Obviously, I read a lot. It was pretty much my job there for awhile. And I love me some fiction…the kind you can read over and over again and discover something new about it each time.
Monica Furlong’s “Wise Child” series fits that bill, and they’re Pagan-positive to boot. I first discovered these books back when I myself was a young adult, and they still hold up as quality texts even though I’m now an adult…and a literary critic to boot.
I sincerely doubt that Furlong originally intended these books to form a series, if only because they were written over such a long period of time. Wise Child was first published in 1987, with its prequel Juniper following in 1990 and Wise Child’s sequel, Coleman, finally arriving in 2003. Given the latter’s conclusion, I speculate that Furlong would have indeed turned this story into a still longer series, but her death in 2003 obviously prevented that. Overall, the series does read somewhat unevenly. The first novel is wonderfully wrought in detail and feeling and really can be considered a great novel. The other two books, however, miss the charm of the original and do read more as stories of narrative than novels of art. There’s definitely much more emphasis on conveying the “what happens next?” feeling rather than that exquisite rendering of a metaphoric scene that great writing conveys.
I do treasure each of these books, for Wise Child captured me so completely when I read it as a teen that I desperately wanted to know how this marvelous person of Juniper came to be wrought, and was therefore thrilled to read her story, though I missed the ‘magic’ of the first book. I can’t say I had the same desperation that would have led to Coleman, which I entirely missed as it was published while I was in college. Wise Child‘s ending is such that it carries enough of a conclusion that one isn’t hungering for more. It resolves so that its narrative is complete: there’s no need to see Wise Child grow up into her adolescence and see those whom she loves challenged. And yet, I appreciate Coleman, for–even though it is decidedly an adventure novel and brings the trilogy’s magic into more of a ‘fantasy’ rendering–it does nicely depict how a magical person can struggle with choosing to continue with the path, obviously something that could resonate for every contemporary Pagan.
But Wise Child…that is where all the charm of the series lies for me. I suppose that in some fashion, it sort of resembles the archetype of Cinderella, but one in which the stepmother component is radically tweaked.
Wise Child is the daughter of the handsome merchant Finbar and the beautiful sorceress Maeve. Unfortunately for Wise Child, Maeve neglects and abuses her daughter until she leaves the village altogether to work her malicious magic to increase her fortune. Finbar equally abandons his daughter, as he basically is permanently away in his trading. Left in the care of her grandmother, Wise Child lives a semi-spoiled life until her grandmother dies and the village witch, Juniper, steps up to raise the child in Finbar’s absence.
And so begins the joyous part of the novel. Juniper here is somewhat like Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Her home is the type that any child would love to grow up in: slightly eccentric, full of interest, and incredibly safe. And Juniper herself proves to be a near Platonic ideal of the mother/teacher. She is kind and warm, and she allows Wise Child to work out answers to questions for herself. Eventually, Juniper reveals that she is a doran, or–as Wise Child later defines it–“someone who loves all the creatures of the world, the animals, birds, plants, trees, and people and who cannot bear to do any of them any harm [… ,] who believes that they are all linked together and that therefore everything can be used to heal the pain and suffering of the world [… ,] who does not hate anybody and who is not frightened of anyone or anything.”. In short, Juniper and Wise Child basically live as how many Pagans dream of living, and the fantasy is deliciously enticing.
The novel is saved from being a piece of wish-fulfillment by a couple challenges. The first is the temptation to the dark side, in which Maeve tries tempt Wise Child away from her doran training by showing her was comforts magic-for-power can provide. Wise Child, of course, struggles mightily with this until she eventually realizes she does not desire that power and that her mother is not capable of loving her. She eventually embraces Juniper whole-heartedly as her own mother. The second is the Christian church’s erroneous position that all magic is evil, and Furlong masterfully walks the political tightrope here, noting that Juniper while definitely appreciates the root of the Christian movement (once asking how one could possibly help loving Jesus), she also understands how it has been twisted into a quest for power instead of love and healing. Furlong’s depiction of the egomaniacal priest certainly stands as an excellent example of how ‘good’ can be ‘bad’.
Though these three books are geared to a Young Adult market, they all–especially Wise Child–carry artistry and nuance enough to keep skilled readers hungrily turning the pages, and they carry a beautiful message of the positive side of paganism: a message beautifully wrought by a devout Christian author.