Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Reviewed by Harriet

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Do you believe in fairies? Probably at a young age most people would say they did. And together with an idea implanted by popular books and paintings, which presented them as tiny ethereal creatures flitting around on gossamer wings, would come a concept of fairyland, undefined, pretty, vague and hazy. The scepticism of adulthood has probably swept most of those beliefs away, but it would be difficult to emerge from a reading of Kingdoms of Elfin without a conviction, or at least a hope, that fairies do exist, living in not one but a number of different kingdoms, each with its own traditions. As for the fairies themselves, Warner depicts them as far from the tiny, insect-like creatures of our childish imagination. Almost as large as a small human, they do have wings, but the fairy aristocracy think it’s common to use them, though the servants fly busily about their daily work. They are usually invisible, but are capable of putting on visibility when they choose. They are susceptible to the same emotions as mortals – love and hate, joy and sorrow, envy and jealousy – but they lack compassion: as Warner said of the book, ‘there is practically no flesh on it at all, and no breath of human kindness’. At the very end of her life – she was 84 when the stories first appeared in book form – she had set out to write ‘something entirely different’. These stories, which first appeared in the New Yorker, certainly fulfil that desire.

We begin in the Kingdom of Elfhame, on the Scottish border, ruled over by beautiful Queen Tiphaine. In the first story she has sent her servants to bring her a human baby and replace it with a changeling. The human baby is subjected to a process of extracting a portion of its blood – sucked off little by little by seven weasels – and replacing it with fairy blood. The child will become long-lived but not immortal, and when it ages it will be sent back to the human world as a sad, lost wanderer. Adam, the changeling, meanwhile, shows great abilities and trains to become a surgeon, but shocks his old nurse by cutting up the recently dead cat that had suckled him. As he ages, he develops a fascination with fairies and fairylands, and many years later he meets his recently returned partner, who is crying out that he wants to return to Elfhame. Adam sits by the old man’s deathbed, wondering if he really is a fairy, but finding he has apparently human blood, goes off to continue his human existence.

In the second story, Queen Tipahine is on her deathbed, remembering the happiest time of her long life, when she met handsome Thomas, her human lover.

From then on it was as though she lived to music. To music she followed him barefoot, climbed a sycamore tree to look into a magpie’s nest, made love in the rain. Once, they came to a rattling burn, with a green lawn on the further bank. He leaped across, and held out his hand for her to catch hold of. It was too wide a leap for her and she took to her wings. It was the first time in her life she had flown, and the sensation delighted her. She rose in another flight, curling and twirling for the pleasure and mystery of it, as a fiddler plays a cadenza. She soared higher and higher, looking down at the figure on the burnside, small as a beetle and the centre of the wide world. He beckoned her down; she dropped like a hawk and they rolled together on the grass.

Tiphaine offers Thomas an elixir of longevity but he refuses, knowing their love will reach a natural end.

Each of the Elphin kingdoms has its own character. There’s the small kingdom of Wirre Gedanken in Germany, situated in a crevice of a mountain and often disturbed by the ‘screamings and hallooings of witches and warlocks flying overhead’ en route to the Walpurgisnacht Festival.Then there’s Broceliande, in a forest in Brittany, ‘the foremost Elphin court in Western Europe, the proudest and most elegant’. There’s a small kingdom in the Prescelly mountains of North Wales, where the social hierarchy of other kingdoms has not developed, so at night the whole population flies up and sleeps in ash trees. The French Kingdom of Bourrasque is small and provincial – ‘people talked a great deal about the weather, wore nightcaps, and never went out without first looking at the weather cock’. The Elfin Court of Zuy, in the Netherlands, is ‘wealthy and orderly’. The bleak Kingdom of Catmere, in Northumberland, accepts fairies who have been exiled from their own kingdoms, sometimes with uncomfortable results.

Fairies can rarely be seen by humans, but occasionally they can, especially when the human has had a particularly strong desire to see them.This had been the case with the learned James Sutherland, a Scottish Lecturer in Rhetoric, whose lifetime desire to find a fairy kingdom leads him to the hill of Foxcastle, where he is captured by inquisitive fairies and ends up living with them for many years. He watches them about their daily business:

 Some devoted themselves to astronomy. Others practised the French horn. Others educated squirrels. Some, he presumed, made measurements….The best comparison he could draw from the outer world was the swarm of mayflies, invisibly borne aloft, shifting, veering, like a shaken impermeable gauze veil over the face of a stream.

There are fifteen stories here, and it would be impossible to pick a favourite – each one has its own special character and brings its own intense delight. And Warner’s writing, as you can see from the extracts quoted above, is exquisite. This beautifully produced book has a foreword, an introduction, a bibliography and endnotes. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s genius, which is fully displayed here, is unaccountably less well known than she deserves. Buy this book and appreciate it for yourself.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has visited Broceliande but sadly did not see any fairies.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin (Handheld Press, 2018). 978-1999944810, 282pp., paperback original.

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