Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I first read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin (1977) almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was using the recommendation lists in the back of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s fairy tale books as a to-read list (side note: I highly recommend this; I found lots of amazing books that way). The online used-book market was not what it is today, so I found most of them by haunting the local used bookstores constantly to see if anything on the list had appeared since my last visit. Kingdoms of Elfin was one of the hardest to find. When I finally did, it left me with a lasting impression of sad and unsettling content delivered in beautiful prose.
When I heard that Kingdoms of Elfin was being reprinted by Handheld Press for Halloween 2018, I was excited to reread it. (After all, what better time to read something unsettling?) This new edition features elegant, appropriate Arthur Rackham cover art, a foreword by Greer Gilman, and an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies. Gilman approaches the stories from the perspective of a fantasy author, Hotz-Davies from the perspective of a professor of English literature and gender studies, and both essays are worth the read. They do spoil a plot point here and there, so I hereby give you permission to read them after the stories!
So, on to the stories. Warner wrote the series of short stories that would become Kingdoms of Elfin during the last years of her life; they were originally published in The New Yorker and then compiled into a book in 1977. Explaining her reason for writing these fairy tales, Warner stated, “Good God, I’ve been understanding the human heart for all these decades. Bother the human heart, I’m tired of the human heart. I’m tired of the human race. I want to write about something entirely different.”
She succeeds brilliantly at writing a very different kind of heart. The Elfins you’ll find in this collection are the chilly sort from the old legends, who pick up mortals on a whim and then leave them just as carelessly on the cold hillside. Their coldness is accentuated by the prose, which is bone-dry, emotionless. One story features an Elfin archivist whose life’s work is a chronicle of the various fairy kingdoms, and it’s easy to imagine you’re reading a similar fairy-written document as you read this book.
Elfin callousness is sometimes so absurd as to be dryly funny; I think this passage sums it up pretty well:
Here was the serenity, the benign serenity, Moor had promised them in his first talk on the triangle, a serenity which had evaded them till now. The sun touched the horizon and a distant yelling broke the silence. The air was so clear that they could see the minute shape of a man gesticulating from the top of a slender tower. A prisoner, they supposed, calling for help. The women working in the fields paid no attention and presently he gave up. Dusk gathered, the noises of dusk arose: croaking frogs, cicadas, nightingales, then an owl. It was too dark to unpack. They pillowed their heads on their portmanteaux and fell asleep. Sunrise woke them. The prisoner on the tower was renewing his yells, poor creature! When they had heard him yelling for several days, always at the same pitch and always at the rise and set of sun, they concluded he was clockwork.
This fellow is actually a muezzin and isn’t in any danger, but they don’t know that! They’re luxuriating in this bucolic landscape and just accepting a man’s screams for help as part of the scenery, just like the noises of insects.
In addition to being reminiscent of the early, dark fae legends, Warner’s stories also bear some similarity to the French salon fairy tales, in that they take many byzantine twists and turns. What you think the story is about at the beginning is not necessarily what it turns out to be about in the end, and it doesn’t always end the way you think it will.
The stories are loosely connected; a character may recur from one to the next, or be mentioned in an aside, but each story stands alone. Since they were originally published separately, a few points of world-building are repeated from one story to the next. For example, aristocratic Elfins customarily do not fly, seeing it as a gauche activity best left to the servants, and this is re-explained in many of the stories.
I enjoyed revisiting these Kingdoms. The prose is as elegant as I remembered, and while the tales can definitely be sad and unsettling, there’s also some dry humor that clicked more for me this time around. (I will mention that there’s some talk of “gypsies” that hasn’t aged well.)
And yes, Halloween is a perfect time to read Kingdoms of Elfin. It’s not scary in a blood-and-guts sense, but evocative of a strange world existing just around the corner from the one we know — a world that has its charms, but will chew us up and spit us out without a thought.