Artist of the Week - Terri Windling

Monday 19 November 2018

Related artist: Terri Windling

Although you are reading these words on some kind of screen via the "magic" of technology, I am writing them in the woods of Devon, handwritten on a thick white page, touched by the natural magic of sun filtered through golden autumn leaves.

I sit at the roots of a hoary old oak known hereabouts as the Fairy Tree, while my dog sits close and the wind rustles the dry leaves of the forest floor. The oak tree's limbs are tied with "clouties": strips of cloth that are left as wishes or offerings to the spirit of the woods. You won't find this tree on tourist maps; it grows in an unmarked place and is easily missed. I first learned of it from an elderly neighbour, now passed on, whose Christian faith and belief in the fairies rested easily side-by-side. Folklorists often speak of Britain's fairy faith as a relic of the past, but there are many corners of these isles where it quietly lives on.

My Dartmoor village is one of them. I've met old farmers who still put bowls of milk by the door, or whiskey by the hearth, to honour the "piskies" attached to the land; and those who use herbs, or salt, or flowers picked at specific times of the year, to ward their livestock from disease, theft, and other forms of fairy mischief.

Our village lies in a green bowl of farmland at the edge of the open moor - where piskies live under old clapper bridges and dance among standing stones. Ghostly "wist hounds" dwell in Wistman's Wood, riding out at night with the fearsome Dark Huntsman. The hares of this land are sometimes just hares and sometimes they're hedge-witches in disguise. (According to one 19th century account, our village was known to have more of these shape-shifting women than any other.)

I was born on America's north-east coast, studied folklore at university, and then worked in the publishing industry in New York, specialising in fantasy literature. How, then, did I end up in this myth-soaked place in the West Country? The story is too long to tell here...but the fairies played their part.

As a folklore student, I'd come across the book Faeries by Alan Lee and Brian Froud, two British artists deeply inspired by Dartmoor's folklore and landscape. This seminal book depicted fairies properly, as the strange, sensual, earthy creatures of traditional tales - far removed from the sweet diminutive sprites of Victorian children's fiction.

The book piqued my curiosity, and led me to search out other fairy traditions around the world (the wood wives of Sweden, the fox faeries of Japan, the Little People of the Cherokee tribe), then to write my thesis on the Anglo/Scots "fairy ballads" Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. A few years later, through publishing circles, I met Alan and Brian themselves and found them just as delightful as their book. This friendship led me to Dartmoor...and, eventually, to settling here myself...and to this moment, sitting in a Fairy Tree's roots and writing these words.

Some tales warn against drawing the Fair Folk's attention, for once they enter your life or your home they might never leave again. It's certainly true that they've never left mine. Over my years as a writer and editor, I've kept returning to fairy lore - working on fairy art books with Brian and Wendy Froud, on two fairy fiction anthologies, editing numerous fairy novels and stories (by Ellen Kushner, Jane Yolen, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint, Patricia McKillip, Pamela Dean and Susanna Clarke, among others), and writing a novel of my own (The Wood Wife) full of magical spirits that are really fairies in everything but name. I've worked on many other books too, but the Good Folk keep on calling me back. Now they've called me to Modern Fairies to explore their tales in a whole new way.

When I was invited to join this project, two things about it intrigued me most. First was that the whole thing started with music. I'm not a musician myself, but I've loved folk music since I was young - and the way that folk music, like fantasy fiction, helps to keep old stories and folk traditions alive.

Secondly, that the project isn't just about music, but gathers in many forms of art: writing, painting, animation, filmmaking...they're all part of the mix. I've worked on collaborations before, but always within the publishing field, never with artists coming together from such a wide range of artistic backgrounds.

As I wrote in a post for my blog, Myth & Moor: "It's an interesting brief, but a daunting one, pushing me out of my comfort zone. I know how to write a book, a story, an essay...but a song? A spoken word narrative? I am married to a theatre director, so I know very well that performative arts are very different than the literary arts, created in a very different way. I have to ignore my usual working methods, throw out all my preconceived ideas and approach the work (as my husband likes to say) with a 'beginner's mind.' I am walking in unknown territory...a perfect metaphor for walking into Faerie itself."

We're all slowly finding our way into Faerie, each of us drawn to stories and themes imbued with personal meaning. Marry Waterson has got me thinking of the "Green Children" legend in a whole new way: as a story of homelessness, foreignness, and displacement - all subjects terribly relevant in our modern world.

Lucy Farrell and I are exploring the ways that "animal bride" legends and songs speak to women's shifting identities in our roles as artists, wives, and mothers. With Ewan MacPherson, I'm thinking of how the loss of fairy belief mirrors the loss of connection to the natural world - and how to use sound and language to stitch that connection together once more.

Jackie Morris reminds of how a good shape-shifting tale lets us leap through the world in our animal skins; Fay Hield creates Summoning and Spells that astonish me with their power; and Ben Nicholls makes me laugh with his truly modern fairies, found in surprising places. We're only a few months into the project, and there are still so many paths yet to explore. I've been writing, but not yet been painting or drawing - so that's the next step of the journey for me, stitching text and image and music together into a collage of sound and story.

I am often asked if I "believe" in fairies, and I never quite know quite how to answer that question. I believe there is magic in nature. I believe the world holds great Mystery. I believe that there is something that touches my heart and soul as I sit in the woods, with my black dog beside me, gold leaves above, clouties rustling in a light wind. To me, Mystery doesn't have to be named. I feel it. I am healed and nourished by it. It fuels, informs, and inspires my work. Call it nature, or love, or the magic of Faerie. It's the most potent magic I know.


Terri sat on a log with a dog beside her

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