Of Cats and Elfins (the title alone will sell to many) is a companion volume to the Handheld Press reprint of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s classic Kingdoms of Elfin. Given that her wonderful 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is now a “Modern Classic” (Virago, 2012), we can hope that the times are long gone when, as I wrote a few years ago, “Warner’s fiction seems remarkably under-appreciated by specialists in the fantastic.” Indeed, Neil Gaiman’s cover blurb—which argues that she “was one of our finest writers”—and Greer Gilman’s laudatory introduction to this volume finally give me the lie on this, I’m happy to say.
Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to put your finger on just what makes Warner great. Gilman writes of her “inimitable voice” – her “anarchic imagination bodied in a style of crystalline and formal beauty” and, with acuteness of example, of the “unfemininity” of the verbs associated with the Princess Lief in “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo”. But Gilman also writes that, “I fell in love with her voice before I even knew that she wrote fantasy”—and that is perhaps the most fortunate way to approach her.
Unlike Hope Mirrlees, whose Lud-in-the-Mist was published in the same year as Lolly Willowes and who died three months after Warner, Warner had a long and productive literary career, though much of it was outside the realms of fantasy. Those of us who first experience Warners through Kingdoms of Elfin saw primarily a fantasy which confronted most of the other fantasies we were reading at the time—and which, to echo the introduction for the last time, had the serene ruthlessness of ballads. But the “Elfin” stories, mostly written comparatively late, are truly composed out of a dissatisfaction with realism. “Bother the human heart…I want to write about something entirely different,” Gilman quotes her as writing.
There’s consequently a brittle, even cynical, sophistication in the way Warner views the world through the lens of fantasy. In the Kingdom of Deuce, mortal children are deterred from stealing wild strawberries by a number of Elfin strategems, to which the “working fairies” add improvements of their own. “By the end of the summer the bag amounted to nine children poisoned and an unknown quantity deterred.” Given the mortal fertility rate, however, and as the Queen’s nephew Sir Haggard points out, “Parents with children by the dozen would be positively grateful for anything that lightened their burden.” Warner’s Elfins are reminiscent of Richard Dadd’s painting “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” (1855-64), but unlike Dadd (who “explained” his painting in a scarcely comprehensible poem), Warner is in control, meticulously visualising both her creation and the “fields we know” upon which her creation is commenting. In the essay beginning this collection (first published in 1927), she writes that Elfin children, “except for a few changelings, do not attend the Board Schools, their criminals slip through the fingers of policemen, and their dead are buried without certificates.”
Her stories develop this vision into a secondary-world that never quite crystallises into a firm, Tolkien-like solidity but is perhaps all the better for that. In the collection’s second story, “Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine” (from which we learned about the working fairies’ zealous pest-deterrents), Warner writes of a collision between the fairy world and the mundane realm—and of the Elfin Sir Haggard’s attempts to deal with a greater threat: the discovery of iron ore beneath a hill on the realm’s boundary, which he attempts to foil by joining the Board of Directors of the mining company and first pointing out the matter of “subterranean rights” and then by attempting to persuade its Managing Director of the “undesirability” of iron, which (unlike, say, potatoes) demands so much effort to be dragged out of the Earth. (“One of those people with only one foot in the real world”, is the MD’s summary of Sir Haggard, who makes sure to remain visible and keep his wings out of sight.)
“Queen Mousie,” meanwhile, shows us in unsettling detail the funeral arrangements for the Queens of Elfhame—and the results of the succession to the throne of someone not entirely fitted for the intrigues of Court life. Likewise, in “An Improbable Story” we meet again a character from a story in Kingdoms of Elfin, one Tamarind, who leaves the Court to study political economy—and discovers the Theory of Limitations of one Hans Grub, whom he tracks down to find a man living in complete accord with his own philosophy. There is, it is only fair to point out, a twist at the end.
The longest (and best) story here is “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,” a story centred around an Elfin child born to an undistinguished family, to whom he is less an individual than, because of his carefully-wrought beauty, an asset. “He was still spoken of as The Boy,” we read, “because he had been named after so many possible legacy leavers that no one could fix a name on him.” (“Are you young what’s-his-name?” asks the Chancellor. The boy replies only that “he thought so.”) Eventually named Gentil, our young hero is brought to Court, where he makes the acquaintance of the Princess Lief, although their relationship develops not as one of romantic love (with which Gentil only has a fleeting encounter, in the person of a young mortal shepherd he observes repairing a sheepfold). The picture they reclaim from a shipwreck opens up new possibilities of understanding both the world and their own natures.
Following the final—and non-“Elfin”—story of this volume’s section of short fiction, “Stay Corydon, Thou Swain,” (a story that oscillates, in its ambiguous tale of a draper inviting his maybe-nymph assistant on a bicycle ride, between mundane reality and fantasy) is The Cat’s Cradle Book. Originally published in 1940, this work’s punning title gives us a sequence of Aesopian “folk-tales” told (we learn from the introduction) by generations of cats. The sixteen stories are not all (in some cases not at all) to do with cats, but all possess the feline mockery of the “Elfin” stories. “The proper study of catkind,” the writer of the Introduction is meta-textually told by the “handsome young man” who compiled the collection, “is man…No highly cultured race keeps its culture to itself.” The pair go on to debate the scholarly and legal issues of publishing translations from the “unrecognised” language of Cat. Behind this lie the issues of publishing any “folk” culture; but Warner, by presenting the stories as both “catkind’s” commentary upon humanity and the origins of many well-known folk tales, transcends the folklorist’s appropriation of culture.
The stories themselves are carefully-honed scalpels. Two ravens observe two women squabbling pointlessly over a dead man before the birds themselves are able to settle down to take advantage of the “plenty” before them; a Marquis of Carabas is confronted by his lineage’s history of cat’s-paw birthmarks and a terrible horror of cats; a tiger seeks virtue and, once granted it by the sage Avadavanda, finds his tigerish nature a sham, his mentor “a quite uninteresting person”—and, once sold to a menagerie, his virtue of no account to a small girl who wants to throw her bun to “a real roaring tiger.” Elsewhere, a starving cat applies for charitable relief but is refused, on account of his not being completely destitute while he still possesses the value of his skin; a fox is so delighted with reading about saints that he decides to become one, but upon being offered the Papacy is rescued from his unwelcome fate by a stable-boy who believes him to be the devil; and a showman finds a phoenix is not the money-spinning attraction he thought it would be. The fables keep coming: a female wildcat and a ewe, on the deaths of their children, argue about who gains the highest status from their suffering; a young woman discovers that she is a changeling, and writes songs that bring her to the scaffold—but also enable her to walk away from it; an Englishman, whose wife’s grandfather married a “white Angora,” and a cat obsessed with love for a human woman, compare the bitterness of their “mixed marriages”; a baker’s daughter becomes an owl; a wolf seeks advice from other animals on how to be popular.
If the best story is the last (“Bluebeard’s Daughter”), it is perhaps only because it explicitly draws upon one of the most disturbing of folk tales, made famous by Charles Perrault but also collected by the Grimm brothers and at the heart of numerous further stories and ballads: “Reynardine,” Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”, Helen Oyeymi’s Mr Fox and many others pair the motifs of the predatory male and the fatally curious female that are encoded in this tale. We readers have never heard, however, of Bluebeard’s daughter.
Here, though, Warner offers us Djamileh, who shares her father’s colouring (“not only regrettable but scandalous”) and something of his nature (though he was, we are told, a loving father: “and I have sometimes thought that the career of this often-widowed man was inevitably determined by his anxiety to find the ideal stepmother,” interjects the author.) After the death of her father, Djamileh is left, via an “exemplary and flawless” will, in the care of Bluebeard’s lawyer Badruddin, who reminds his ward that her father’s fault lay in hoping to find a woman without curiosity. Djamileh attempts to suppress this trait, which she recognises in herself, first by mutism, then by requesting a public-school education: “by the time she was fifteen she had spoilt her handwriting, forgotten how to speak French, lost all her former interest in botany, and asked only the most unspeculative questions.” Badruddin’s remedy for her apparent dullness is to arrange a marriage to the sentimental, undoubtedly good-looking and passionate (but possibly slightly dim), Kayel. The young couple move into Bluebeard’s country house, the Castle of Shady Transports, purged by Badruddin of its quantities of female attire but with its former owner’s collections of weaponry and erotic poetry still to be found. They settle in. And sure enough, a suite of empty rooms is discovered, one of which is locked.
The story counterpoints the version we know, with a mixture of subversion and deadpan delivery that approaches the surreal (a herd of stampeding camels plays an interesting part in the story). Curiosity is satisfied. What is found, or not found, in the locked room satisfies any readerly search for a moral, but Warner’s wry solution to the couple’s obsession with curiosity ends the story with a rare, if ambiguous, positivity. If we cannot help being curious, suggests Djamileh, “we had best sublimate it.” And so we have never heard of Bluebeard’s daughter, but we do know of…well, the ambiguity there is not entirely a modern reader interpreting a text of the 1940s.
The delight of Sylvia Townsend Warner is that, although she was born in 1893 and is a writer (perhaps) associated with the 1930s and ‘40s, she is not a “period” writer. She published throughout her life and she died in 1978, the year after Kingdoms of Elfin collected her New Yorker fantasies published during the preceding decade. The Elfin stories perhaps do distil the lore of earlier decades: Dunsany’s detachment is certainly present; Mirrlees, also; there are echoes of Katharine Briggs’s (born 1898) folklore classics The Anatomy of Puck (1959) and The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967). Though her work has nothing at all to do with the fantastic, it is sometimes hard not to think of fellow New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker and her rapier wit. But Warner is her own voice: like Tolkien an original but also far from the bloat of his successors and, unlike Tolkien, a modern writer; a sophisticate who mocks but doesn’t reject. She still speaks, as she always did, to now. She is the storyteller, the narrator, the commentator who will at times digress, at others just stand back and let events and characters speak for themselves. Of Cats and Elfins shows us the world, and its strangeness speaks volumes.