A Winding Thread: Green Magic

Another month, another book post. This time, it’s a brand-new blog segment which will occasionally (when the mood strikes me) visit books that connect by a winding thread of theme, setting, character, or vibes. Today I’m looking at green magic with a trio of stories that draw on nature: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E. McKenna, and The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown.

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh was published in 2019 and is the first in the Greenhollow Duology. It won the World Fantasy Award for best novella, and it’s easy to see why. Part fairytale and part romance, this is a story of old magic, forgotten gods, and new love. 

Tobias Finch is a giant of a man more tree than human. He lives in the woods with his cat and guards the land from supernatural perils. But he can’t protect the locals from the darkest of all dangers, one anchored in the passing centuries. And then a new owner comes to Greenhollow Hall. Henry Silver is handsome, determined, and brimming with unwise curiosity. Before long, Tobias finds himself drawn into Silver’s orbit. But here, too, there is danger, as the younger man’s presence drags buried secrets into the open and forces Tobias to face his own past, lost to time.

Despite the dark undertones that emerge every now and again, Silver in the Wood is a sweet and tender tale. Time is often slow and syrupy, and the words beat to the tempo of tree sap and green growth. Tobias himself is a gentle soul — tall and broad, with long wild hair, but at the same time patient and kind. Borrowing from myths of the Green Man, he’s every inch the magical guardian archetype, living among the trees with only the local population of dryads for company until he allows Henry to slip in through the cracks. This is the perfect hammock read for a spring day, and long after done, the magic of its pages lingers on.

Published in 2018 and a finalist in the British Fantasy Awards, The Green Man’s Heir is the first in Juliet E. McKenna’s ongoing Green Man urban fantasy series. I say ‘urban fantasy’, but it would be more correct to say rural fantasy since the story is set for the most part in the Peak District in England. The choice of setting moves the usual supernatural concerns for this genre from the big city bustle into nature, where the designs and desires of mythical creatures are literally as deep-rooted as the ancient land itself.

Here, too, we have the guardian figure, in the shape of Daniel Mackmain, born to a human man and a dryad, a spirit of the trees. Daniel’s greenblood gives him his tall, strong stature and his ability to see the otherworldly, but here the similarities between him and Tobias end. Tobias is seen by many as intimidating simply because he is large and taciturn, but is soft and kindly. Daniel with his short-cropped hair and quick temper is a lot more thuggish, often having to hold back his anger at those around him (and just as often, failing). He also lacks an anchor — Tobias is bound to the wood he lives in, lost in time but centered in place, while Daniel is lost and clearly searching for meaning. He moves around the country restlessly from job to job, his only tenuous ballast a connection to trees and wood.

Enter the Green Man. In this version, he is a magical guardian spirit who requires an agent in our contemporary world who he can act through. Daniel is the perfect man for the job, already in synch with the mythical world and sharing the Green Man’s affinity for the wilderness. There’s a killer in the woods, and soon Daniel is up to his neck in a murder investigation with supernatural undertones, treading a thin line between doing the Green Man’s work and being arrested as a suspect himself.

Despite the parallels — the woodlands as both character and setting, the use of the Green Man myth, the physical similarities between Tobias and Dan, and the inclusion of nature spirits such as dryads as an integral part of the story — this is a very different beast. Part crime thriller, part supernatural mystery, part deep dive into local history and mythology, it’s a fast-paced, intense, and often dark read, one to save for the comforting embrace of a blanket, a mug of tea, and your favorite chair. (And maybe stay away from trees!)

The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown is the outlier here. It’s a children’s book, for a start, and an old one at that. First published in 1956, my own copy was printed in the UK in 1957. It was bought second hand at a school book sale when I was maybe seven or eight, and it enchanted me for years. The binding is cracked, the book is water stained from when I decided it would be a good idea to keep it in a box in my ‘secret tree perch’ (yes, I was that sort of child), and lots of the delicate illustrations by the author were colored in by the previous owner. But I never could bear to part with it, and so it sits on the shelf next to my Narnia books (new, the originals literally fell apart) and my well-loved copy of E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.

This is the sequel to Brown’s first book, which I have never read. I always figured The Silver Nutmeg landed in my lap by an act of serendipitous book magic, this strange and quirky tale that had me so smitten as a child, and I never went searching for anything else by the author. It tells the story of Anna Lavinia, who makes her way over the field and into the woods and all the way through the dew pond to the upside-down land where Toby — another Tobias — lives. This Tobias isn’t a Green Man; in fact, among his own people he’s a rather ordinary little boy. But he does fulfill the role of guide and guardian of magic for Anna Lavinia, with magic being the strange rules, physics, and culture of the land through the pond.

There are other connections to the theme of green magic. Nature plays a big part in this story, as facilitator and conduit for the power that allows Anna Lavinia through to Toby’s world. From the start, the author’s descriptions of plants and scents weaves a unique backdrop that quickly sinks under our skin, offering an unlikely mixture of fauna and flora that marks this as a place apart, somehow here and not at the same time. And the different sources of water — the dew pond, the spring, the well — have their own parts to play. Once through the pond and into the other side, we reach Toby’s home, in a dim, cool valley lit by the indirect sun that filters through the still-water places that connect both worlds.

A book this old is not without its flaws, of course. There is a recurring use of harmful period-typical stereotypes regarding the Roma people. And the gender roles are dated, despite Anna Lavinia’s father declaring that a girl must grow up to have a point of view. But it is still charming, peppered with quirky drawings by the author as well as original songs and poems that manage to feel both strange and familiar all at once. This is definitely a book for warm summer afternoons in the park or garden, and on rereading it I understood what drove me as a child to keep it in a box up a tree, as if by treating it as a windfall treasure, nature might reward me with my very own portal to lands beyond.

Perhaps if I were to pick a single thread that unites these three very different stories, it would be oak trees. The oak, of course, is a powerful druidic symbol of pre-Christian magic in the British Isles, and it plays an important role in these books. An oak serves as Tobias Finch’s anchor to life and to the forest; oak trees and their wood symbolize safety for Daniel Mackmain, and a connection to the Green Man; and an ancient grove of oak trees both embraces and feeds the dew pond that is Anna Lavinia’s portal to adventure, with an acorn playing the part of herald between Anna Lavinia in one world, and Toby in the other. And since oaks are a keystone species found in many parts of the globe, what better symbol for a bit of literary green magic?

“At once slow deep green rolled over him. He took a breath, and another, smelling old rotting leaves and healthy growth and autumn light. He felt almost as though he could have planted his feet and become a tree himself, a strong oak reaching up to the sky, brother of the old oak who ruled the wood.” 

Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh

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