Sylvia Townsend Warner Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Vol. 19)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893–1978

Warner was a British novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, editor, and biographer. She was perhaps best known for her short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, and which, according to John Updike, "stick up" from that magazine's "fluent fiction-stream with a certain stony air of mastery." The combination of fantasy and realism that marked Lolly Willowes, her first novel, established a pattern that was to prevail through most of her fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)

Gabriele Annan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories in Kingdoms of Elfin] are fairy stories…. The elfin kingdoms over or underlie (mostly under, because they tend to be subterranean) Europe, and their inhabitants share the traditionally accepted characteristics of their human counterparts. Thus the elfins of the Kingdom of Wirre Gedanken … are given to metaphysical speculation; on the English side of the Scottish border the fairies are comparatively uncouth and deplorably indifferent to physical comfort; in Elfhame on the Scottish side they are natural theologians; in Ireland they see ghosts, and so on. These are not accidental clichés. You might not think them clichés at all, because they are handled so wittily and unexpectedly: but I think they are and are meant to be, and that the whole book is an attack on accepted thinking….

The Peris of Persia, the stones of Carnac, the Greek gods, Morgan le Fay and King Arthur are part of elfin history. Their present is a picturesque past, set somewhere between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries: a feudal time with many small courts. All the fairies are princes, or courtiers, or their servants; there is no fairy bourgeoisie, and Miss Townsend Warner is not much interested in social criticism. Nor is she interested in the occult, as some modern writers of supernatural tales are. She turns the supernatural upside down: her fairies are not merely sweetly reasonable but sweetly rational, and her jokes—ironical, dry and sly—are jokes against religion, against superstition, gullibility, clericalism and priggishness.

Yet her book is not a dry Voltairian satire. It is poetic, and the poetry comes not only from the fastidious elfin magic of her prose, but also from a feeling for nature which could, perhaps, be called mystical….

Gabriele Annan, "The Not So Little People," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3905, January 14, 1977, p. 25.

Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Kingdoms of Elfin,… Sylvia Townsend Warner … never condescends to an ethereal race that views mortals as "unfailingly serious and unfailingly absurd." Instead, she talks about fairies without being fey and creates a texture for the intangible.

Each of the book's 16 stories … can fly on its own. Taken together, they form both a whimsical saga of invisible dynasties and an extended commentary on Homo sapiens. Warner's elves are in many ways mirror images of men. They cannot weep and do not hate. They reproduce with difficulty but live for centuries: "Fairies are constructed for longevity, not fertility." They are governed exclusively by women—the more capricious the better. Mocking the human dream of taking wing, elves aspire to a place in society so high that flying will be beneath them. (p. 73)

Warner's prose duplicates the iridescent beauty of elfin life. Her descriptions are brushed with an unsettling magic. Yet Kingdoms of Elfin also pays humanity a backhanded compliment. There is melancholy as well as joy in the fairy state. Suspended somewhere between the angels and man, fairies are dropouts from the cosmic school of hard knocks. Warner's elfin courts are doomed to frivolity, to a tepid acceptance of beauty that does not die quite fast enough. In the book's last story, a mortal is given the last word. He is a passionate seeker of the fairies, who finds them, admires them and then compares them to a...

(The entire section is 2,285 words.)