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.
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.