Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 27, 2010

Lives of the fairies

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1977), Viking, 222 pp.

Most of the stories in this book appeared originally in The New Yorker, a strange place to find sombre quirky fairy tales (although not a strange place to find sombre quirky tales). It was always a treat to open a new isue to the Table of Contents and learn that one of her stories was there, to take me again into her world of changelings, fractious queens and obstinate underlings. It rarely turned out well for any humans who found their way to any of these kingdoms, and many of the elves didn’t fare so well either.

These fairies are very much like European aristocrats of the 1700s, with carefully delineated strata in their societies and rules for each level. The aristocrats (royalty and all the court) don’t fly, despite their wings. Flying is for menials (footmen who can fly with great speed are very much in demand), but even couriers don’t fly unless to guarantee the safe delivery of whatever message they may be carrying. Love is nearly unknown, but infatuation, intrigue, and gossip are everywhere.

Townsend Warner’s stories occasionally take us back and forth between the Elfin kingdoms and the world of humans. The fairies harvest babies (leaving changelings in their stead) the way we take pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns, and then discard the adult humans the way we toss out the collapsed pumpkin shells after Halloween. Occasionally a human will stumble into one of the Elfin kingdoms, but the elves only tolerate him as long as he’s amusing. But most of the tales are about events within and between the various kingdoms — diplomacy and its failures, the death of a queen, affairs and betrayal.

You won’t find here the kindly elves who helped the shoemaker, or the sweet flower-fairies that lead lost children back to their loving parents. Townsend Warner’s fairies astonish us with their cruelty. One explanation for their cavalier behavior may be their longevity. When you live for 8 centuries, a moment of cruelty is swallowed up by vast time and therefore easily dismissed.

This book is not a collection of bed-time stories for children, but for adults it’s perfect. It’ll leave you wondering about your own elvish tendencies.

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