amoral. The idea that they view humans as a supposedly inferior race, yet on a whim will mutilate and abandon one of their own children in exchange for a mortal plaything, is difficult to incorporate into any metaphorical reading of the text and instead stands as a stark reminder of the cruelty of their society. Though there is a class character to this too, since the abandoned children tend to have belonged to Elfin workers, whose children are more numerous, and the mortal children “stolen from their cradles to be court pets and playthings”, are said to end up in “kitchen society” (p. 16) with the working fairies if they can’t sustain their social status in court or return to the human world.

The possession of wings becomes itself an in-group signifier, a sign of belonging, and yet the flight and the wings are not wholly correlated. An Elfin without wings is capable of partial flight, suggesting that the ability is inherent to Elfins irrespective of their physical state, and that some indelible markers of difference persist even when changelings are forcibly made mortal. In the reading of flight as a class signifier, this implies that even when expelled from their social positions, those of aristocratic backgrounds retain some of the benefits of their former social status. The religious angle here, brought in through the attribution of partial Elfin characteristics to “saintliness”, is an interesting one. Throughout the stories the Elfins are described as “soulless being[s] between Heaven and Hell and of no interest to either” (Warner, p.2) and are set in opposition to the humans and the rather Christian-centric conception of afterlives that is presented as being a universal belief among them. The book’s treatment of religion is intertwined with its treatment of class, with faith presented as a condition peculiar to mortals. 

In the story ‘Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’, we see an Elfin crossing over and taking a position in human class society, unlike most of the other Elfins whose encounters with humans are brief dalliances or child theft. It is very notable that the position that he takes is that of a landlord. A human company are looking to mine on Elfin territory, so Sir Haggard comes to them in the guise of a human aristocrat and demands ground rent. While they pay him what he asks, they view him as fairly ridiculous and archaic, as a relic of an older world, which he is on both a symbolic and a narrative level, as a centuries-old representative of Elfin feudalism in the world of human capitalism. The tale establishes common ground between the broadly feudalist Elfins and the newly capitalist humans, with the practice of rent-seeking pinpointed as the common thread between the two forms of hierarchy. The Elfin aristocrats collect rent and tithes from their labourers, just as they do with the mortals, and many of the Elfin labourers are said to cross over into human society, lured by the promise of wages rather than subsistence farming.  

In ‘The Late Sir Glamie’, one of the last in the collection, members of “The Elfin Court of Rings, in Galloway” (1977, p. 169) discuss the “essential distinction” (p. 172) between Elfins and humans. The Treasurer initially admits similarities: “The same social structure. The same number of toes” (p. 172). Linking social structure to an innate physical feature in this way shows the way that the Elfins consider class hierarchy to be inborn and potentially immutable, and that attempting to alter the hierarchy could be equivalent to injury or mutilation. 

The Chancellor goes on to suggest “that the essential distinction was wings” (p. 172). This bears up the suggestion from the first story that wings themselves are a privilege, even if they are not used, and brings through the thread from ‘The One and The Other’. This story, however, complicates the previously simple hierarchy presented as existing between Elfins and humans. The Court are discussing “the question of apparitions” (p. 172), and their link to mortal beliefs surrounding souls and afterlives, and “The Master of Ceremonies said that a mortal might maintain the essential difference was the faculty to survive after death. “An uncomfortable privilege,” he added” (p. 172) [emphasis mine]. The sentence structure here leads us through the thought process in interesting ways. Townsend Warner begins with indirect speech when discussing what the Master believes that a mortal might believe about the topic, adding an extra layer of uncertainty and potentially distortion to the original mortal belief, reducing it to hearsay. She then shifts to direct speech to give the Master’s opinion on what this might mean, elevating his opinion above the original belief. Describing mortality as “an uncomfortable privilege”, the privilege of humanity experiencing short earthly lives in exchange for eternal afterlives, is thus allowed to complicate the previously established hierarchy between Elfins and humans. Rather than remaining a straightforward linear hierarchy, we are able to see more facets of the issue as the stories progress, though undeniably there remains a sense that the Elfins consider themselves broadly superior despite their treatment of their own lower classes.

In ‘The Climate of Exile,’ another aristocratic Elfin, a Sir Bodach, has been expelled from his home court for heresy, the heresy of believing that he possesses an immortal soul, which is considered to be an “anti-social and subversive” belief, “and all mention of it is banned” (p. 160). Flight is involved in his heresy, as he was in flight when the realisation struck him, quite literally, and knocked him from the sky, but it is not the reason for his exile. So once again, the actual consequences for transgression are not necessarily linked to the specific transgression. The etiquette prohibiting flight is continually breached, openly or otherwise, but it is only enforced at the whims of the people at the very top of the hierarchy.

The second symbolic function of the power of flight in these stories is as a signifier of class division within the Elfin world. The cover copy of the first edition immediately introduces readers to flight as a class signifier; for the upper classes it is considered infra dignitatem, ‘beneath one’s dignity’. In several of the stories, working class fairies use flight to achieve or facilitate their labour while dusting the palace’s chandelier (p. 170) or transporting parcels. In ‘The One and The Other’, Queen Tiphaine describes the working class, “however useful and necessary they may be,” as being “no better than sparrows” (p. 4). Queen Tiphaine, we are assured, “had never been known to leave the ground […] in all her seven hundred and twenty years” (p. 3). What, then, is the purpose of having wings? Queen Tiphaine has spent almost three quarters of a millennium jealously guarding the privilege of flight that separates her from humanity, but has not once used it even to spite them, for fear of appearing undignified. We see here that the strictures of Elfin class structures prohibit perfectly ordinary activities for fear of showing any common humanity, so to speak, between the upper and lower classes, anything which might reveal the unjust nature of the hierarchy between them. 

The politics of flight are explained in the first story to Tiffany, the human child kidnapped and taken to Elfhame. He is told that “Servants, grooms, stable lads, people who went on errands flew because it was their lot in life […] but in court circles no one dreamed of using his wings” (p. 3). The use of “dreamed” in relation to the concept of flight encapsulates the symbolic tension between our human understanding of the connotations of flight, as an aspiration, a dream, something lofty and elevated, in contrast to the Elfin understanding of flight as undignified, dull, and everyday. 

To add a complicating layer to this division, several of the stories feature aristocratic Elfins who break this boundary, either openly or in secret, lending the lie to Tiffany’s tutor’s words. Titania, the daughter of one of the courtiers, takes to flying in secret, and relies on Tiffany to keep her secret because “if it were known that Titania flew, her reputation would be lost” (p. 9). Despite this fear of social consequences, however, “she grew brazen about showing her wings that she even flew in public rooms, hovering overhead during state functions and harp competitions” (p. 9). The use of “showing her wings” here suggests that there is possibly a modesty component to the prohibition against flight and we can read the use of flight on another level as a reflection of class-based attitudes to sexuality. Early on, the two are explicitly linked: “Fertility is rare among the Elfin aristocracy, though common enough among working fairies. Some speculative thinkers put this down to the fact that working fairies use their wings” (Warner, p. 7). Tiffany’s involvement with Titania is described much like a clandestine romantic affair. And ultimately the consequences of Titania’s brazen disregard for this convention is left unknown, for Tiffany is expelled from Elfhame for the crime of growing old and unattractive, sent back to die among the humans. At his death he fears that she may have been caught and caged, but we don’t know if this is anything more than his fevered imagination. 

Throughout these stories we are presented with a series of rules, boundaries, and divisions, before being shown that the upper classes only adhere to these rules when it benefits them. While individual members of a class might receive some social consequences for breaking these rules, the structure upholding them remains in place. There may be some semblance of social mobility, but that too is only on the terms set by the upper class, who view the transgression of the flight taboo as a one-way transaction– they may fly if they wish, primarily for leisure rather than survival, but a worker may not give up flight. Even as maintaining the flight taboo, and thus the class boundary, is shown to be materially detrimental to their health and long-term survival, the nobility persist in upholding their own class interests.

Bibliography:

Castle, T., 1999. ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction’ in J. Wolfreys (Ed.) Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide (pp. 72–83). Edinburgh University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrcgh.13

Harman, C., 2015. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Penguin.

Pollock, M. S., 2015. Animal Companions in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s More-than-Marxist World. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 48(1), 65–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44030735

Priest, H., 2010. The Unnaturalness of a Society: Class Division and Conflict in Sylvia Townsend Warner–s Kingdoms of Elfin. The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. Vol. 11(1):1-16.

Simons, J., 2006. ‘On the compositional genetics of the Kingdom of Elfin together with a note on tortoises’ in Gill Davies, David Malcolm, John Simons (Eds.) Critical Essays on Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Novelist 1893–1978. Edwin Mellen Press, Lampeter.

Townsend Warner, S., 1977. Kingdoms of Elfin. London: Chatto & Windus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s