Friday, January 2, 2015

Fairies and Fate in Sylvia Townsend Warner's "Kingdoms of Elfin"

…[O]nce [Gobelet] made Fides an exquisite present. She had gone off on one of her rambles, and he had been sent after her with a message. He found her on the heath, motionless, and staring at the ground with an expression of dismay. She was staring at the body of a dead crow, already maggoty. Forgetting the message, he picked it up and said it must be buried in an anthill. She had not expected him to show such feeling, and followed him while he searched for an anthill large enough for his purpose. When it was found he scrabbled a hole and sank the crow in it. What the maggots had begun, he said, the ants would finish. Ants were good workmen. Three months later he brought her the crow’s skeleton, wrapped in a burdock leaf. Every minutest bone was in place, and she had never seen a bird’s skeleton before. In her rapture she forgot to thank him, and he went away thinking she was displeased.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin—a collection of sixteen stories written between 1972 and 1977, all but two of which were originally published in the New Yorker—concerns, well, the kingdoms of Elfin, all of which appear on the same map as the mortal world. Called things like Brocéliande, Foxcastle, Catmere, and Mynndd Prescelly, these kingdoms are primarily in the United Kingdom, and almost all in Europe (France, Sweden, Spain). (The only non-European kingdom is that of the Peris, in Iran.) If Elfins live in Asia, or the Americas, Warner isn’t interested; according to these stories, they’re an exclusively old world phenomenon.

In “Foxcastle,” although a human abductee describes fairies as not mysterious—they are, in fact, “as straightforward as the scent of a rose, as a wasp sting”—he also admits that “the more he studied them, the more baffled he became.” I felt much the same way. It isn’t that Warner didn’t go into enough detail; there’s plenty of that, about everything from the differences between kingdoms (Zuy has a profitable trading business, importing “fine muslins, mazulipatans, spices, and leopard skins for muffs,” and exporting “musical boxes, marrons glacés, fowling pieces, starch, suppositories, and religious pictures”; Brocéliande, which considers Zuy nothing more than a “gilded grocery shop,” survives on a combination of “pillage, feudal extortions, money-lending at high interest, insolvency, smuggling, and a fathomless national debt”) to customs (in Elfhame, if the queen does not appoint a successor, each eligible lady selects a lark. The court officeholders attach leaden weights to the larks’ feet and drop them into a bottomless well. Whichever lady’s lark takes the longest to drown wins the Queenship) to characteristics (that human abductee in “Foxcastle” notes that, the concept of obligation being foreign to fairies, their motives are “as pure as the heavens” because they always “[do] as they wish”). Despite such details as these, however, after 222 pages of Warner’s book, I understood her fictional race little better than I did before I began.

The forces of cause and effect in Warner’s stories, however, are perhaps even more mysterious than the natures of her fairies. I was never sure why things happened as they did; tragic fates befall Warner’s characters right and left, but not as punishments or even as consequences. Things don’t happen because they must happen, or because it’s inevitable that they happen; they just... happen, like in the quote at the beginning of this post, which is from the story “Winged Creatures.” When the bird-obsessed fairy Fides finds the corpse of a crow, the human changeling Gobelet seeks out an anthill, buries the corpse, then comes back three months (and approximately 150 words) later to exhume the skeleton and bring it to Fides, wrapped in a burdock leaf. Fides is so enraptured by Gobelet’s gift that she forgets to thank him; he goes away “thinking she was displeased” with it. A single moment—one 16-word sentence—is all it takes to dash his hopes. This is how misfortune strikes in Elfin: suddenly, without warning, seemingly at random. (Perhaps it feels random because Warner doesn’t spend a lot of time setting things up: she gives information only when it’s about to become relevant.)

Warner doesn’t revel in dispensing rotten luck, but she doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over it, either. At the end of “The One and the Other,” a fairy changeling kills his human counterpart by not plugging his vein properly after taking a blood sample. In “Elphenor and Weasel,” two fairy lovers fall asleep in the belltower of a church and freeze to death. The end of “Visitors to a Castle” prophesies “the end of our world . . . the end of Elfin . . . the last fairy dying like a scorched insect.” At the end of “Winged Creatures,” a fairy nobleman is torn apart by gulls. And at the end of “Foxcastle,” the last story in the book, that human abductee I mentioned is expelled from Elfin without warning to find that he’s an old man, dressed in rags, incapable of human speech. Not every story ends this way. Flipping through just now, I was surprised by how many have comparatively happy endings, but the overall tone of the book is a kind of resigned sadness. Bad things happen, we don’t know why, and there’s nothing we can do about it. In “Elphenor and Weasel,” one of the titular characters is swept up in a storm at sea. “The force of the gale enclosed him; he could hardly draw breath. There was no effort of flight; the effort lay in being powerlessly and violently and almost senselessly conveyed—a fragment of existence in the drive of the storm.” Fate, in this book, operates exactly like. All you can do is wait it out and hope you’re alive when it’s over.

Stray Observations:

  • I wonder whether Susanna Clarke has read these stories; they’d be right at home in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Warner even quotes from a fictional manuscript on fairies, “The Secret Commonwealth,” which is written in a 17th century style—similar to that of some of the fictional books Clarke quotes in Jonathan Strange. (“Spirits, and light changable bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) are somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight.) She also shares a certain digressive quality with Clarke, as well as a fondness for minor details and detailed rituals. Her fairies are less powerful than Clarke’s, though, and more vulnerable (though woe betide the human who falls into their clutches).
  • Speaking of Susanna Clarke, one moment in particular reminded me of her because of how it blends fantasy and everyday life. In "Castor and Pollux," a fairy named Hamlet returns home to the kingdom of Pomace "at short notice, but preceded himself in several people's dreams. Elissa's bowerwoman, polishing the crystal ball, had seen him sailing up the Severn in a gondola drawn by two swans, but said nothing about it at the time, as she did not want to be thought a trespasser on her mistress's domain." (Those dreams are very Only Lovers Left Alive.) The way Warner mixes fantasy and banality reminds me of the scene in Jonathan Strange when Strange uses horses made of "sand and sea-water and magic" to tow a grounded ship to safety—after which they lie down and become new sandbanks, altering the area's shoals and channels such that all existing maps of it are rendered useless. Magic is fallible as the people who use it.
  • Warner uses fairy ignorance to get in some pointed digs at the church. In "The Occupation," the fairy Ellin happens upon a group of humans walking "with an air of being banded together to commit some crime they were not wholehearted about." She follows them to a stone building, into which they file—to massacre? Or to be massacred? "If they were there to be slaughtered it would account for that air of unwillingness." However, "No one was slaughtered. At intervals, everyone sang. Finally, they paid to go away." She's just witnessed a church service.
  • Warner presents the non-hetero sexualities in Kingdoms—of which there are several—in a manner sometimes matter-of-fact and sometimes playful. In “The Blameless Triangle,” four starving fairy runaways try to prostitute a fifth to a provincial governor named Mustafa Ibrahim—who has a taste for young boys—in a conversation full of sexual innuendo: “Let us suppose that a triangle wishes, for reasons we need not go into, to lodge itself in a square. Which part of itself would it direct to that end? . . . Let us further suppose that one of [its] angles . . . was slightly prominent, slenderer, and therefore more insinuating. Have we any reason to doubt but that this would be the angle our hypothetical triangle would choose for its purpose—and rightly so?”) In “Foxcastle,” a human is sexually assaulted by an anonymous group of fairies: “[H]ands were fingering him, lightly, delicately, adroitly. His shoes were taken off, his toes parted, the soles of his feet prodded. His coat was unbuttoned, his shirt opened. Fingers tweaked the hair in his armpits . . . The cobweb bonds yielded as he writhed and struggled, and each time he thought he had snapped them they tightened again. The explorers waited till he lay exhausted . . . and proceeded methodically to his genitals.” And, in “Castor and Pollux,” two identical human twins wrestle naked in a distinctly erotic fashion: “From head to foot they were happiness. Their stature, their long identical limbs, their matched expressions of fierce, unwavering gaiety existed in a world of their own . . . As they clasped and eluded, locked and slid apart, forced one another down, pliable as willow wands, and pliable as willow wands sprang up again, it seemed as though they would wrestle forever . . .” I was surprised by all this until I learned that Warner herself was a lesbian (she lived with the poet Valentine Ackland for 39 years until Ackland’s death in 1969). These three scenes aren't the focal point of their respective stories: the prostitution scheme never comes to fruition, and neither the sexual assault nor the naked wrestling are even mentioned again. Sexual diversity is a natural part of Warner's world, just as it is in ours.

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