Madness, Shapechanging, and Art (Continued)

by Niko Silvester

with art by Brian Froud

Shaman as Mediator

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary functions of the shaman is to mediate between the mortal world and the Otherworld. Jones comments that "The Otherworld can perhaps be regarded as a psychological state related through language" (79), making a poet a natural choice for shaman. This psychological state is another state of consciousness that alters the perception of reality (79–80). In normal life, we live in consensus reality,the purpose of which is "to provide a structure for filtering masses of potentially perceptible raw data into a manageable flow that offers enough information about the environment to enable us to function, but not so much information as to be overwhelming." A shaman is able to leave consensus reality and enter another state; "[a]n altered state is merely a different filtering of the same mass of available data" (80). Larsen phrases it this way:

The shaman obviously has access to dimensions of consciousness usually unavailable to us. Whether in trance or awake, he seems to be able to see things that others do not see. In our culture this condition is regarded invariably as a symptom of psychotic episode. Yet the shaman is not psychotic . . . .(80)

Shamans perceive the world differently, and can relay the important aspects of those differences to their people.

"Spine Witch"

People, like the shamans and potential shamans I have been discussing, gain the ability to see the spirits through a change in perception. This change can be given as a gift by the spirits themselves, as the Nightmage gave Anna the ability to see the other spirits (277), or as the Spine Witch gave to Maggie in exchange for the turquoise stones the spirit took from Maggie’s night table (by kissing her eyelids, a very Celtic fairy means of conferring Sight) (125). Cooper’s poemswere thought by one reviewer to be transcriptions of drunken hallucinations, and a hallucination is one kind of altered perception, just not the kind that actually resulted in the composition of the poems (114).

One theme in The Wood Wife is that the spirit beings wear shapes given to them; in the novel it is the artists, the painters and poets, who create those shapes. This idea is echoed in other literature. E.L. Gardner, a Theosophist who brought the Cottingley fairy photographs to Arthur Conan Doyle’s attention, wrote: "The diminutive human form [of fairies], so widely assumed, is doubtless due, at least in a great measure, to the powerful influence of human thought, the strongest creative power in our cycle" (Doyle 174).Commenting on this statement, Paul Smith says "[f]or Gardner then, the way fairies look to us was determined by the way our collective unconscious shapes them, in that it may ‘select archetypal images and project them on to the raw elemental force, producing the materialization of our choice’" (380; quoting Picknett, 159). This is somewhat comparable to Larsen’s comments on the function of myth: "Firsthand mystical experience is sometimes so powerful that one must render it, translate it, shape it, into a form comprehensible to consciousness"(34).Myths and mythic characters, then, serve two functions: "They reawaken man to an experience of the divine, and yet also safeguard him from having to deal with it in its formless aspect: pure power and meaning" (34). Without such a safeguard, mystical experience would drive people to madness (as it probably has done). So shamans give form to otherworldly creatures. The shaman is an "imposer of form. He refuses to be baffled by stimuli which are diffuse and lacking in significance," says Richard A. Shweder (329, italics in original).

That the artists give the spirits shapes to wear becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses. Cooper described the spirits, which he calls fairies, thus:

They are not supernatural beings, they are as natural as the land itself. I believe them to be an essence, a rhythm, a language, a color beyond the spectrum of our sight. They appear in the shapes we clothe them with — and at first I thought it was only Anna who had the power to do this, but now I’ve seen creatures from my own recent poems, flickering like moths in the mesquite grove. Perhaps it is art that gives them these shapes, or belief, or our own expectations. (167–168)

It is when the artist becomes a shaman, whether he is aware of it or not, that he gains the power to shape the fairies or spirits, and to shape the perception of others who see the beings. Maggie comments that "Anna believed that all she was doing was creating shapes for them to wear. Like clothes, she said, that they put on for our sake, not for theirs" (229), and Cooper said that what these beings are called, whether it be personal names like "Thumper" (named by Maggie) or a name for all such beings, like "fairies" or "angels" or "spirits,""are ones they wear for us. They don’t much matter to them" (277). Whatever state or reality the shaman is in, in The Wood Wife the artists who are shamans do better work than they did before they were shamans. Anna Naverra painted her greatest, truest work after discovering and beginning to associate with the spirits, and Cooper wrote his best poetry when he, too could see the spirits. His final manuscript was composed while he was the Spiritmage, a human mage chosen to replace the missing Nightmage as protector of the Rincon Mountains. Though Cooper was unaware of being Spiritmage,he had the increased artistic power that goes along with the role and he heard the land and could translate the voices of the place into poetry.

After Cooper’s death, the role of Spiritmage was again unfilled; by the end of the novel Tomás has stepped into the role naturally. On his assuming the title Spiritmage, Tomás says, "I look after this land as best I know how. I listen to it with respect. Mage, shaman — those are just words" (296). Like the spirits themselves, Tomás has no need for a label, and perhaps that is why he is so well suited to the role. The Floodmage at first objects that the Spiritmage must be an artist; she says, "You have no mastery, no artistry. There is nothing about you that is beautiful,"to which Tomás replies that his artistry is in his garden, in his ability to grow food in the desert. The Mages must admit to that (296). Tomás has heard the land speaking all along, and is perfectly suited for the position of intermediary between it, between the spiritworld and the human world.

By the novel’s end, Maggie has returned to writing poetry, and she is also longing to be back in the desert mountains; she has come to crave the solitariness and connection to the place where she had her shamanic initiation. It is implied that the shamanic journey healed her, returned her to her core essence (poetry), and so will strengthen her artistic abilities (304–305, 317–318). She has begun to hear the voices of the land itself, as well as the voices of the spirits, and will be able to take on the shamanic/artistic function of giving the land a voice that non–shamans can hear.


With all the different hints about art and shamanism in The Wood Wife, from Maggie’s inheritance of Cooper’s place in the mountains (his house, anyway), and because inheritance is one way a person can become a shaman, I was expecting Maggie to be chosen as the new Spiritmage. Yet she is not chosen. She seems perfect for the role, but it is Tomás who assumes it. Why? The Floodmage says to Crow, "Your little poet hasn’t been here long enough" (296). Maggie is not yet strongly enough connected to the mountains and desert to take on the role. By the end of the book, it looks like she will be, but she is not yet.So what does this mean about art? Perhaps that some kinds of art, art that is strongly rooted in place, act as a voice for that place as the shaman is the voice for the landscape he lives in (for example, relaying the message of Sedna). To make the kind of art that speaks for place, whether it is painting or poetry, or even gardening, the artist must have a true knowledge and attachment to that place. It is implied that Maggie, who can hear the voices of the desert, may very well develop that attachment and so be able to speak for the place herself.

Thus The Wood Wife can be read as a nice urban fantasy about a woman seeing spirits in the desert and her adventures because of it. But, on another level, it is a novel about the transformative abilities of art and about the power of place and its connection to artist and art. It is also about the way an artist can be driven mad by the frustration of not having a skill to equal his/her vision. It is about the human connection with the world we live on. It is an environmentalist novel and a novel about love and obsession. But most of all, for me, it is a book about coming to belong to a place to the extent that you can begin to speak for it.This aspect comes so strongly for me because I, like Maggie, had a somewhat rootless existence, and have longed for that kind of true belonging that Maggie began to find in the desert. To become a shaman–artist and speak for the land seems a true and productive goal, indeed.