“The Five Black Swans” by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in The New Yorker, as were all the sixteen stories in her 1977 collection, Kingdom of Elfin. The collection was republished in 2018.
This is just a weird, wonderful story. I admire The New Yorker for publishing the story. She has a cult of readers, which I have joined, that love her work.
One of the joys of The Reading Life is Reading your first work by an author you had never before encountered and knowing this is someone to add to your list of beloved authors. Once I found Warner loved Siamese Cats that was all it took. I like stories about alternative worlds overlapping this one and am drawn to fairies and spirit beings. In certain times the feeling seems mutual.
The fairies in the stories of Warner border on evil, like those in the stories of the great Irish writer of supernatural stories, Sheridan de La Fanu.
“Elfindom is an aristocratic society, jealous of its privileges. The ruling classes engage in such pursuits as patronizing the arts or hunting with the Royal Pack of Werewolves, while the lower orders take pleasure in conducting brutal raiding parties into the world to torment mortals.
The Kingdoms of Elfin are more diverse and widely scattered than is often thought; from the Welsh Elfins who, though constitutionally incapable of faith, remove mountains, and the elegant and witty French Court of Brocéliande where castration almost becomes a vogue, to the Kingdom of Zuy in the Low Countries, trafficking suppositories and religious pictures” - from Goodreads
I loved the descriptions of how fairies took Human children and replaced them with fairies.
“The Five Black Swans” begins with portents of a coming death of the aueen of the Kingdom of Elfin, nearly eight hundred old.
“In these flying circles of Elfhame, Tiphaine’s dying was discussed as openly and with as much animation as if the swans were outriders of a circus. A kitchen boy, flying out with a bucket of swill for the palace pigs, had been the first to see them. On his report, there was a swirl of servants, streaming like a flock of starlings from the back door to see for themselves. The head gardener, a venerable fairy, swore he could distinguish Queen Maharit in the swan with the long bridling neck: Maharit had just such a neck. Tiphaine’s servants were on easier terms with death than her courtiers were. They had plucked geese, drawn grouse and blackcock, skinned eels. They had more contact with the outer world where they picked up ballads and folk stories, flew over battlefields, and observed pestilences. The mortals among them, stolen from their cradles to be court pets and playthings, and who, failing in this, had drifted into kitchen society, seldom lived into their second century, even though on their importation they were injected with an elixir of longevity, as tom kittens are gelded for domestication. Thus death was at once more real to them and less imposing. Every day their loyalty grew more fervent. They said there would never again be such a queen as Tiphaine, and had a sweep-stake as to which lady (Elfindom inverts Salic law) would be the next.”
I just don’t really see a great value to recasting the plot. The wonder of Warner is in her exquisite descriptions of life in The Kingdom of Elfin.
For sure I will read all the stories.
From The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society
Sylvia Townsend Warner was a highly individual writer of novels, short stories and poems. She contributed short stories to the New Yorker for more than forty years, translated Proust's Contre Saint-Beuve into English, wrote a biography of the novelist T.H.White and a guide to Somerset.
Born in 1893, Sylvia was the only child of Harrow School housemaster George Townsend Warner (remembered as a brilliant teacher) and his wife, Nora. After an unsuccessful term at kindergarten she was educated at home. Sylvia was an accomplished musician, and it is said that the outbreak of War in 1914 alone prevented her from going abroad to study composition under Arnold Schoenberg. In 1917, she joined the Committee preparing the ten volumes of Tudor Church Music published by Oxford University Press between 1922 and 1929. One of her fellow committee members - and long-time lover - was Percy Buck, a married man twenty-two years her senior.
Tall, thin and bespectacled, Sylvia was a disappointment to her mother, with whom she had an uneasy relationship. After her mother's remarriage (George Townsend Warner died suddenly in 1916) matters improved, but mother and daughter were never to be close.
In 1922, Sylvia, at the instigation of Stephen Tomlin, a charismatic if manipulative figure who later became part of the Bloomsbury Group - and who was a former pupil of her father's - went to Chaldon Herring in Dorset to visit the writer Theodore Powys. This melancholic, withdrawn man, whose large family included John Cowper and Llewelyn Powys, had been writing unsuccessfully for years.
Along with Tomlin and the writer David Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner was instrumental in the publication of Theodore's novels and short stories which had languished unseen for years. First to be published was "The Left Leg", three stories dedicated to his trinity of supporters. Powys and Warner became great friends and for a time there was almost a "school" of Chaldon writers, quirky, droll and rustic, which included Sylvia's novel "Mr Fortune's Maggot", Garnett's "The Sailor's Return" and many of Powys's short stories.
Also in Chaldon, at Theodore Powys's house, Sylvia first met the poet Valentine Ackland. When in 1930 she bought "the late Miss Green's cottage" opposite the village inn, she invited Valentine to live there. So began a love affair which lasted until Valentine's death from breast cancer in 1969. The couple's joint collection of poems "Whether a Dove or Seagull" was published in 1933. Although most of their life together was spent in Dorset, they also travelled widely and lived from time to time in Norfolk notably at Frankfurt Manor, Sloley and Great Eye Folly, Salthouse (which was later destroyed by the sea).
In 1935, Sylvia and Valentine became committed members of the Communist Party, attending meetings, fund-raising and contributing to left-wing journals. They twice visited Spain during the Civil War. Their lives at this time and most of their writings - like Warner's "After the Death of Don Juan" - were charged with politics.
In 1937 the two women moved to a house on the river at Frome Vauchurch in Dorset. Here Sylvia produced many of her most important works, including "The Corner That Held Them", (1948) set in a medieval East Anglian nunnery. Valentine met with less t in her own painstakingly-sustained career. After her death, Sylvia published a collection of her poems, "The Nature of the Moment". Sylvia lived on for another nine years, dying on May Day, 1978. The couple's ashes lie buried under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.