I believe in the power of serendipity. It often leads me to strange and curious discoveries.
Last weekend I was reading Carl's high praise for Terri Windling's The Wood Wife. I filed it away in my head as "Books to look out for." Imagine my surprise to actually find the book from the local library within the next day. (The local library pay little attention to Fantasy and Science Fiction, so it's something of a miracle, or fate.)
The story is set in contemporary times, with Maggie Black, a poet and writer arriving in the American Southwestern desert (more specifically, Tucson, Arizona). Before this, she had been corresponding through letters (not emails, but actual letters) with the poet Davis Cooper, who had been living a hermit's existence in the desert for decades. Davis Cooper and Maggie Black had never met, yet when he died – apparently drowned in the desert – he left his cabin and most of his possessions to Maggie Black.
Maggie Black arrived with little notion of what she was to find. Later she would discover the reason behind Davis Cooper's demise, as well as the unsolved riddle of a series of paintings done by Surrealist artist Anna Naverra (Davis Cooper's lover) when she was living in the desert. Something about the paintings and the desert land drove Anna Naverra mad. Davis Cooper never found out what it was. His only hint: The Night of the Dark Stone, April 16th – which was also the night Davis Cooper died.
Terri Windling weaved a very readable tale of magic and art intertwined. Only by learning the rules and lores of magic, can Maggie Black find her way to solving the mysteries of the desert land.
Terri Windling had one of the characters quote these lines from Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia:
'If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people who lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living.'
This is perhaps the key to the theme of the story. As much as we marvel at art and artists, it is the greater art of living that we should honour and celebrate. The story comes full-circle towards the end, with Maggie Black reclaiming her voice as the poet, something she has forgotten along the way; she had been living another life not true to her voice. Only when she rediscovers her artistic self was she able to answer the question of who she is. And one believes her, when she says, "I want the life I have, not another."
Not many of us can say that about our own lives.
In her Author's Note Terri Windling provides the background for the conception of the tale. It was one of a series of novellas based on the magical artwork of British artist Brian Froud. Over time, the story shape-shifted to The Wood Wife as it is published here. This is the nature of magic and art – you rarely end up where you intended.
I don't know about you, but I'm suddenly seized with an urge to re-watch The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Jim Henson's The Storyteller (Brian Froud was the conceptual designer on them.)
My favourite from The Dark Crystal is the gentle race known as the Mystics: