Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of ElfinThe Little People, it seems, have no middle class. They are either the earthy, woodland-living folk of Alan Lee and Brian Froud’s Faeries, or the distant, beautiful, highly-cultured nobles of Tolkien. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s elves are firmly in the Beautiful People category, with something of a Bohemian, perhaps Bloomsbury tinge to them. The Bloomsbury tint is understandable — Warner began writing fiction in the 1920s, having been encouraged to do so by Bloomsbury-ite David Garnett. Cultured, with nevertheless a humanising irony, a slightly disapproving-but-forgiving distance of tone, these stories of the Kingdoms of Elfin were in fact published in the 1970s, in The New Yorker (though two are original to this collection), but you can feel their roots in those earlier days of advanced thinking, self-improvement, and the intellectual rebellion against the remnants of an aristocratic, paternalistic Victorian culture. Not too much of a rebellion, though — Warner’s fairies play golf and cards, they obey the dictates of courtly fashions, they gossip and have that aristocratic mix of disapproval of, and tolerance for, those who are different. Warner’s stories focus on those who are different, but her rebels are rarely different enough to leave off being aristocratic. They dip their toes in rebellion with the air of assuming a new fashion:

“It is widely known that a group of dissident fairies seceded from the Court of Elfhame in order to have more time for self-improvement. The Elfhame Dissidents had sickened of the frivolity of court life: pleasure was a burden to them; so was politeness. Beset with banquetings, love affairs, sonnets, whist drives, masquerades, and lotteries, they had no time to take themselves seriously.”

Leaving the Court of Elfhame, these dissident fairies of “The Occupation” nevertheless fail to truly take themselves seriously: “Conversation persisted, since in the main they talked about themselves, but was repetitive.” They puzzle over the mortals they encounter, taking a quaint interest in church worship and the birth of a mortal baby, before passing on, hardly noticing the tragedy they leave in their wake.

Some of the stories make brief, passing reference to folklore: “The Five Black Swans” contains a glimpse of the story of Thomas the Rhymer from the fairy lady’s point of view, and “Elphenor and Weasel” ends with an allusion to the Green Children of Woolpit. There are references to fairy literature, too: James Hogg appears, as a shepherd (which he was, prior to writing The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner) in “The Occupation”, which also has a minister refer to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth in an effort to learn about the fairy visitors he suspects are living in his house.

Kingdoms of ElfinThe last story in the book, “Foxcastle”, tells of a mortal scholar who, trying to find evidence that fairies exist, is taken in and studied by them. Here at last we get to see the fairies from a mortal’s point of view rather than, as in the rest of the book, from their own. Which perhaps goes best towards describing the overall tone of the stories in Kingdoms of Elfin: Warner’s fairies, although they have wings and can fly (though the aristocratic ones scorn flight, thinking it only suitable for servants), and although they are long-lived and capable of invisibility, don’t come across as magical in the way of Tolkien’s elves, nor dangerously unpredictable in the way of Froud and Lee’s, because we’re seeing them as they would see themselves: as objects of a wit and irony so light in touch it can seem to fade like fairy gold in mortal hands. But nevertheless these stories are told with a bite, the classic storyteller’s indifference of true fairy tales, that makes these little comic tragedies, and tragic comedies, both subtly knowing and subtly forgiving, but never merely delicate or fey.

Two Faerie Novels

coverIn Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (published earlier this year), a teenage girl disappears into the woods only to return, two decades later, having aged a mere six months. In that time her parents have become OAPs, her brother has married and had children, and her ex-boyfriend, a once-promising musician (who was at one point accused of her murder) has seriously failed to live up to his promise. Joyce’s novel explores the impact of her return, and the sudden perspective it puts upon the passage of twenty years in each character’s life.

coverRamsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk (published last month) opens with one of those “real people’s problems” tabloid-style talk shows, where the host, Jack Brittain, is poised to reveal the results of a DNA test that will prove if, as Maurice Arnold suspects, his grown-up son Luke isn’t really his son at all. Maurice suspects his brother, Terence, who has always been overly proud of the boy, taking him on trips to remote parts of the country and telling him odd little fairy tales. But despite a family resemblance, it turns out Luke isn’t related to either. Nor, even, to the woman he calls his mother. A stand-up comedian with an uncanny knack for imitation, Luke comes to suspect the truth about his origins by retracing, through his uncle’s tersely-worded journal, the odd places they visited, where they always seemed to meet with “kind folk”. Nice people? By no means.

Joyce’s novel uses a multiple viewpoint approach to work at two questions. One, the rational, is just what happened — is the returned Tara really Tara? And can she really still be a teenager, twenty years on? Or is it all self-delusion and an extreme case of arrested development? The other (and far more interesting) question, is how her disappearance and reappearance have affected the people who knew her (among which the most compelling stories are those of her ex-boyfriend Richie, to whom she was a sort of muse, and who, as a result, was left like the traditional fairy-thralled knight, bereft of his inspiration and life-drive; and of course Tara’s own, having lost twenty years’ worth of family life, and finding herself in a world with which she’s now two decades out of step). My one criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the two questions quite gelled. It’s interesting to compare it to Alan Garner’s Boneland, another Faerie-tinged book published this year which also dealt with the devastating, lifelong impact of loss, though in an even more intense way (perhaps because entirely focused on one character). Garner combines the psychoanalytic and fantastic threads of his novel into one meaningful narrative, whereas Joyce spends a chapter psychoanalysing Tara only to disprove it later, which left me feeling a bit cheated. But in Boneland, psychoanalysis, even if it has a dangerous air, is ultimately seen as an aid to self-understanding and self-healing, while Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s take is more about the abuse suffered at the hands of the profession by people whose experiences have taken them beyond the norm.

For most of The Kind Folk, Ramsey Campbell takes a more traditional horrific approach to the presence of a race of half-seen non-human beings at loose in the world. As usual with Campbell, his novel is mostly about the isolating, destabilising effect of the supernatural on one man’s family relationships, identity, and sanity. But the end managed to step clear of the simply horrific to a glimpse of something a little more magical. A far more claustrophobic but focused novel, Campbell’s worked that little bit better, of the two, for me.

Both The Kind Folk and Some Kind of Fairy Tale are well-written, interesting modern takes on the traditional matter of fairyland. Cornered as it is by hordes of zombies, vampires and teen wizards, I’m wondering if Faerie isn’t becoming one of the last refuges of the fantasy novelist who wants to do something genuinely different. There’s something about these outward blasts of the irrational & incomprehensible, and how they impact on real-seeming human characters, that smacks of those areas of life that fantasy, perhaps, is the best way to write about. The loss of a loved one may have a rational explanation, but that goes no way to explaining or expressing the impact it has on the people who feel the loss. The fantastic can. Besides, there’s something about the Perilous Realm and its inhabitants that, however much they may be commercialised into butterfly-winged, tutu-wearing Tinkerbells, there’s always a dark underside that resists commodification, a marshy creature lurking in the weeds, a too-wild dance echoing from over the next mist-wrapped hill. All too often, vampires and zombies are more and more restricted by rules and behaviours as their literature grows, but Faerie only seems to increase in its ability, the more it’s written about, to be what you don’t expect it to be. (Which may be its defining feature.) Besides, I don’t believe in vampires or zombies, but can’t help being a little bit afraid that if I say I don’t believe in fairies, they’ll get me.

Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee

Once upon a time, there was a book about gnomes. It was called Gnomes. It detailed the lives and habits of these funny little creatures with plenty of colourful illustrations, just as you might explain the lives and habits of a woodland animal. It was rather fun and cosy. (One reviewer said it had a “a determined jolliness”.) When it came out in 1976, it was a bestseller, and US publishers Ballantine, who’d recently started publishing large-format paperbacks of fantasy artists’ work (including Frank Frazetta, Gervasio Gallardo, and one Brian Froud), decided to try for a similar success with a book about fairies. So they asked Brian Froud and Alan Lee (who were sharing a studio at the time). The thing was, Lee and Froud didn’t believe in the gnomely domestication of fairies. They knew them to be feral and free, defined — if they could defined at all — by their very inability to be pinned down, diagrammed, explained or made merely fun, cosy and pretty. Fun they could be, but also naughty, sly and wicked; pretty they could be, but also ugly, strange, cartoonish, elegant, beautiful and horrific; cosy they could never be. If the gnomes of Gnomes were a garden creature, to be found in well-ordered & bordered patches of managed nature, the fairies of Faeries were the wilderness and the wilds, the tangles and briars, the wildflowers and toadstools, the crooked trees and marshy bogs. When it came out in 1978, the book proclaimed its inability to provide an accurate taxonomy of the various kinds of fairy:

“One species shades into the next, so it is difficult to state precisely where a Bogie ends and a Bogle begins… no sensible rules apply to terminology or, indeed, any other aspect of Faerie — it is a law unto itself.”

The result is a work of art rather than a merely amusing book. What Lee and Froud did was to provide a true picture of the imaginative fact of Faerie, the realm of the wild & weird presented in all its grotesqueness, playfulness, darkness and light. Brian Froud, in his introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition, talks of a “healing strength” people have found in the book. This may come from its frankness, as each fairy, pretty or ugly, invites you to see a little bit of yourself in it — only not the civilised, normalised bit. Unlike the chocolate box variety of fairy art, Faeries doesn’t present images of perfect, dainty ladies and children, beautified with gossamer wings and mystified with moonlight, it presents (oddly) something far more normal-seeming and un-idealised, though normal only in its strangeness, its reminder we’re all so different from the norm. Faeries belongs to the same tradition as Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which may have depicted a gathering of oddball faerie types, or may have shown the inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital where Dadd resided after killing his father. (And, as a little bit of fairy magic, I’ll point out that Alan Lee was a classmate of Freddie Mercury at the Ealing College of Art, and that Mercury, with Queen, wrote a piece of music called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke that’s as sublime as the original painting.)

It’s odd to think Faeries was made into a short-ish animated film, for kids, in the US (which you can watch, in three parts, on YouTube). It can’t hope to do more than hint at the spirit of the original work, but some of it’s there, in cartoon versions of the book’s illustrations, mostly to be glimpsed in passing, in the background — hints at the true realm of Faerie behind the inevitable TV compromises:

The Faeries cartoon. Some of it’s like this…

…not much of it’s like this…

…most of it’s like this

After Faeries, Froud and Lee got lots of film & book work, including a host of excellent fantasy films (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Ridley Scott’s Legend, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings). So, it could be said, they lived happily ever after.