This Wednesday I am sharing another guest post with you all and I am honored to say that this time it is by the hand of Jen Williams!
For frequent Wyrd and Wonder participants, you will know that Jen Williams has been one of our readalongs and even after the event we had to finish the trilogy with the readalong. She has been one of our Wyrd and Wonder favorites for sure.
Lost and Found in the Wild Wood
As a writer I have a slightly intense relationship with words, and some of my most cherished favourites are the names of trees. Ash, beech, birch, lime; horse chestnut, hornbeam, alder and blackthorn; cedar, acacia, hawthorn and pine; Father Oak and the Holly King; ginkgo, pear, apple and olive. Say them out loud to yourself – or even better, speak them to the woods – and it could be a spell, the rhythm of which was known to your ancestors and used for protection, divination, summoning or praise, in time out of mind. Fantasy and Forest go hand in hand, with woods turning up in fantasy works over and over again across the genre. How can they not, when trees are magic?
In his brilliant book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, the great nature writer Roger Deakin tells us that ‘to enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed’, and this lies at the heart of why forests are so beloved of fantasy authors. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare gets his characters into a magical wood in order to enact his mischief upon them, and we’ve all been doing it since. In the wood, you can meet anyone, in the wood, anything could happen – and we can’t come out of them unchanged. I think that’s why fantasy stories often have a forest in the middle. We don’t start in a wood, or end there, but something significant happens while we’re travelling through. They also contain unmistakable links to folklore and fairy tales, the DNA of fantasy, and we’re all drawn back into these oldest of stories once we step upon a wooded path. In The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien of course gives us several fantastic forests, and being Tolkien their names ring with meaning. You can’t hear Mirkwood without immediately getting a picture of this vast and mysterious place. Mirk summons murky, but also perhaps dirk, a short dagger you might carry at your side if you felt yourself in danger from giant spiders or testy wood elves. Similarly Fangorn Forest – summoning both fangs and thorns – is a place we know instinctively will contain dangers and mysteries. In Fangorn, even the trees can walk…
For Tolkien, his forests were a link to the distant ages of the exquisite lore he built for Middle-earth, but they also provided a symbol of the natural world, contrasted with the almost industrial destruction of Saruman and Sauron. In her fantastic Realm of the Elderlings series, the great Robin Hobb uses forests and trees brilliantly. The forests of the Rain Wilds are vast and inhospitable, wild places dominated by trees so huge that to us they almost seem prehistoric, populated by alarming predatory animals, including, at one time, dragons. And yet also in this apparently hostile environment there is Trehaug, a treehouse city, interwoven through the forest itself. People clinging to life and love through terrible adversity and strife is one of the key themes in Hobb’s books, and she uses trees as symbols in other places, too; the palace of Jhaampe, the capital of the Mountain Kingdom, is made or grown from a living tree, reflecting that nation’s powerful connection to nature and the community.
Perhaps one of the books where the link between the wood and the mythic is at its clearest and most unsettling is Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, where the ancient stories are still very much alive and kicking. In Mythago Wood these stories aren’t just capable of doing you harm – take the wrong turning or spend too long out under the trees, and you yourself could become a story. In one of my favourite fantasy books, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, there is a neat reversal of the usual quest narrative, where rather than going to a haunted wood, the unicorn must leave her timeless enchanted forest to discover what has become of others like her. On her journey she meets many strange things and experiences many wonders, walking out of the dreamtime of the forest into a difficult human reality, where she discovers, for the first time, mortality, love, and sorrow.
Sarn, the world in which The Winnowing Flame trilogy takes place, is a landscape where the natural world has been poisoned and mutated over time. The Wild-touched woods are dangerous and strange, home to vast fungi, mutant animals and the lethal parasite spirits, entities so strange and alien that the merest brush against their amorphous bodies could turn you inside out. The forests of Sarn have been poisoned over thousands of years by the remains of the Jure’lia, an invasive species, but what they’ve really done, from my point of view, is make the forests more ‘foresty’. Everything there is bigger, stranger, more dangerous, more unknowable; those associations that forests have to the most ancient parts of our brains, but written larger and with more explosions. Every time Lady Vincenza de Grazon (Vintage to you and me) ventures beyond the walls of a heavily fortified town she emerges into a world of mystery, a green realm of the unknowable. Which is why she loves it, of course.
For me, forests are at the heart of my own work because they are timeless, placeless, unstuck and unmoored. Go to any wood – Oxleas Wood, for example, which I grew up next door to and still make a pilgrimage to several times a year – and stand somewhere off the path, alone. Earth under your feet, sky above, the trees bridging the gap between. It could be 2022, 1979, 1614, or a thousand years before humans started using tools and getting ambitious ideas about wheels and the like. Around your feet grow bluebells, wood anemone, sorrel – these flowers have been here longer than you. Keep walking and you might emerge out onto the A207, or at Rivendell, the Land of Oz, Narnia. The woods are a better portal than the wardrobe ever was.
Even outside of my fantasy novels, the woods are important to me. In Dog Rose Dirt, my weird folk horror thriller, the murderer Michael Reave grows up half wild in a wood, his deep connection to folklore and fairy tales nurtured there. For me, the writer exploring how a serial killer came to be, it allowed me to give Michael’s story the uneasy mythic quality of a fairy tale, as well as tapping into the deep vein of horror that runs through some of our oldest stories. And as I return to fantasy books again, I find myself returning to the forest. My current work in progress features a wild wood at its centre both symbolically and literally, and I am glad to return – willing, in fact, to go even deeper than before.
Over the last two years, with pandemic and lock downs, I became quite quietly obsessed with the outside world and specifically those wild places it is difficult to get to when you live in London and are largely confined to the house. I went to our local park again and again, which some kind souls chose to populate with a diverse selection of trees (alligator wood, catalpa, black locust, Weymouth pine – there’s that spell again) and I downloaded an app onto my phone so I could know all their names, and learn to recognise them should I see them again. Just spending time with these trees, even outside of their forest setting, it felt as though I walked very close to a time outside of this time. As the trees say in Richard Powers’ remarkable The Overstory, ‘If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning’. Forests have existed in the human mind for as long as we’ve had minds, and I think we will continue to return to the woods as long as we are writing stories.
About the Author
Jen Williams lives in London with her partner and their small ridiculous cat. A fan of pirates and dark folklore from an early age, these days she writes horror-tinged crime thrillers with strong female leads as well as character-driven fantasy novels with plenty of banter and magic. In 2015 she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the British Fantasy Awards. She is represented by Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment.
The Copper Cat trilogy consists of The Copper Promise, The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide – all published by Headline in the UK – and the first two books in the trilogy are available in the US and Canada, published by Angry Robot. Both The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide have also been nominated for British Fantasy Awards, and she is partly responsible for founding the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a social group that meets in London to celebrate a love of fantasy.
Her second fantasy series, the Winnowing Flame trilogy, kicked off with The Ninth Rain and The Bitter Twins, and ended with The Poison Song in May 2019. The Ninth Rain and The Bitter Twins both went on to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel in their respective years. When not cursing herself for writing really long books, she can be found writing advertising copy or working in an independent bookshop.
Her latest novel, Dog Rose Dirt, was published in July 2021 in the UK by HarperCollins, and in the US by Crooked Lane under the title A Dark and Secret Place. This twisty crime thriller has also sold in Germany, Brazil, Poland and Spain. Interests outside of reading and writing include drawing witches, playing video games, and watching cartoons. She has a particular passion for animation and history, and will bore you to death about either if she gets half a chance.
About the Books
Title: The Winnowing Flame by Jen Williams
Release Date: February 23rd 2017
The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves. Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for sitting around waiting to die while the realm of his storied ancestors falls to pieces – talk about a guilt trip. Better to be amongst the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine.
When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees an easy way out. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artefacts is preferable to the abomination he left behind.
But not everyone is willing to let the Eboran empire collapse, and the adventurers are quickly drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war. For the Jure’lia are coming, and the Ninth Rain must fall…