White rabbits, friends.
It’s the first of the month, Beltane, May Day, and it’s the first day of the Wyrd and Wonder Challenge: We’re going on an adventure.
I was raised on fairy tales and folklore. The earliest gift that I was ever given and still possess is a book of Welsh folktales my grandmother gave me for Christmas when I was two years old.
I still have, as well, the tattered, yellow paperback edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from which my father read to me every night. Not the sanitized, Disney-pretty versions, either, but the old, dark stories from shadowed forests, where unloved children might starve to death or wicked women dance in red-hot iron shoes, where sisters cut off toes to fill glass slippers with blood and a deceitful princess might be rolled in a barrel studded with nails. People lost tongues and heads in those woods, and animals spoke, and fortunes and prophecies would not be denied.
I had books of Celtic and Arthurian fairy tales and myths, and I read everything from Tomie DePaola’s Fin M’Coul to, eventually, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain — the first fiction in which I felt real magic. I saw The Black Cauldron (disappointing in the shadow of the books) in elementary school (literally in school, thanks to my school’s once a month afternoon Disney movies program on half-day Wednesdays) and The Sword in the Stone. (Based, I knew, on my father’s well-thumbed copy of The Once and Future King — too dense for child-me, though I tried it.)
There were fairies in the woods, I knew — the Grey Neighbors, rather — and there was witchcraft, too, after my best friend and I discovered books on modern magic. We littered the tree fort in the woods behind my house with costume jewelry and stones and flowers of no particular magical provenance except what we dreamed into them, and we tried to learn Ogham and some terribly garbled Latin, the better for composing spells (which cannot, we knew with the wisdom of twelve-year-olds everywhere, be composed in ordinary English). My esoteric interests weren’t the same as theirs, but I recognized the girls in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game for their fervor and dedication.
Fairy tales and tree fort witchcraft were eventually abandoned — along with that friendship, alas — in high school, as many things are. My reading and my interests broadened. But every once in a while I caught a glimpse of the familiar magic through the trees: in the books of Pamela Dean and Charles de Lint, in John Crowley’s Little, Big. It was a comforting magic, and a magic that could be summoned at will for comfort. When I moved, after college, to San Francisco, I was a recent graduate with no job and a too-expensive apartment empty of furniture (I couldn’t afford furniture on top of the outrageous rent), in an alien city three thousand miles from home. My friends in the city were employed and occupied during the interminable days that I waited for job calls and invitations to interview. It was incredibly lonely, and so I went every day to the San Francisco Public Library, where I allotted myself the extravagance of one (1) cup of coffee and one (1) cookie daily at the café, and I sat and read every single one of Andrew Lang’s Colored Fairy Books.
When I began to write, though — to write seriously, for publication — it wasn’t a weaving of the familiar magic. I wrote (and write) science fiction; I wrote fantasy in worlds as far from what I knew as I could imagine. I have spent more than ten years wrestling with a beast of novel full of Russian and Asian motifs, wandering Baba Yaga’s forest rather than the woods where I grew up.
And don’t get me wrong: I love all of those places and wilds and people, and my adventures in and alongside them.
A couple of months ago, though, I fell ill. COVID was long, feverish, achy days of languishing sleepless in bed. So, for comfort, I summoned the familiar magic: I started to write a new book.
And I wrote, and I wrote. The book (called, for now, Strange Angels) is everything I knew growing up: It’s a green wood (called, naturally, the Greenwood) and it’s fairies (the Grey Neighbors, rather — true and terrifying fairies) and the small, ordinary magics of plants and birds and people, of oak and bramble and the turning of the year. It is — for me, and for its characters — about the magic of roots, and of family. It flowed from the dark forest of my illness like a clear spring, the easiest and simplest thing I’ve written in years.
Where it goes remains to be seen. It isn’t finished, at 70,000 words, and I am genuinely wandering the woods like a child following breadcrumbs: I started writing whimsically, without a plan, and though I know now how it must end, I’m still making my way maplessly toward that place.
We all know that words are magic — even ordinary English ones — and that books can be spells or vessels or adventures. We might spend years trekking worlds and wilds far from our own, learning strange sorcery and marveling at all the newness we find. The wider world is full of enchantment. But there’s magic in the familiar too, in the hearths and fields and woods we know.
This year’s Wyrd and Wonder prompts will take us on far-ranging adventures — around the world, into translation, off the beaten track — but there will also be adventures closer to hand and everyday kinds of magic, and I hope you’ll join me for all of my wanderings, far or near. There are adventures still to be had at home, new strangers to encounter on old paths. This month, I’ll be reading and sharing and discussing some of everything, and, as is my wont, I’m setting out without a map. This isn’t a TBR post but an invitation to join me on my adventure, and see who and what we might meet on roads both new and known.
Lace up your boots, put a holey stone in one pocket and a pinch of salt in the other, pack a thermos and a snack, and let’s go.