I received a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies from a dear friend for Christmas. We studied Townsend Warner’s fantastic masterpiece of a novel, Lolly Willowes, together whilst postgraduate students, and have both retained a fondness for her inventive work. I was unaware that this collection, printed by Handheld Press, had been published, so it was a lovely surprise to open.
The pieces within Of Cats and Elfins are previously uncollected, and range from between 1927 and 1984, spanning Townsend Warner’s entire writing career. It is, says its blurb, a ‘forgotten collection of fantasy stories and folk tales about human bravery and dispassionate animals, written in the darkest days of wartime Britain’. It includes Townsend Warner’s 1927 essay, ‘Elfins’, and the entirety of her Cat’s Cradle book, which was originally published in the United States in 1940, and the United Kingdom in 1960. Of Cats and Elfins is intended as a companion volume to Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories, which were published by Handheld Press in 2018.
Of Cats and Elfins features a meticulous introduction by fantasy author Greer Gilman. She writes of the diversity collected here: ‘Fantasy ran underground with Warner, flashing out like a hidden river, each time in a new landscape: witchlore; myth; folktale; invisible kingdoms. What they share is Warner’s worldview, her inimitable voice.’ Greer goes on to give a lot of specific critique of the pieces collected here.
The first piece in this collection is ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’, which sets out Townsend Warner’s imagined fantasy world. Here, she writes: ‘It is a sad fact, but undeniable; the Kingdom of Elfin had a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized.’ There are several Elfin stories to be found here, all set in a vividly imagined and expansive land, which is redolent almost of that in The Lord of the Rings. Townsend Warner’s worldbuilding is faultless; there is such a thoroughness to it. I enjoyed this part of the collection to a point, but I did find it a little difficult at times to suspend my disbelief, and feel that I would have got more out of it if I had read Kingdoms of Elfin previously.
Townsend Warner’s wicked sense of humour is displayed throughout the Elfin stories, and can also be found at times in her animal stories. These tales have an almost Aesop’s Fables-style feel to them; some could be construed as moralistic. There are echoes of the fairytale here too, but Townsend Warner makes the genre something all her own. The unexpected lives in each of these stories, which follow many different animal species – magpies, foxes, phoenixes, a tiger who learns the meaning of ‘virtue’… In ‘Introduction’, as an example, the many cat characters can interact – in clever flourishes of speech, and witty asides – with the humans they live alongside. This piece is my favourite in the entirety of Of Cats and Elfins; I found it quite delightful.
Entwined throughout is the wonder of the natural world, something which feeds into each of these stories. Her descriptions are exquisite. In ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, for instance, she crafts: ‘But in the shadow of the wood, where the sun had not penetrated, the thorn trees were at the perfection of their bloom. They were very old trees, gnarled, and tufted with greenish-grey moss, dry and dead-coloured. It did not seem possible that these angular boughs should have pit out the lacework of milky blossoms: each a blunt star, each with its little pointed pink star within it. It seemed rather as though light had rested upon the dead boughs and turned it into blossom.’ In ‘Introduction’, the first piece in the Cat’s Cradle collection, she writes: ‘The house was handsome too, its good looks sobered by age and usage – a seventeenth-century house with a long façade… It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon… the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.’
I must admit that I am not really a fan of fantasy, and it is a genre which I rarely – if ever – reach for. Townsend Warner is a firm favourite of mine, however, and I will gladly read all of her work. This sounded both intriguing and charming, and it was; there is a real otherworldly quality to it. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with Townsend Warner, and I was struck once again by her inventiveness, and the myriad ways in which she was well ahead of her time.
Of Cats and Elfins collects together a full bibliography of Townsend Warner’s published work; it reminded me both that I have hardly explored her oeuvre to date, and that a lot of her work is sadly very difficult to get hold of, particularly for an affordable price. This collection is wonderful to have; it provides such wonderful escapism, and I very much appreciated the lively unpredictability of her work.
Of Cats and Elfins is undoubtedly odd, but rather enchanting. It reminded me throughout of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, whose work has so enchanted and – I admit – mildly confused me in the past. The collection is highly memorable, and whilst I was perhaps a little less enraptured by the Elfin stories than many readers will be, I will certainly be thinking about them in future. I would like to revisit this collection, particularly if I do pick up the Kingdoms of Elfin tales at some point – although unless I make a dramatic U-turn in my reading life and start enjoying fantasy novels, I’m not sure that this will be at the top of my to-read list.
Regardless, Of Cats and Elfins is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of fantasy, or just of Modernism. There is so much to admire here, and a great deal to consider. If you have never read Townsend Warner, and my comments here have enticed you to pick up one of her books, I would point you towards Lolly Willowes as a starting point. Of Cats and Elfins, though, would be a good choice to follow her most famous novel with.