Of Cats and Elfins. Short Tales and Fantasies
Author Sylvia Townsend Warner
The twenty-three stories in Of Cats and Elfins encompass scholarship (Warner’s ground-breaking 1927 essay ‘The Kingdoms of Elfin’, on modern Elfinology), black humour, the Gothic, and the bizarrely anthropomorphic cats of The Cat’s Cradle Book, which reflect Warner’s preoccupation with the dark forces at large in Europe in the 1940s.
The Cat’s Cradle Book opens with a long autobiographical fantasy about talking cats in a manor based on Warner’s own Norfolk home with Valentine Ackland. ‘The Castle of Carabas’ continues the story begun in ‘Dick Whittington’. ‘The Magpie Charity’ is a political fable satirising institutional charity, ‘The Phoenix’ relates an unfortunate combustion in the bird collection of Lord Strawberry, and ‘Bluebeard’s Daughter’ narrates the adventures of Bluebeard’s daughter by his third wife, and her propensity for locked doors. Warner mixes fables and myths with storytelling traditions old and new to express her unease with modern society, and its cruelties and injustices.
The Guardian liked it very much: ‘Each tale is a beautifully realised imaginative world, resonant with folklore and a rich appreciation of nature.’
The Times Literary Supplement found the stories ‘cut from crystalline prose, they are strange, wonderful and often wickedly funny, as when Apollo responds to a farmer’s complaint: “Stupid prayers are often soonest answered, for no deity can stand them”. This is storytelling as enchantment and it feels like an answered prayer to fall under Warner’s spell.’
The Fantasy Hive was keen: ‘”The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo” is a story of an ill-fated child’s gruesome transformation, with undercurrents of queerness and sly undermining of gender norms. It could sit happily with the best stories in The Kingdoms of Elfin, and makes the collection worth the asking price alone … The bulk of the collection is given over to The Cat’s Cradle Book. Warner, like most right-thinking people, loved cats and she and her partner Valentine Ackland looked after many. The Cat’s Cradle Book brilliantly captures the character and sensibility of cats. Much like Warner’s fairies, they are sleek, beautiful, charming yet capricious, and self-reliant; existing parallel but aside to mere human concerns. Warner brilliantly draws the line between the stark coolness of folktales and the attitude of cats by attributing her folktale-inflected stories to cats, reminding us that the earlier versions of fairy tales and legends are from an older time in human history, and are much concerned with darkness and death.’
Shiny New Books liked it a LOT: ‘can’t recommend highly enough’.
Desperate Reader didn’t want to finish it: ‘it gave me that magical feeling of finding something that could have been written just to amuse me. It’s a sense of recognition within a book that I associate more with childhood and teen years than being an adult reader so finding it here was a real gift.’