The Scottish Kingdoms of Elfin

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote one great fantasy novel, Lolly Willowes, at the beginning of her remarkable writing career, and one great book of linked short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, at the very end. It’s a glorious sequence of stories, in which the courts of Elfin existed through history in our world, with their own customs and manners, attendants and events. History and comedy, romance and tragedy interlace.1

As Neil Gaiman points out, Warner’s writing career was not known for fantasy fiction. Lolly Willowes (1926) was succeeded by poetry and fiction distinguished by considerable individuality, but her output was mostly realist, and scholarly attention has largely been focused on these works. But in her eighties, in the last six or seven years of her life, Warner began to write stories into which it was ‘a relief to escape from the human heart, which I was growing rather too familiar with’.2 At that time Warner was recently widowed: her life companion Valentine Ackland had died from breast cancer in 1969, and Warner’s diaries for the succeeding years, and some of her letters, give hints of the dogged endurance and desolation of spirit that she was experiencing. To escape into writing about something outside her grief-stricken existence would indeed have been a relief. But it may also have transmuted that grief into a bearable art.

Kingdoms of Elfin was the result, sixteen short stories about the European courts of Elfin that Warner had published in the New Yorker since 1972. Additionally, almost for the first time in her fiction, Warner was writing about Scotland, and developed the fairy culture of no other country as much as she dwelt on Scotland. The five Scottish stories in Kingdoms of Elfin present a distinctive portrait of a profoundly believable Scottish fairy culture that flavours the volume with bedrock traditions. Even the names seep Scottishness into the narrative: Sir Bodach of the kingdom of Elfwick in Caithness is named after the Scottish iteration of the Brownie, for example.

What I want to do here is examine how Warner chose to use fairy lore in her Scottish stories of Elfin. Her approach, as Ingrid Hotz-Davies suggests in her introduction to the new Handheld Press edition of Kingdoms of Elfin, is anthropological. Following what Katharine Briggs calls the tradition of ‘heroic fairies’,3 Warner’s fairies are four-fifths of human height. Her descriptions are measurement-based, explaining (or airily not quite explaining) how fairies fly, and how they turn their visibility on and off. In this matter-of-fact detailing of the fantastic, she was influenced by the writing of T. H. White, whose biography she had written in 1967. In writing about fairies specifically, like Kipling (in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies) and Tolkien before her, she resisted the twentieth-century tendency to write fairies as ‘airy, tenuous, pretty creatures without meat or muscles, made up of froth and whimsy’, creating instead ‘a world in which imagination has superseded fancy’.4 Warner was judiciously selective in her invention: her fairies are indifferent to sentiment, and have very little interest in human affairs, but they also demonstrate many of the classical fairy attributes.

Despite being about fairies who fly, the stories of Kingdoms of Elfin are not about magic. In Warner’s formulation, fairies are magic, in that they are magical creatures, and can become visible to humans when they feel it necessary – but they cast no spells. Her fairies are heartless and indifferent, long-lived, formal, articulate and intricate. They inhabit a stratified social hierarchy in which the working fairies can and do fly, and are celebrated for this, whereas the upper classes consider flying to be coarse, and unbecoming (although at least one Elfin queen ensures that her wings are oiled weekly). But there are variations: Brocéliande in Brittany is the proudest, most aristocratic and most hidebound of the Courts, in which a courtier who flies is at serious risk of lésé-majesté, whereas the fairies in Wales are so unrefined that they all fly up into ash trees of an evening to sleep.

Let us now proceed into Scottish Elfindom.

Elfhame on Eskdalemuir is, of course, the principal Scottish fairy kingdom, which Tiphaine, lover of Thomas of Ercildoune, rules until her death in ‘The Five Black Swans’. A later queen of Elfhame was abandoned by a secessionist group of fairies led by Lady Beline and her harp, in ‘The Occupation’. Queen Coventina, formerly of Procolitia until that upstart Mithras moved in, led the move to Catmere in the Southern Uplands, which developed into a kingdom that specialised in receiving disgraced and inconvenient fairies, in ‘The Climate of Exile’. The Elfin Court of Rings in Galloway is haunted by the glowers of ‘The Late Sir Glamie’, whose residual part-mortal soul perpetuates his post mortem existence. The broch of Foxcastle in Peeblesshire (Warner originally called this story ‘A Fortified Enclosure’)5 forcibly accommodates a researcher from the University of Aberdeen, but ignores him until he is ejected in his old age by the queen.

Warner first mentions Elfhame in a much earlier piece of writing, a short article in the women’s magazine Eve in 1927. There she used ‘Elfhame’ synonymously with the idea of elfin kingdoms in general. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, in which Queen Tiphaine lies dying, remembering her long-lost mortal lover Thomas, Elfhame has become a single court. The passion and freedom of their love is echoed in Warner’s diary entries of the period, when she was re-reading her own and Valentine’s letters, and remembering the days of their marriage before the irruption of Elizabeth Wade White into their lives and Valentine’s bed.6 Warner draws freely on the many iterations of the legend of True Thomas, Thomas the Rhymer, of Ercildoune, to explore the nature of fairy love. She described this to David Garnett: ‘Elfins, as I saw them, seldom love, unless they are very young […] or love a mortal, like Tiphaine.’7 Love comes upon Tiphaine because Thomas, a mortal, can see her. The physical shock of this frees her from other fairy codes, and she takes to the air: ‘It was the first time in her life she had flown, and the sensation delighted her’.8 Back in the dying queen’s bedroom, the principal emotions are expressed by the twin human children whom Tiphaine has adopted, and left to run riot over the castle. After their last, most shocking outrage, which rips a monkey in two on the Queen’s own bed, they were ‘strangled and their bodies thrown on the moor as a charity to crows’.9

The description of this incident as merely ‘deplorable’, rather than tragic or grotesque, indicates how Warner’s Elfins did not share the warmer passions of Scottish ballad tradition, on which she had grown up. Warner’s paternal grandmother was Flora Moir, the daughter of an Aberdeen wine-merchant and an Orkneywoman,10 who had grown up in Edinburgh.11 Warner herself was an omnivorous semi-autodidact, with the run of her father’s study (he was a schoolmaster at Harrow). Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg are quoted and cited in the Elfin stories — her use of the term Elfin itself could well have come from Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft — as authorities. As well as having a thorough knowledge of the early, Scottish, accounts of fairies and witchcraft that would have brought about Lolly Willowes in the 1920s,12 Warner later refreshed her early childhood reading about fairies with the works of Katharine Briggs.13 These encyclopaedic works, as well as others from the Folklore Society, for example, would have been the best synthesis of scholarly work on the British fairy tradition available to Warner when she was writing her Elfin stories. However, nothing is recorded in her diaries or letters about any extra research. The Elfin stories came from her imagination and her life’s reading. In 1973 she realised how, lying on her chaise longue, ‘I read ballads, & realised how early I was blooded to Elfin.’14

It is not possible to summarise the peculiarly Scottish elements in Warner’s Scottish fairy society here. It would need a thorough grounding in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traditions, and a good knowledge of the work of the collectors Robert Kirk, the Campbells of Islay and Tiree, James Macdougall, J M McPherson and David MacRitchie to show what Warner borrowed and what she invented. Her borrowings are clear from browsing through Briggs alone, and she also invented with joyous enthusiasm:

I have been back in Elfhame again […] This one is about the death of Tiphaine, and establishes that it was she who beguiled Thomas of Ercildowne, though for the purposes of my story the beguiling is fifty-fifty. It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references.15

Warner’s fairies mingle easily among humans, being undisturbed by cold iron, churches or crosses: ‘Theologically identified as the scattered remnants of Satan’s host, rationally dismissed as superstition, they were a race of pragmatists.’16 In ‘The Occupation’, the Secessionists from Elfhame discover that a nearby church has a crowd of people in it every seven days, and watch with a connoisseur’s interest the performances of the man in the black addressing the throng. When, shortly afterwards, they move into the nearby house for the winter, its housekeeping improves after the working fairies observe with horrified fascination how the minister’s wife will cleave a sheep’s head and draw out the brains and tongue to make a regale for the minister and her son, but never washes up. In this story, although the fairies mean no particular harm to the manse’s inhabitants, they also treat them with indifference, shutting the newborn baby in the meal-kist to silence its cries, and leading the mathematically inclined elder daughter to believe in the devil. The minister becomes obsessed with Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth (1691), and, like him, refuses to baptise his newborn child, believing it to be a changeling. He soon goes mad, and the fairies are mildly interested, but only as much as we might be interested in a devastated nest of birds: what is there to be done when Nature takes its way?

‘Foxcastle’ shows how fairies also have scientific inclinations, capturing a human for investigation. When Professor James ‘Fairy’ Sutherland (so nicknamed by his colleagues at Aberdeen for his conviction that fairies are real) falls asleep on the fairy knowe and wakes up in its vaults, he is under examination. There is no pain, but also no communication: he is examined as a specimen on a slab, the fingers that probe and measure are invisible. When, finally, a hand rests briefly on his shoulder as an indication that the measuring is done, much as you might pat a dog or a horse, he bursts into tears on realising his desperate want of simple companionship under his long ordeal. And his loneliness continues.

Loneliness is a disturbingly common factor in the stories of Elfin. The fairies’ dispassionate interest and unconcern with human fears, loves, desires and needs are relentlessly described by Warner. They give expression to the desolation in her own heart, in which there was no hope, no respite from her existence without her lover. To match the isolation of the human who cannot understand the fairy throng around him, she created the loneliness of Snipe the exile in Catmere: ‘There was no need for him to remain in his room, but as no-one invited him out of it he did so.’17 Developing the point from the fairy in isolation among his own kind, she introduces Sir Glamie:

Rings was an Elfin Court, where Sir Glamie was now, as the current Lord Chamberlain put it, persona non grata. For one thing, his reappearances proved that he had not been so well-bred as he should have been. Elfins have no souls: when they die, they are dead: it is as simple as that. Therefore, at some point or other of Sir Glamie’s pedigree an Elfin lady must have yielded to a mortal lover, and immortality, like the pox, has run in the family ever since. […] There was a feeling that Sir Glamie had somehow done something rather disgraceful and that the kindest thing would be to ignore it. It was as though he had taken the hint, for he was not seen again.18

The utter loneliness of an Elfin ghost ignored by his kind is on a par with the lonely human captive imprisoned for decades. It is hard to avoid noticing that Warner’s saddest stories of Elfin are located in Scottish settings. Suffolk sees picaresque adventure, Brittany has stately ritual, Lappland has witchcraft, Austria has astonishing banquets and Persia has a murderous tyrant, but simple existential isolation is confined to the Scottish experience, the moors on which ‘nothing stirred except the sheep wandering slowly over the waste. Nothing sounded except their baa-ings and the sudden cackle of a grouse’.19 When Professor Sutherland is ejected from the Foxcastle broch, ‘a couple of sheep took fright and galloped off, their hoofs drumming on the shallow turf. The hill had been fired, nothing remained of the heather except a few charred stumps. He would not have known where he was except for the peat hags and the hurrying burn in the valley.’20 This association between fairies and humans and Scotland, and the sadness of loss and exile, is relentless, the one influencing the other, and cannot be accidental.


End Notes

  1. Neil Gaiman, cover endorsement for the Handheld Press editions of Kingdoms of Elfin (2018).
  2. Warner to Ian Parsons, 8 March 1974, in Sylvia Townsend Warner: Letters, ed. William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), p. 273.
  3. Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and other Supernatural Creatures (London: Allen Lane, 1976), p. 166.
  4. Briggs p. 167.
  5. Diary entry for 26 May 1975, in Claire Harman (ed.), The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1994, London: Virago 1995), p. 370.
  6. See Peter Haring Judd, The Akeing Heart: Letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and Elizabeth Wade White (Reading: Handheld Press, 2018).
  7. Warner to David Garnett, 31 May 1977, in Maxwell (ed.) p. 296.
  8. Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘The Five Black Swans’, in Kingdoms of Elfin (Handheld Press, 2018), pp. 17-25, 23.
  9. Warner, ‘The Five Black Swans’, p. 25.
  10. Warner to William Maxwell, 10 January 1973, in Maxwell (ed.) p. 263.
  11. Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (1989, Minerva, 1991), p. 3.
  12. See Kate Macdonald, ‘Witchcraft and non-conformity in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) and John Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927)’, in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23:2 (2012), pp. 215-238.
  13. K M Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967); K M Briggs, The Personnel of Fairyland: A Short Account of the Fairy People of Great Britain for those who tell stories to children (Oxford: Alden Press, 1969); Briggs 1976.
  14. Diary entry for 27 April 1973, in Harman (ed.) p. 369.
  15. Warner to Marchette and Joy Chute, 8 June 1973, in Maxwell (ed.) p. 265.
  16. Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Foxcastle’, in Kingdoms of Elfin (Handheld Press, 2018), pp. 244-61, 257.
  17. Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘The Climate of Exile’, in Kingdoms of Elfin (Handheld Press, 2018), pp. 177-97, 179.
  18. Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘The Late Sir Glamie’, in Kingdoms of Elfin (Handheld Press, 2018), pp. 198-205, 198-99, 203.
  19. Warner, ‘The Climate of Exile’, p. 180.
  20. Warner, ‘Foxcastle’, p. 259.
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Kate Macdonald

Kate Macdonald is a literary historian and a publisher. She took her degrees at the University of Aberdeen and at University College London, and has taught English literature in several European universities. She is the proprietor of Handheld Press.

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