Welcome to this new (and improved?) Strange Horizons Book Club! In these occasional deviations from our usual reviews schedule, we post a round-table discussion of a speculative work (or one that is of interest to readers of SF) and invite you to join us for further discussion in the comments.
Kingdoms of Elfin was first published as a collection in 1977 and comprises sixteen stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner; all but two of these had originally been published in The New Yorker earlier in that decade. Set in and around various, predominantly European, fairy courts, the stories were a consequence of Warner’s desire to write “about something entirely different [than the human heart]” following the death of her partner, Valentine Ackland, in 1969. The result is a set of stories that, Greer Gilman notes in her foreword to this new edition (Handheld Press, 2018, with an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies), return constantly to images of “captivity and flight. The cages here are courts, Gormenghastly in their etiquette; but glittering.”
Discussing Kingdoms of Elfin are: Zen Cho, the award-winning author of Spirits Abroad (2014), Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) and The True Queen (2019); Charlotte Geater, a poet and editor at the Emma Press; and Abigail Nussbaum, a blogger, critic and columnist. The discussion was moderated by Aishwarya Subramanian.
In our archives you can read Kari Sperring’s 2015 Matrilines column on Warner’s work, “The Quiet Revolutionary,” and Karen J. Weyant’s review of Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited and with poems by Theodora Goss. Also of interest: Karen Joy Fowler on Warner’s Lolly Willowes in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, April 2013 (pdf link).
Aishwarya Subramanian: I wanted to start off with a question (or several!) about genre and framing. This is something that came up in some form in everyone’s initial responses to the book—the challenge of relating these stories to other things we’d read, the sense that the stories might read very differently through different genre lenses, the fact that they were originally published in The New Yorker. A useful way to approach this might be through lists of other works: what would we each place alongside Kingdoms of Elfin on a shelf? If this book was at the centre of its own fuzzy set, what would we expect to see around it?
Abigail Nussbaum: Well, I’ll take the easy answers and mention Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for the way that it attaches class so strongly to the fairy realm, and Gormenghast, for the way that it stresses ossified rituals that govern the lives of even the most elevated members of the court (I thought the similarity was particularly notable in “The Five Black Swans”). And, of course, if you mention Clarke, you have to assume that Mirrlees and Dunsany are not far behind. They both see fairies as fundamentally irrational beings and tell stories about humans getting caught in their webs. One thing that I found interesting about the Elfland stories was how rarely humans figured into them at all, and how the arrow of irrationality tended to point the other way when they did—it’s the fairies who find humans bizarre and hard to parse.
Another connection that I made while reading and that I’ve been mulling over since then is to Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. There’s something about the way the fairy courts are constructed—hidden in the wilderness but so comfortable and hypercivilized (in a way that can be stifling as well as comfortable once you’re allowed in)—that reminds me of the Moomin house, and of the way the books, especially the later ones, reveal an undertone of wildness and danger that is only just held at bay by the Moomins’ fundamental goodness.
In general, in fact, I think that if I were describing the world of the stories it would be one that is fundamentally irrational—not even the magic has rules, in the end—and where the characters construct elaborate, ornate social structures to hold that irrationality at bay. If I think of other authors whose world have a similar feeling, the names that come to mind are John Crowley, Kathryn Davis, maybe Elizabeth Knox.
Finally, I can’t get over the fact that these stories were published in The New Yorker. They’re so far off what I tend to think of as a typical story for that magazine.
Charlotte Geater: I thought a lot about Susanna Clarke in relation to Kingdoms of Elfin too, but I found myself comparing it more to her collection of stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Clarke’s stories contain a foreword by Professor James Sutherland of Aberdeen—a fictional character found in Warner’s story “Foxcastle,” although Clarke’s version of him seems to have found better circumstances. And there's a footnote in one of the stories in Clarke's collection that quotes from Kingdoms of Elfin and refers to Warner as “another chronicler of fairy history.” Clarke’s stories are built in relation to Warner’s— it’s interesting how both volumes construct a sense of a much wider history of fairies and fairy kingdoms through short stories, which function almost like fragments of a world.
Following on from this though—I think Clarke’s stories often take closer inspiration from the form and sometimes the content of traditional western, European fairy tales (or at least, they bear a closer resemblance to the type of fairy tale I tend to be familiar with). There’s a story in Clarke’s collection that seems to be based on Tom Tit Tot, which is the English version of Rumpelstiltskin. This kind of story often has a moral, and a plot that seems to be spurred on by some amount of human logic. Warner’s stories read almost like a refutation of this—they’re very cold and inhuman and the characters and plots for the most part do not behave as we might expect them to. I'd probably put Kingdoms of Elfin on my shelf near the Virago Book of Fairy Tales. I think her project is a pretty different take on folklore than I’ve found in collections like this, and the wider fairytale-inspired works of Angela Carter, etc. But I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by considering them together.
I found myself thinking too of the short stories of Sofia Samatar, especially a lot of the fantastical work collected in her recent book Tender. Her work is also often concerned with history and folklore, and both Warner and Samatar write exquisite, concise prose. But in a lot of Samatar’s stories, there’s formal play and critical use of intertextuality that’s rarely more than gestured at in Kingdoms of Elfin. Samatar’s stories, too, tend to have less of a distance between the narrative voice and the story being told—or, at least, that distance is often a very critical part of the story. A lot could be written about this, but I think it also reflects on how Warner was writing into and against a tradition that her projected readership would know of—and that if her stories alienate and offer no way in, that’s pretty much by design.
Finally, I also find myself thinking about Kingdoms of Elfin in relation to horror writers who are concerned with folklore. I find myself thinking about her alongside writers like M. R. James, and maybe more contemporary writers like Malcolm Devlin and Verity Holloway. Not because they write about fairylore, but because these are writers who find a kind of terror in landscapes, “natural” and built. And irrationality (or the lack of a human agency that is taken for irrationality) creates the sense of horror within a lot of these stories; where the human and the inhuman meet.
Zen Cho: My first thought was also of Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and Susanna Clarke’s works, as they are all, like Kingdoms of Elfin, surveys of a specific Fairyland, clearly identifiable as the product of a European (or specifically British?) imagination. Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu is perhaps more similar in that it’s a short story collection, but on the other hand I find there is more of the cold breath of Fairy in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Kingdoms of Elfin struck me as freezingly cold.
On the same shelf I might also put Naomi Mitchison—perhaps Beyond This Limit, collecting a selection of her short fiction, and Travel Light, a slim fantasy about the girl Halla who is brought up by bears and dragons. This is not because there is much similarity in content, but I’d expect a reader who took to Naomi Mitchison’s writing to find Warner’s interesting as well. They seem to me to share some common traits—precision of prose, intelligence and ambition.
But actually the closest reading experience I could think of was Saki’s short stories. You feel Reginald or Clovis would not be out of place among the Elfin.
AS: Something else that recurred in everyone’s responses to the book were the ways in which these stories resist an immersive reading. All three of you also described this in terms of coldness (“chilliness”, “freezingly cold”), and Zen made reference to “the cold breath of Fairy.” Is there—in these stories, and in other stories of Faerie (using the Tolkien-ish spelling for ease of differentiation)—something inherent that signals them as inhospitable spaces for human readers? And if there is such a tradition, is it separate from the warmer, bawdier traditions of fairytale (Charlotte made reference to Angela Carter, for example)?
ZC: Warner was aiming to write inhuman stories, wasn’t she—the introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies quotes her statement of intention: “Bother the human heart, I’m tired of the human heart.” Going back to the text to check this, I was interested to see that she describes the Elfin stories as lacking flesh and having “no breath of human kindness”—phrasing I’d forgotten but which no doubt fed into the language I used.
There is an airlessness to the stories; they lack the softness and warmth and yielding quality of living flesh. I think the effect arises from the combination of the courtly, detached, occasionally even twee language and the frequent outbreaks of violence for trivial reasons, or no apparent reason at all. It’s a convenient shortcut to say that this coldness is an inhuman quality, peculiar to a dominant conception of Fairy, but in fact when I was reading the stories I felt it was no surprise they had been published in The New Yorker. It seems to me (as a genre writer who will read literary fiction from time to time, but is picky about it) that the magazine often publishes stories in which no human emotion is apparent—long on surface, atmosphere and descriptions of what people wear, but not appearing to reflect much of life as I know it.
AN: I think Zen makes an interesting point when she questions the description of the stories as “inhuman.” A lot of the cruelty in them struck me as related to class in a way that is surely quintessentially human. Think of the way that Elphenor in “Elphenor and Weasel” is basically abandoned after having failed in his diplomatic mission. He’s not important enough to send people after, and having failed the court he’s probably better off not returning. It’s tempting to treat this sort of behavior as inhuman, but it’s at best an exaggeration of the way that low-class people—and even lower-ranking high-class ones—are chewed up and spat out by stratified, aristocratic systems. You see it also in the setup to “The Mortal Milk,” where the deaths of the court’s prized werewolves and, if I’m remembering correctly, the lower-class fairy helping to care for them, are basically brushed aside, or in the treatment of changelings in all the stories. And you see it especially in “The Blameless Triangle,” where the fairy free-thinkers, despite claiming to have abandoned the corrupting influence of court life, try to browbeat their youngest member into prostituting himself so they can all live in comfort.
The one obvious exception is “The Power of Cookery.” There the person with power is the lower-class character, even if no one realizes this until it’s too late. The story ends not with an individual being chewed up to serve the court, but with the court being diminished because of the poor treatment of an individual, who goes on to live quite happily and productively on their own. It’s almost a jarring conclusion amidst all the other stories—compare it, for example, to the fate of Elphenor and Weasel, who die a grotesque, easily preventable death because they lacked basic protections and set off on their own. The wider world isn't usually a safe or welcoming place in these stories, to the extent that even the predatory systems within the fairy courts might seem preferable.
CG: I’ve been reading some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters recently, and when writing to David Garnett about her “elfins” (as she often calls them), there’s a kind of association between their coldness and how long-lived they are. Which is interesting too, given that Kingdoms of Elfin was published not long before she died, in her mid-eighties. And in Claire Harman’s biography she writes of how in the last few years of her life, they were all that Townsend Warner cared to write (when it came to fiction, anyway).
Which is to say that I feel that there is certainly an amount of interaction with the fairy traditions in here (and various fairylore comes up in her letters), but also I think the elfin stories allowed a space for STW to develop a fantasy of longevity, and to write of the ways in which tradition can become twisted or hollow. I find myself thinking of this a lot when I consider where their coldness comes from, and what it means. What does it mean that the fairies are apparently without souls, or that they are cold and yet are able to occasionally fall in love with humans (or, very rarely, with other fairies)? I almost wonder if the coldness is seen as a way of surviving a longevity which no human will experience. Too much feeling seems to be dangerous to fairies.
I also agree with Abigail in that I often read these stories as exaggerations or almost satires on class relations—these cruelties are often all too close to the way humans with power can and all too often do behave. I feel Townsend Warner writes with a similar interest in cruelty to other writers concerned with fairy tales, but she’s more interested in political cruelties than the more bodily or outwardly violent cruelties we might see reflected in the work of, yes, Angela Carter. That is, Townsend Warner’s work seems to be concerned with the cruelties of interpersonal politics, and of court politics, and class politics (rather than i.e. party politics). Which are all very human (not that the cruelties in Angela Carter stories aren’t).
This is where I should probably state that I do think it might be worth drawing a distinction between fairylore (so folklore specifically about fairies), and the wider category of “fairy tale,” which often does not relate to fairies directly. Townsend Warner’s almost exclusive interest here is in the former, while Angela Carter was writing in the context of the latter, and this could well account for a lot of the differences in their approach.
AN: Both of the introductions in Handheld’s edition describe the sequence as a reaction to the death of Warner’s long-time partner, Valentine Ackland. And yes, now that you point it out, death and mortality are a lot more present in these stories than you’d expect given that fairies and fairy stories are more often associated with immortality and eternal youth in Western folklore. In some cases, it’s not even individual mortality—the ending of “Visitors to a Castle” suddenly veers into the death of all fairy-dom due to the encroachment of modernity, in a way that can’t help but color the entire collection.
AS: Related to the question of other stories of Faerie/Fairyland/Elfin, to what extent can we speak of a single “Faerie” at all? Abigail noted the cultural specificities between the various fairy courts described here; how different are they, really?
ZC: I think there is a conception of Fairy that is dominant in English-language writing —a magical land populated by strange beings who look like humans and act like sociopaths. Terry Pratchett’s elves, for example, who are terrific and beget terror. Warner’s kingdoms obviously belong to this tradition of Fairy. The different Elfin kingdoms she creates wouldn’t work without the idea of Fairy in the back of our heads as a reference point.
The kingdoms struck me more as variations on this theme than significantly different countries. Where Warner deals with actual different cultures, e.g., in “The Blameless Triangle,” she effectively turns them into subdomains of Elfin: Mustafa Ibrahim Bey isn’t very different from an Elfin potentate, with his penchant for casual brutality and fondness of poetry.
AN: Warner uses local character—not just folklore and culture, but dominant traits—to inform the culture and behavior of the various kingdoms. Broceliande is a fairy court, but it’s a French fairy court, and Elfhame is just as obviously English. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two favorite stories in the collection, “The Blameless Triangle” and “The Mortal Milk,” both take advantage of this cultural specificity. The fact that the philosophical seekers in “Triangle” are Germans is so clearly rooted in German Romanticism that it gives the story a heft that a more purely fantastic tale might not have had. Ditto “The Mortal Milk” and its Scandinavian setting.
But as to the question of a single “Faerie,” I think Warner herself pokes at it, in stories like “The Search for an Ancestress,” and the repeated reminder that Broceliande prides itself on its connection to the earliest fairy courts. I think she’s gesturing at the way that national and ethnic identity is always at least partly a construct, created for political aims. It serves a lot of the characters’ aims to believe in a unified fairy, even if it doesn’t really exist (and even if, as I observed, the local courts share a lot more with their surrounding community than they do with fairy-dom as a whole). And they’ll sometimes invent it if it doesn’t exist or doesn’t suit their purposes—see “The Revolt in Broceliande,” in which a eunuch tradition is invented in order to claim a stronger connection with fairies’ Middle Eastern origins.
CG: I think it’s hard to speak of a single “Faerie” in Townsend Warner’s stories, as we receive such a purposefully fragmented view of the Kingdoms. At the same time, I often found myself reading these stories almost as Ruritanian—that is, about a variety of small, made-up European kingdoms. The kind of small kingdoms and states that these stories recalled for me are not the same as one another, especially from the inside, but have a lot in common culturally, and they share histories. Which is what leads to the emphasis on or establishment of various traditions, and it can also lead to certain conflicts or animosities between courts (or even within them). Differences are often policed from within as a way of defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong.
But yes, they certainly almost all read as pretty squarely informed by the tradition of fairy tales in western Europe to me—not that I’m an expert on global fairylore.
AS: Abigail noted during the discussion that the “tenor of our observations has been very dour and gloomy,” and unlikely to inspire readers to pick up the book. A final question, then: how did you feel about this book, and would you want to convince other people to read it?
ZC: I found it a really challenging read despite liking the prose. I read it in the first month after having a baby and it was a little weird reading these cold stories about death and violence with a small vulnerable human attached to me. Did you guys enjoy it? I can’t say I did, much as I admired Warner’ skill.
AN: Now there’s a doozy. No, as much as I admired the book and found it interesting, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it. But I’d still like to recommend it to other people, if that makes sense.
CG: It made me cry and I read it fairly slowly, it’s not as fun as a lot of her writing can be. But I think I enjoyed it, for all that! I love the strangeness and the intricacies of her kingdoms.