Louise Lawrence, The Earth Witch (Harper and Row, 1981)
Sometimes -- perhaps oftentimes -- beautiful little books will come to you from almost out of nowhere. Such was the case with this somewhat obscure little gem from author Louise Lawrence, which I picked up for pennies purely by happenstance at a used bookstore, drawn to it by both the title and the cover art. But The Earth Witch is no quiet, unassuming little book; it is a gritty glimpse through the lens of a Welsh mythology that is as turgid and loamy and menacing as a deep wood on All Hallow's Eve.
Weighing in at 184 pages (in my paperback version), The Earth Witch is a fairly quick read, but I continually found myself wanting to slacken my pace, to make it last, and to fully savor the delicious, atmospheric nature of Lawrence's prose. The tale is set in modern-day Wales and concerns a teenage boy named Owen, who, despite his and his fellow villagers' cognizance of past events repeating, is drawn into the life and world of Bronwen Davis, newly arrived to the abandoned cottage on Mynydd Blaena. She is said to be the relative of the cottage's former occupant, who disappeared some time previous following the inscrutable death of the man who had been her lover. Bronwen is by turns menacing, maternal, repulsive, and seductive, luring Owen into her employ and soon after, her confidence, and he is helpless to resist, despite the disapproval of his family and friends. He passes two seasons in delirious bondage to the mysterious woman of Mynydd Blaena, but soon autumn comes, and with it the power of the Earth, demanding its due.
In contrast to some fictional works which treat the Welsh mythic cycle (such as Alan Garner's The Owl Service, of which Lawrence's book is reminiscent in both theme and ambience), The Earth Witch doesn't attempt to reinterpret a specific story from the Mabinogion. Instead, this tale is filtered through the sensibility of Welsh mythology, acquiring along the way the strong imprint of its archetypes and a keen awareness of the dark tonalities permeating the ancient Welsh understanding of the Earth and its processes. Bronwen is Blodeuwedd, who shines radiance in her Midsummer marriage to Llew Llaw Gyffes, only to later betray and murder him. She is the intoxicating beauty of flowers, but also the stink of them as they wither and fade, becoming the personification of the insatiable female Earth energy ravening for the blood of the sacred male to ensure her continued fertility. She is Cerridwen, Arianrhod, and Rhiannon as well -- the powerful Goddess who both nurtures and destroys and who is governed by a different set of laws than those that bind humankind. The spectral Cwn Annwn (dogs of the Underworld and of the Wild Hunt) are also present, represented here by Bronwen's vicious, slavering, yet beholden red-eyed hound.
Lawrence also borrows some folkloric motifs derived from non-Welsh sources, but which are seamlessly integrated into her teeming stew of mythic allusion. The novel opens with Owen and his two young friends, Kate and Jonathan, watching a black bird flying and quoting crow-related proverbs as well as from Mother Goose's "The Carrion Crow." Although not revealed in the novel beyond two or three lines, the full-length nursery rhyme closes with the shooting of a sow -- a sow that makes a later appearance as another of Bronwen's creatures set forth to menace Owen. And a parallel can be seen between Kate's character and Janet of the "Tam Lin" ballad, as both are mortal women who must ultimately wrest their beloved from the spell of a dark Queen. Many of her references come in passing -- a word or two here, a word or two there -- easy to overlook, but contributing immeasurably to the subtle, lush, layered symbolism Lawrence so deftly crafts. Here churn the tides of fate, and here the very soil seethes with the pungent drama of ancient cycles still being enacted beneath the veneer of contemporary society.
The real beauty and genius of The Earth Witch lies in its ability to create a convincingly primal atmosphere that conveys some sense, often missing in mythic re-interpretations, of humankind's lost relationship to the land. This relationship goes much deeper than recent platitudinous New Age visions of charming back-to-natureness and plunges the reader into the murky depths of a very pagan understanding of the urgency, implacability and indifference of the land to human concerns. Lawrence's brooding imagery brilliantly creates, and maintains, a sense of harrowing dread as the tale unfolds to its Hallowe'en climax (eerily recalling Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home).
Readers who enjoy detailed characterization might find Lawrence less successful in this regard. She devotes comparatively little time to providing background and context for her characters; we come to know them instead through sometimes rambling and often incongruous conversational passages, which come off as pasted-on and lacking in dimensionality. We are told very little about what might constitute the motivations for these characters' actions -- and sometimes we desperately wish to know. Where these passages are most interesting, however, is when they illuminate the thoughts and feelings of Kate, whom I could not help feeling got short shrift in light of her role as Owen's champion and eventual deliverer. The Kate who emerges from Lawrence's prose is an ambiguous one -- it is tempting to read her as the opposite energy of Bronwen, but by the end of the story, she is much less well-defined, a shifting sort of apparition whose true nature can perhaps only be perceived with an averted gaze. Perhaps, however, it is better in light of the overall aims of the story for Lawrence to keep her characters loosely defined -- too much character development might have not only distracted from the concentrated buildup of place and mood she is obviously trying to achieve, but also could have diminished the reader's ability to see the characters as playing out archetypal roles.
Although somewhat uneven overall, The Earth Witch nonetheless deserves high marks for the sheer power of the world the author creates, and should have strong appeal for lovers of mythic fiction, Welsh storytelling, and the pagan mythos alike. It is deserving of a place alongside Evangeline Walton, Alan Garner, and Susan Cooper on any reading list of literature influenced by the Mabinogion cycle and is well worth seeking out through your local library, bookshop or out-of-print service.
Louise Lawrence is also the author of The Crowlings, and a fantasy trilogy,
comprising Journey Through Llandor, The Road to Irryan, and The Shadow of Mordican. She has also written numerous science fiction novels for young adults.