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.Continue reading “First-Class Flights: The Class Politics of Labour and Flight in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Elfin Stories”