The wind hissed and the bracken rattled. Nothing pounced on him. Wolf sat up. He peered this way and that, first fearfully and then with rising hope. Where was the demon? Perhaps he’d lost it.
Two yards away, a gray puffball head with glittering eyes rose over the ferns. Half of the face was white, half dark red.
Author: Katherine Langrish
Synopsis: While attempting to escape the monastic life his family forced on him, young Wolf comes across an elf-child and captures her at the behest of a lord from over the mountains. Meanwhile, the lord’s daughter, Nest, would rather be in a convent than marry Lord Godfrey as has been arranged for her. When Wolf and Nest become friends, they must unite to protect the elf-child, free Nest’s father from his obsession with Elfland, and escape their enemies, which include an abusive monk, a self-centered lord, and a demon from hell.
Notes: Because I’m Catholic, and because the popular narrative about the Church—especially in the Middle Ages—is monstrous (and fraught with varying degrees of inaccuracy), and because I know some of my fellow readers will have similar feelings—let me say that on first read, I was very wary of where Langrish was going to take her tale. Let me also say, however, that by the end I felt at ease for the most part, even appreciative of the way she handled some things; and further, that I loved the story itself and wanted to re-read it and add it to my books-to-buy list.
Set in Wales in an undisclosed time, though clearly during the centuries when clerical celibacy was canonically mandated but largely not practiced, this little novel expertly builds a medieval world in which the supernatural is as much an accepted fact of life as the natural. The mythology of the elves is either an original creation or something drawn from a source I’ve never read, but the angels and demons are familiar enough. Both the windswept, stormy Welsh landscape and the otherworldly interactions are beautifully and, in context, believably portrayed.
Wolf and ‘Nest’ (the Welsh form of Agnes) are characters well situated in fairytale tradition: active, brave, curious, and just the right mixture of precocious and childlike. Their charge, silent little Elfgift, evokes sympathy as well; we never get her perspective, but we get to watch bits of her humanity creep out of her instinctive animal terror.
The enemies—but saying much about them would involve spoilers. They work, interestingly enough, as a twisted form of trinity: a priest who uses God’s laws to beat people down rather than build them up, a selfish and entirely human fool, and an evil spirit. Their effects on Lord Hugo (Nest’s father), Wolf, Nest, and the general state of peace are fully comprehensible. It’s a good setup for story conflict, and is well resolved.
The story carries a hefty thread of female bravery and independence. Nest prays for a good and important work to do before her marriage, a thought which perhaps fails to recognize the great goodness and importance of marriage and childbearing, but rightly recognizes a woman's need for worthwhile activity beyond that. Her feelings make sense, and her retorts to Sir Thomas and Godfrey in the chapel—invoking several saint stories—were overall rather enjoyable despite the stereotypical 'anti-woman churchman' routine that inspired them. Sir Thomas, after all, seemed to have forgotten how closely Adam was involved in Eve’s sin.
The tale is a good read from start to finish, but the end is much of what made the book for this reader. There’s a bit of very clear redemption imagery, and Sir Thomas presents himself in a way evocative of Caiaphas before the crucifixion of Christ. The supernatural aspects come off with beauty and strength, and the final little down-to-earth scene is sweetness itself.
Recommendation: Read it for a likable, liminal little tale of heroism and the search for freedom and peace.