Sylvia Townsend Warner- Of Cats and Elfins

For Christmas I received this collection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Split into two sections- one on fairies, one on cats (!)- it complements her book, Kingdoms of Elfin, which I have reviewed before.

As a fan of both cats and elves, the book is highly recommended. It’s a pleasant read- and a thought provoking one too. There’s a general introduction to Warner’s views on the inhabitants of Faery, followed by her unusual little tales. Her opinions on fairy-kind as a whole are well worth noting.

In many respect, Warner’s elfins are very similar to those we know. For example, they frequent meadows where they “dance mushrooms into rings” and the island of Britain is divided up into kingdoms ruled over by fairy queens, such as Elfame. Warner’s belief was that fairies are, eventually, mortal. They can die of old age and they can die, too, by misadventure- for example, by drowning, poisoning or hanging.

Warner’s elfins have a very low estimation of humankind. We are noisy, rude, dirty and, worst of all, dim. Her fae are smaller than humans, winged and able to ‘put on’ invisibility. As a result, she observed that:

“It is sometimes said that we have but our own obtuseness to blame for not seeing fairies more often than we do; but this is to attach too much importance to our idiosyncrasies, even to such a well-established, long-standing idiosyncrasy as obtuseness; for if we fail to see the fairies, it is not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to allow themselves to be seen by us.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

All in all, Warner’s elves don’t reckon much to us human beings. In her story ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine,’ it is remarked that “Mortals are not logical animals.” The courtier who makes this observation expands upon his experience a little later, explaining the essential difference between human and fairy kind (the possession of consciences): “We [that is, the fae] have no need of them. We have reason. But they are part of the mortal apparatus, as tails are to cats…” In the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo,’ we are told a little more about Elfin morality. They are “untrammeled by that petted plague of mortals, conscience, [so] they never reproached or regretted, entered into explanations or lied.” Faery is a world of guilt-free Enlightenment, it would seem. In the same story, Warner has a nice little joke at human gullibility: of fairy princess Lief, she remarks sardonically that:

“If she had believed in witches she would have believed he was under a spell; but Caithness was full of witches- mortals all, derided by rational Elfins.”

The fairy view of people is summarised by Warner in these terms:

“It is a sad fact, but undeniable: the Kingdom of Elfin has a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized. It is only the fairies with a taste for low company, like Puck and the Brownies… that make a practice of familiarity. And it is to be observed that they, for choice, frequent the simple and rustic part of mankind and avoid professors and students of folklore…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

As she notes, those humans who go out consciously looking for traces of the faeries tend to be disappointed- or are the victims of fairy vindictiveness. Warner confronts the fact that, when they do have contact with us, it is frequently an unpleasant experience for the mortals. They may give us a nasty fright, or:

“Often they go further, causing them to fall into languishing sicknesses, harrying them with ignominious accidents and even pursuing them unto death. They commonly employ one or two methods: blasting or shooting with an elf-bolt…”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

According to Warner, three groups, nevertheless, have a good chance of meeting faeries on happier terms. These are country women with new born babies, young children and handsome men. Mothers are taken because “the fairies think that the plodding and bovine nature of human kind is peculiarly well adapted to provide reliable old-fashioned nurses for fairy babes.”

Children are abducted either because they are wanted as a tithe for the devil (according to one theory) or because they enjoy the company of children and taking care of them (which she thinks more likely). This sits uncomfortably with a entirely typical faery episode in ‘The Narrative of Events Preceding the Death of Queen Ermine’ in which local children are punished for trespassing on the queen’s land. Most suffer pinchings, scratching and hair pullings, but some of the fairies get rather carried away in their duties- “driving the marauders into wasps’ nests, jerking them off boughs into nettlebeds, alluring them to toadstools or gay wreaths of deadly nightshade.” The resultant death toll is quite high.

As for men, fairy women take them as husbands. Warner notes, though, that the reverse is seldom the case. Although fairy men will seduce human women, “no earthly woman’s charms have been powerful enough to bind a fairy to her in honorable matrimony.” In large measure, she ascribes this to the fairy temperament:

“Their amorousness is proverbial and no doubt the fairies who married mortal husbands were induced to this rash step by the violence of their passions, coupled with a romantic and high-flown notion that there is something very fine about defying convention. Once married, however, they make admirable wives.”

Of Cats & Elfins, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin.’

On the whole, though, fairies are an unromantic lot and are incapable of falling heavily for another: “Elfins find such love burdensome and mistrust it.” If only humans could be as calm and rational… The other remark to make upon Warner’s Elfins is their diversity. The author was a lesbian with a life-long partner and in the story ‘The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo’ she imagined a gay husband and his wife, neither of them prepared to conform to the stereo-types expected of them.

Raphael, Mary F., A Wood Nymph; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

The last story in the Cats and Elfins collection is ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain.’ In many ways it is my favourite, although it is strictly not about Elfins but about nymphs. In short, it concerns a Mr Mulready, a draper in Wells in Somerset. He is a highly respectable widower who sings in the Baptist chapel choir. One evening the choir has been practicing the madrigal by Wilbye that provides the story’s title. The words of the verse stick in Mulready’s mind:

“Thy nymph is light and shadow-like

For if thou follow her, she’ll fly from thee,

But if thou fly from her, she’ll follow thee.”

Then, “All of a sudden, Mr Mulready found himself wondering about nymphs, and wondering, too, in a very serious and pertinacious way. He had never, to his knowledge, given a though to these strange beings before and yet it now seemed to him that he had an idea of them both clear and pleasant- as though perhaps in childhood he had been taken to see one. He wished to see a nymph again… What he felt was more than a whim: it was an earnest desire, a mental craving…”

The next day he realises that he has a nymph working in his shop, a pale young girl called Edna Cave. He asks to come out for a bicycle ride the next evening and they agree to cycle to Merley Wood, the other side of Glastonbury (there is a real Merley Wood, but it’s near Wimbourne in Dorset- definitely not an evening’s ride from Wells). Mulready knows the wood- and has always been a little nervous of its atmosphere, but as he tells himself: “When one has a nymph vouchsafed one for a whole evening, one does not boggle over details. He was extremely happy and excited at the thought of such a shy and rare being becoming his companion.”

They ride to the wood on a beautiful summer’s evening. Edna Cave is exactly the company the older man had hoped for : “He had already a general idea of how a nymph should behave: she would be rather quiet and take a great interest in flowers.” This is exactly what Edna does. They sit happily together under blackthorn blossom on the edge of the wood, saying little, but very content, until it is late and starting to get quite dark. Mr Mulready encourages them to leave and they are just walking back to their bikes when Edna turns around and walks back towards the blackthorn:

“She put out her hands. He thought she was going to break off a spray… And then, in a moment, she disappeared.”

Edna vanishes, leaving Mulready stunned and panicked. There is no trace of her at all- and he has to face returning to Wells with this shattering news. This wonderful mystery is exactly what I sought to celebrate in my book Nymphology published last year; it is, as well, a fine end to the Elfin section of Warner’s collection.

On My Faery Bookshelf: ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ & others

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The 1977 album cover

In my recent post about Faery in the music of Mark Bolan and English rock of the 1960s and ’70s, I mentioned the rock opera based upon the 1924 book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Edward Lord Dunsany.

I hadn’t read this, and thought I really should.  Having ordered the book through my local library, my default is now corrected!

The story concerns the land of Erl.  The people there feel neglected and unknown in the world, a situation that could be corrected if only there was magic in their land.  Their prince, Alveric, agrees to resolve this problem and travels through the misty frontier into nearby Elf Land.  There he meets and woos the king’s daughter, Lirazel.

They return to Erl and have a son, who is named Orion.  However, Lirazel cannot adapt to earthly ways and pines for her home.  Eventually, her father calls her back with magic and then hides Elfland from men.

Alveric sets out on a quest to recover his elvish bride, leaving behind his infant child.  Orion grows up to be a naturally skilled hunter in the forests and fields of Erl.  As time passes, and as Alveric heads further and further away in his futile search for his wife, the King of Elfland allows the border of his realm to draw nearer to earth again.  In due course, Orion discovers that unicorns stray over into our fields to graze and he becomes addicted to hunting them.  Inevitably, though, they are very hard to chase and he recruits a troll, Luralu, to help.  Slowly, then, Elfland and Earth are becoming intertwined, building up to the point when the magical world flows over Erl completely and the sundered family are reunited.

The plot of The King of Elfland’s Daughter is simple, but entertaining, and the author makes excellent use of such faery themes as the differential passage of time, but what is most attractive about the novel is its style.  Dunsany’s prose has a stately, poetic elegance; certain phrases are repeated, almost like an incantation, “the fields we know” and the faery palace, that “may be told of only in song.”  This is a feature, too, of traditional ballads (many of which are faery themed) and it gives a dreamlike quality to the majestic progress of the narrative, entirely appropriate to its magical subject matter.  (Dunsany achieved a similar effect in his chronicles of Pegana, too, which in creating an entirely new universe and pantheon, were key sources of inspiration for H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu).

All in all, it’s a lovely book, and highly recommended.

Other books for your collection

I’ve been catching up on my faery fiction recently, and I can also recommend the following.

The Lore of Proserpine

The Lore of Proserpine was published by Maurice Hewlett in 1913.  It’s an intriguing and elegant read, unlike any other book I have yet found in this subject area.  The work is fiction (we might assume) but it is written as a biographical account of a life-time’s encounters with faery folk.  The ambivalent status of the book, presenting itself as a sober and considered account of supernatural experiences, is part of its attraction.

Hewlett first sees a fairy boy in a wood when he is a child himself.  Regular sightings follow into adulthood, many of these occurring in the ostensibly unpromising surroundings of London, as well as in some of the remoter parts of the British countryside (deep in the Cheviot Hills or on the downs in Wiltshire).  Some of the sightings are presented as personal, others are relayed as reports from witnesses whom Hewlett has interviewed).  It’s full of wise remarks and informed speculations on fairy nature and, at only 130 pages in length and available as a very cheap paperback, it comes with the strongest British Fairies endorsement.

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Kingdoms of Elfin

I’ve mentioned it before, in passing, but I should also give honourable mention here to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin (1977).  In this book, too, a unique universe of faery is invented, based upon traditional faerylore but moulded by the author to her own vision.  It is a crueller Faery than Dunsany’s, where all is calm and peace, and in that respect is truer to the authentic nature of British fairies.