“Characterised by humour, irony, absurdity” – Of Cats and Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Two ravens are complaining about the difficulty of feeding on corpses that litter a battlefield after being slaughtered by Odin’s army. “The bodies were frozen so hard that my beak ached for days after. It was really a very disappointing slaughter. Showy, of course; but quite unrewarding.” The second raven agrees, lamenting how long it’s been since “I’ve had a good square meal of hero.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfin is filled with such caustic and ironic exchanges among various breeds of animals as well as between humans and animals. Warner (1893 to 1978) was an English writer of seven novels, most notably Lolly Willowes, poetry, and many collections of short stories. This new edition collects her miscellaneous fantasy stories and reprints a 1940 work called The Cat’s Cradle Book. The latter’s conceit is relatively straightforward. A man falls in love with a cat, learns to communicate with her, and poses the following question to a friend: “Have you ever thought about the culture of cats?” He begins to collect cat stories and folktales and develops a startling hypothesis:

“Why not suppose that our stories came to us from the cats? Try to clear your mind of humanism, and consider the evidence. Where do we find the stories most constant, most uncontaminated? Among the cats. . . . What is the prevailing mood of these stories we call folk stories? Is it heated and sentimental like the undoubtful products of the human imagination – or is it cool and dispassionate. . . and cat-like?”

These stories are characterised by humour, irony, absurdity. They avoid sentimentality or cuteness. Many have elements of parable that highlight human stupidity or greed. A goat gives a man a special herb that simulates death as long as it rests under his tongue; men and cats trade lamentations about the difficulties of “mixed marriages”; a wolf goes on a journey to learn how to be popular by following the advice of dogs, cats, and sheep until he learns to embrace his inner wolfness. One story mocks temptation and abstinence when a fox is chosen to become the pope. In another we discover why the god Apollo prefers mice over humans. In another story a house cat and a ewe lament the loss of their respective young and debate the existential merits of being victimised by a common polecat or a majestic eagle.

I really enjoyed a piece called “The Castle of Carabas,” which describes a society where cats have been feared for centuries for being evil, unclean, and dishonest. Like the five generations before him, the youngest heir to the throne was born with “a peculiar birth-mark, like the imprint of a cat’s paw.” But unlike his ancestors he is attracted to cats.

In another delicious little tale, “The Virtue and the Tiger,” a hermit and a tiger develop an odd friendship based on shared interests: “nature, solitude, and sleep.” However, after realising how imbalanced their relationship is, the hermit makes a startling offer to his friend: “Would you not like to eat me?” His offer triggers a series of ironic events that touch on the nature of virtue and provide an enigmatic, thought-provoking Kafkaesque ending.

In a political parable called “The Magpie Charity,” the interest from a rich magpie’s estate gives mice to destitute cats because a “starving cat is a menace to society.” A man on his honeymoon learns to cope with his bride who likes to chase mice. She explains:

“You must forgive me. My grandfather married a white Angora, and so my blood is one-quarter Cat. All the fur is inside, thank heaven. But when I see a mouse I cannot resist it.”

The first half this collection gathers dozens of relatively brief stories that deal with elves, little people, and nymphs. As in The Cat’s Cradle Book, these fairies/little people are not playthings or cute critters who scamper and hide under beds or behind sofas. They have a dark side; they defend themselves. In one tale, a man escapes an encounter with

“nothing worse than a few scratches, some midge-bites, and a revised estimate of his wisdom; for many of those who have thrust themselves in upon the fairies have had good cause to rue their presumption.”

In “Queen Mousie,” royal machinations and lineage concerns are satirised because the new queen’s suitor, Count Wolf of Dreiviertelstein, is bow-legged. “An Improbable Story” relates how a young man spends months and months tracking down a hermit-like philosopher named Doctor Grubenius only to have his expectations simultaneously mocked and met. “The Kingdom of Elfin” explores why little people steal human children and replace them with changelings.

My favourite elfin story is “Stay Corydon, Thou Swain,” where a middle-aged man becomes entranced by a young girl in his shop and is convinced that she is a nymph. He invites her on a bicycle ride after work one afternoon. They bike to an oddly quiet, eerie wood where Miss Cave’s appearance and demeanour subtly change.

Any Cop?: Although I generally read very few fantasy stories or novels, I especially enjoyed the second half of this book that collected myths from the cat world. If my son were still in elementary school, we might’ve read them together. This volume also includes an informative introduction that overviewed Warner’s life and writing career. I wholeheartedly recommend her first novel, Lolly Willowes, which is an unconventional feminist witch story.

 

Chris Oleson

 

 

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