Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Roundtable Discussion: Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner, at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons has resurrected its book club feature, and the inaugural discussion features me, Zen Cho, and Charlotte Geater discussing Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1977 collection Kingdoms of Elfin, reprinted last year after many years out of print by Handheld Press.  Though I haven't read much of her writing, I've found Warner, an early 20th century fantasist as well as one of the inaugural voices of the New Yorker's fiction department, a fascinating writer, and Kingdoms of Elfin has been a particular obsession of mine ever since I first read about it, and learned that it was unavailable.  In these stories, written over a decade after the death of Warner's partner Valentine Ackland, Warner visits various fairy kingdoms around the globe, imagining their customs, court intrigues, and scandals.  This naturally creates the expectation of a light, frothy book, but as the roundtable reveals all of us found the stories cold and challenging.  There's a chilliness to the collection that seems to speak to the essence of what Warner was trying to do with them--not a frivolous escape, but a hard-headed look at how life can turn empty and meaningless when love is gone.
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.
I worry, though, that people will come away from this roundtable feeling put off or intimidated by the book.  As challenging as I found it, I absolutely do recommend it, if only because I've never read anything else like it.  It's an important, overlooked corner in the history of fantasy, and a thought-provoking meditation on loss, and the insufficiency of glamor and luxury to make up for it.

2 comments:

Aonghus Fallon said...

I had a copy years ago, lost it, and bought the ebook when it came out on Amazon last year. Overall, (while finding them nicely written) I thought the stories disappointing second time round. They lacked any real emotional range and certain tropes came up again and again - e.g. duos, exile. The stories are essentially mood pieces; there' s very little in the way of plot.

This is compounded by how they originally appeared in the New Yorker, and seem to be a victim of the New Yorker Magazine's ability to turn every story it publishes (regardless of who writes it or what they write about) into…well, into the sort of story you'd expect to read in the New Yorker Magazine.

Justin Howe said...

I should probably reread these. First time around I loved their hard-edged and heartless beauty. Maybe not loved, but I felt that Warner depicted aristocracy in a way that few had approached before and still managed to keep the stories weird and beautiful. But I also like mood pieces.

If no one's raved at you to read Warner's novel LOLLY WILLOWES considering this that raving.

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