Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Kingdoms of Elfin is a collection of 17 stories by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, most of which appeared in The New Yorker in the 1970s. This was her last book. I don’t know why “Elfin” seems to be a noun in the title instead of an adjective; I’ve never seen anyone else use it that way.

I discovered this book a long time ago through Kate Nepveu’s reread of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, at Tor.com (2014). But I didn’t read it then.

Nepveu writes:
“Here’s a good place to mention Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection Kingdoms of Elfin, which was recommended to me when I was preparing for this project as possibly influential on JS&MN’s depiction of elves. I, uh, haven’t finished it yet, but from the first two-thirds or so, it strikes me as an interesting comparison in two ways.

First, the elves’ behavior there has something of the same juxtaposition of sometimes acting similarly to humans but thinking in completely alien ways. Second, Kingdoms of Elfin also imagines Elfland as being made up of multiple kingdoms that overlay, or coexist with, Europe—as opposed to, for instance, Elfland being a single kingdom with a physical border between it and our world (Lud-in-the-Mist) or a single kingdom in an entirely separate dimension (Discworld). Kingdoms of Elfin is very out-of-print, but it’s worth checking your library, because it’s quite interesting (though much chillier than JS&MN).”

Warner’s elves are long-lived but not quite immortal. In “The Five Black Swans,” five black swans appear as an omen of death. This story has some of the most memorable passages in the collection Warner writes:
“They are born, and eventually die; but their longevity and their habit of remaining good-looking, slender and unimpaired till the hour of death has led to the Kingdom of Elfin being called the land of the Ever-Young. Again, it is an error to say ‘the Kingdom of Elfin’: the kingdoms of elfin are as numerous and kingdoms were the Europe of the nineteenth century, and as diverse.”

And a little later:

“Dying is not an aristocratic activity, like fencing, yachting, patronizing the arts: it is enforced — a willy-nilly affair. Though no one at Elfhame was so superstitious as to suppose Tiphaine would live forever, they were too well-mannered to admit openly that she would come to her end by dying. In the same way, though everyone knew that she had wings, it would have been lèse-majesté to think she might use them. Flying was a servile activity: cooks, grooms, laundresses flew about their work, and to be strong on the wing was a merit in a footman. But however speedily he flew to the banqueting room with a soup tureen, at the threshold he folded his wings and entered at a walk.”

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

One thought on “Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

  1. I think I have this title somewhere on my shelves, although I may be confusing it with ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’. I enjoyed ‘Lolly Willowes’ but feel I need some determination to tackle her short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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