Art, Myth, and Magic Come Alive in Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife

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Terri Windling’s influence over modern Fantasy is incalculable. Her work as editor for Ace and Tor Books’ Fantasy lines in the 1980s and as a tireless anthologist has done so much to shape the direction of fantastic fiction, always for the better. She was behind the iconic Fairy Tales series of novels, which brought contemporary reimaginings of fairy tales by authors such as Charles de Lint, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, and more. Windling’s art, inspired by the folklore, mythology and fairy tales she so clearly loves, has been exhibited across the US, UK, and Europe. She is the founder of Endicott Studio—another practical way in which she has shown her support of folklore- and mythic-inspired art—and her blog, Myth & Moor, is a vibrant centre for discussion about such work, bringing together insightful essays from herself and other creatives.

With such a wealth of contributions to the genre to consider, it’s possible that one might overlook Windling’s 1996 fantasy novel The Wood Wife amongst her other accomplishments. This would be a grave mistake.

Windling’s writing shares with many of the urban fantasy writers she is associated with a profound understanding of myth, folktale, and legend, and their interconnected relationship with place. But Windling’s vision is uniquely her own. The Wood Wife is a quiet meditation on the artist’s relationship to their art and to the wider community that supports them. It is the story of a woman reclaiming her muse, a story in which the fantastic encroaches subtly and wondrously on the mundane. It deserves a place amongst the key fantasy texts of the 1990s, and I was very happy to see it included in the Tor Essentials series.

The Wood Wife’s genesis lies in a series of novellas Windling was planning based on Brian Froud’s faerie paintings. (The books that wound up comprising Froud’s Faerieland series—Charles de Lint’s The Wild Wood, Patricia A. McKillip’s Something Rich and Strange, and Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden—all share some of the same magic with Windling’s novel. They are all well worth tracking down, as are the four Froud paintings that share the books’ names.) Windling’s story soon evolved into a fully fledged novel. The Wood Wife draws unexpected connections between the Devon countryside that inspires Froud’s paintings and the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. Windling was splitting her time between both places during the creation of the novel, and these two landscapes are clearly very personal and important to her. Much of the novel’s power comes from how vividly Windling draws the Rincon mountains, the desert rocks, the saguaro cactuses. The landscape to Windling, as to Froud, is very much alive, a character in its own right. And the spirits of the land, like Froud’s faeries, are both beguiling and sinister, most definitely not human, with their own codes of how to be and to behave.

The Wood Wife begins with the death of Davis Cooper, a once acclaimed poet who has become a reclusive alcoholic following the death of his wife, the brilliant but troubled surrealist painter Anna Naverra. Maggie Black, a cosmopolitan West Coast journalist who was also once a poet, travels to the desert upon learning that her friend Cooper has left his estate to her. There she meets the people who made up Cooper’s family during the latter years of his life—Juan del Río, a tortured artist; Dora, his long-suffering wife; John and Lillian Alder, who look after injured wildlife; Tomás, a Native American mechanic; and the mysterious and charming Johnny Foxxe. As Maggie tries to piece together Cooper’s life from the fragments he left behind, she becomes increasingly aware of the power of the landscape that haunts Cooper’s, Naverra’s, and Juan’s art, and the spirits behind it. Could they be connected to the mysterious circumstances of Cooper’s death?

Windling’s novel manages to draw on folklore and mythology from European and Native American culture in a way that is respectful and acknowledges a deep, abiding love of the land she is writing about. Windling also draws inspiration from the poetry of Chilean writer Pablo Neruda and the art and writing of British-born Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington as much as the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose quote about the land of poetry opens the book, and Froud’s paintings.

In The Wood Wife, art and the imagination are a crucial way of understanding the world around us. As in the dreamlike imagery of surrealism or the magical realist fiction of writers like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the spirits that Maggie and her friends encounter can be both symbolic of aspects of the desert and real beings in and of themselves, even as they clothe themselves in forms taken from the human imagination to communicate with people. As an outsider, Windling is not able to tap directly into the Native American beliefs and folktales that inspire the novel. Tomás rebukes Foxxe for thinking of him as being more attuned to the spiritual world because of Tomás’s Native American heritage, highlighting the kind of patronising misrepresentation and cultural appropriation that Windling desires to avoid:

Tomás laughed. “You think I’m some shaman, white boy? Yeah, you think I’m some ‘wise Injun medicine man,’ like something you seen in a movie somewhere. Or read in some woo-woo book from California.”

“And aren’t you?” Fox asked. It was a question he’d never asked the other man before.

Tomás gave him a broad smile. “I’m just a man. I fix cars for a living, I watch TV, I go to Burger King like anyone else. I haven’t got the secret of the universe. Don’t make me out to be what I’m not.” [139]

However, Windling can write about her own experience of the desert and the spirits that haunt it, shaped by both her European heritage and her love and fascination for mythology, poetry and art made by others inspired by the land. This allows her to write about the mythology in a way that is both conscientious and respectful. We can see this in Maggie’s journey, as she grows to understand the spirits of the desert and how they respond to the human imagination:

Maggie found herself looking twice at every bird, every lizard, every rock and creosote bush, wondering which was real and which was… what? Unreal? Or surreal, as Anna Naverra would say? It was all real. It was the magic, the pulse, the heartbeat at the center of the world. She wanted to know it better. She wanted to learn the secrets of the desert, Cooper’s “language of the earth.” If she listened hard she could almost hear it, a thread of flute song in the wind. [221]

Part of what makes The Wood Wife so compelling is how the magical co-exists with the realist, even the mundane. The magical parts of the novel—Maggie’s encounters with the trickster spirit Crow, her journey on the spiral path, the various shapeshifters and mages she encounters—work so well because the novel is grounded in the real, recognisable world, and inhabited with well-drawn characters who feel very much like real people. Maggie is a woman who has just turned forty. She has a largely amicable relationship with her ex-husband Nigel, but wants to forge her own path and find out who she really is. Her character arc largely involves her rediscovering her own artistic muse after years of putting Nigel’s artistic career (and her need to support both of them) first, eventually finding a new family and home in the Rincons with her new friends.

The same concern drives Dora—she works multiple jobs to support Juan’s painting, but at the cost of allowing her own dreams of becoming a writer to fall by the wayside. Maggie and Dora both reflect on how the gendered expectations of society have led to them putting aside their respective dreams for the dreams of the men in their lives. In this way, the novel is a feminist exploration of women making art for themselves and insisting on the importance of their own dreams, making those dreams a priority regardless of what society thinks about that. This also causes Maggie to reconsider what she wants from a relationship—unlike the pretentious Nigel or the obsessive and driven Juan, a large part of Foxxe’s sexiness comes from his down-to-earth practical nature. He is a musician, but one who plays for the joy of it. He is close to the land, and his sisters and his mother are much more a part of the spiritual realm than the physical realm, but he never lets this get in the way of his practicality, his joy in working with his hands.

This grounding in lived reality and believable characters anchors the novel, whilst Windling surreptitiously brings the magical world close enough to touch. The Wood Wife’s greatest trick is that the boundary between the real world and the magical one is almost imperceptible. Maggie discovers that the Tucson she comes to love is under threat from gentrification and urban development, the desert being destroyed to make way for supermarkets and condos. Poachers are ruthlessly hunting down coyotes and other wild animals for sport, with no regard for the damage they are doing to the environment. Yet in the Rincon mountains, the numinous is hiding around the nearest corner, making itself felt through the wondrous and harsh beauty of the wild desert. For Windling, art and the human imagination are the key to unlocking this wondrous world—part of an essential process we use to understand the world around us more fully and more vividly, to truly appreciate the beauty and wonder that surrounds us. We should not be surprised, then, if, as Cooper writes in one of his letters, “…the line between dream and reality is a thin one, a fragile membrane easily ruptured by a poet, a painter, or a drunk’s clumsy hands.” [167]

In The Wood Wife, Windling shows us just how paper-thin that line can be, and what wonders await us on the other side. In doing so, she leaves the reader awakened to and inspired by those transcendent possibilities—what more can one ask of Fantasy?

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.

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