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.

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

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.