Short Story Review: ‘Kingdoms of Elfin’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Review by Emma Timpany

Publisher: Handheld Press
275 pages
RRP: £12.99

Writing is a difficult and often painstaking process for many of its practitioners, and short stories are regularly acknowledged as fiction’s most demanding form. In Kingdoms of Elfin, Warner not only writes exquisitely well but finds a perfect equilibrium between the rich complexity of the new world she has created and the constraints of the form. Written at the end of Warner’s long, accomplished and individual career, the skilfulness of this collection impressed me on every level. It is a rare thing: a masterwork which is also a delight to read.

In their accomplishment and wit, the stories reminded me at times of the work of contemporary writers Jane Gardam, Kelly Link and Kate Clanchy. Congratulations are due to Handheld Press for producing a handsome new edition of this fine and haunting collection. Its high production values are apparent in both the elegant design and the inclusion of thoughtful introductory and notes sections. Greer Gilman’s foreword states that many of the sixteen short stories in Kingdoms of Elfin were published in The New Yorker during the 1970s. Sylvia Townsend Warner began writing them at the age of eighty after the love of her life, Valentine Ackland, had died, and she was ‘tired of the human heart.’ Yet there is love to be found in these stories, albeit of an unusual kind.

Desire, too, flows through these works. At times it’s the yearning for freedom from the rituals the long-lived, though not immortal, fairies use to punctuate their lives; at others it’s the audacity to unfold their wings and fly, for in the Elfin world flying is considered a base activity which connects fairies with other winged creatures less sophisticated than themselves. Flying regularly is something servants do because they must, to gather food or to transport stolen babies for example. As short stories thrive on transgression and the crossing of boundaries, many of the most thrilling moments in the lives of these characters come at the moment when they take to the sky.

Likewise each story is imbued with a powerful sense of the freedom felt by Warner’s imagination once loosed from the confines of the human world. The One and the Other opens the collection,

‘When the baby was lifted from the cradle, he began to whimper. When he felt the rain on his face, he began to bellow. ‘Nothing wrong with his lungs,’ said the footman to the nurse. They spread their wings, they rose in the air. They carried the baby over a birchwood, over an oakwood, over a firwood. Beyond the firwood was a heath, on the heath was a grassy green hill. ‘Elfhame at last,’ said the nurse. They folded their wings and alighted. A door opened in the hillside and they carried the baby in. It stared at the candles and the silver tapestries, left off bellowing, and sneezed.’

This is a world not only of fairies, but of changelings and werewolves kept as a hunting pack like hounds and subject to unpleasant outbreaks of murrain. Customs vary between the kingdoms, but each is a stratified world of ancient, largely pointless ritual to combat the inevitable ennui which accompanies long life. Though the stories can stand alone, fairy lore and references to this wider world run through the collection like silver thread.

As in many short stories, the characters here find themselves undergoing change of one sort or another. My favourite piece, Beliard, is set in the Elfin kingdom of Brocéliande. (By coincidence, I spent two weeks this summer on the edge of a remnant of this ancient Breton forest and can testify to its still magical atmosphere.) Beliard concerns the spring of Barenton, supposedly the place a vagrant tribe of fairies (Peris) first settled after being driven out of Persia by the magicians Aaron and Moses.

‘Its water was cold, even in the sweltering days of late summer, the spring jetted in a quiet twirl of silver from the sandy bottom of the pool, filled it always to the same level, and flowed away unseen through a bed of reeds. It was as though it had a life of its own, apart from the rest of the world.’

Both humans and fairies are aware that a lady sometimes sits beside it, ‘tall, stately as a queen, and always very pleasant…’ She is considered by all to be one of the indigenous fairies of the area, known as ‘the Old Lot.’ Beliard finds himself drawn to the spring at Barenton at first for its solitude and then because he falls in love with the lady. Her outward appearance is now that of any old woman, though her reflection in the pool is of one still young. Beliard’s happiness is threatened by Queen Melior’s plan to bathe in the spring. He tries to warn the lady and then in desperation,

‘He cast himself down to kiss the face in the water. It vanished under his lips. The ripples darted up the bank, his mouth was full of grit, he felt the water evading him, deserting him. The reeds heeled over in the vehement current as the pool of Barenton drained away.’

Homeless men who wander in rags out of their wits are explained as changelings and abductees returned to the human world once they have outlived their usefulness, sometimes as consorts of the long-lived fairy queens. Once such, James Sutherland, is found in the final story, Foxcastle. He has always wished to see a fairy; finding himself abducted by them, he studies their behaviour.

‘They were fickle in their loves and hates, fickle and passionate in their pursuits. Some devoted themselves to astronomy. Others practised the French horn. Others educated squirrels. Some, he presumed, made measurements. Only one thing was certain: they never quarrelled.’

His fob watch, which he is addicted to checking, no longer works. James, previously the holder of a Lectureship in Rhetoric at the University of Aberdeen, begins to change. ‘In his former life, he had lived in a balancing act between obligations…He had never conceived of the total release of not being an obligation himself.’

Eventually, he learns to live like them ‘in a perpetual present – like the Queen with her knitting, each stitch was the stitch of the moment.’ And then one day, during her customary appearance each evening to knit publically, the Queen beckons to him and gives a demonstration.

‘She knitted slowly and firmly. Already he saw the rib emerging. ‘And one purl. And break off.’’

Then, like a fairy Atropos, she bites through the thread and James is thrust painfully back into the human world. Soon afterwards, he encounters a group of sightseers.

‘He staggered towards them, making noises. He had lived so long with the fairies he had forgotten his native speech. When they turned to look at him, he realised he was in rags and half naked.’

The sightseers offer him money to better clothe himself. The story, and the collection, closes in this way.

‘…Words were coming back to him.

‘Take it, take it,’ said the gentleman. ‘Go away, and be grateful.’


Emma Timpany was born and grew up in the far south of New Zealand, but currently lives in Cornwall. Her publications are Over the Dam (here), a pamphlet of five short stories, (Red Squirrel Press, 2015) and The Lost of Syros (published by Cultured Llama Press, 2015 –here), a collection of sixteen short stories. A second short story collection, Three Roads, is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press in 2018. Her short stories have won the Sara Park Memorial Short Story Competition 2013, the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011 and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists’ Theodora Roscoe/Vera Brittain Award 2011. They have been placed and commended in competitions, most recently The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing, and have been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia. You can read more about Emma on her website here.

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