Juniper by Monica Furlong (Knopf, 1990).
I discovered Monica Furlong and her novel Juniper in my favorite place: a pile of used books. It is always the most providentially discovery and inspires a much deeper relationship, in my mind, between reader and book than does purchasing the thing brand new. I found this, I rescued it, I brought it back when someone had given it away. Now Juniper was mine to love, and this novel with its striking cover and premise of a tale about the daughter of (partly fabled) King Mark of Cornwall (often associated with Arthur) did not disappoint.
The middle-grade novel (marketed for grades 6-8) tells the story of Ninnoc, the daughter of regulus (local, tribal chieftain) Mark of Cornwall and Erlain, who grows up a child of early-medieval privilege and willingly abandons this life to become a doran or magic-using woman. The novel is set sometime in the centuries prior to the rise of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the East of England; King Mark is thought to have lived in the 6th century, though like anything associated with “Arthur” there’s very little historical (or archaeological) truth to the myths. Ninnoc, for example, grows up in Castle Dore, a hill fort near Fowey, Cornwall that has become associated with King Mark thanks to a single stone found on the site that references his supposed son, Tristan (yes, that Tristan, though he is described in history and myth as sometimes son, sometimes nephew of Mark). Furlong, a well-regarded public writer on British religious and cultural history prior to her foray into fiction, weaves together these myths and pseudo-histories to create an ancient, pre-Christian Cornwall alive with its own magic that nods to, but never relies on, Arthuriana to any great extent, providing a glimpse into a wilder and more interesting world than a simple Arthurian fantasy would allow.
Juniper is a classic coming-of-age story that takes its protagonist from a world of privilege, safety, and comfort to one of drudgery and hard-learning. Ninnoc moves from a life wherein the coldness of her bathwater and overlong visits with her father’s court are the greatest tragedies, to one in which she must make the decision to sacrifice her worldly power to take on the life of an itinerant doran who serves the common good. As she grows up alongside her cousin Gamal, whose mother Meroot wishes him to become king after Mark, she becomes aware of her kingdom’s increasing instability through plague, famine, and the loss of her father’s bannermen to enemy kingdoms. At the same time, she discovers that she has latent abilities to both glimpse the immediate future and to heal people. So at her parents’ behest she is shipped off to apprentice with the wise-woman, magic-user Euny, from whom she is to learn the art of the doran. Euny is old, rude, and unwelcoming; her hut is tiny, dirty, and decrepit. Their relationship grows and becoming a learning opportunity for each—powerfully, this is not a tale in which the young must learn from the old, and the old have no need or room for growth. Ninnoc also learns from the Welsh doran Angharad, who is the night-and-day opposite of Euny, and whose apprentice Trewyn becomes a close friend.
As we watch Ninnoc (and Euny) grow and learn (from one another)—which Furlong details with a level of realism that brings to life the back-breaking labor necessary to keep the early-medieval peasant alive, and which makes magic feel truly earned—Ninnoc also confronts the realities of patriarchy and her growing realization that she might very well not take her father’s throne when he dies (an assumption she always held). Not only does she increasingly realize that her aunt Meroot is deadly serious about helping Gamal take the throne (despite his desire to become a bard), but she also comes to learn that, should her mother have a son, his gender alone would give him priority of succession. And, as it turns out, her mother is pregnant. She learns this lesson the hard way after discovering that her cold, witchy aunt had assumed she would inherit her and Mark’s father’s throne—until Mark was born. Seeing her own complicated feelings (dedication to her family, love for her unborn sibling, desire to take what she feels is rightfully hers) reflected not only in Meroot’s life story but in how it has come to consume Meroot, turning her into her brother’s enemy and the cause of his kingdom’s impending collapse, Ninnoc passes through an emotional (and magical) trial-by-fire to become a full-blown doran, make the necessary sacrifice for her personal future, and defeat Meroot to save her father’s kingdom.
Juniper is a beautifully realized and powerfully written novel that transcends the idea of a middle-grade novel—all reasons that it reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and subsequently Earthsea novels. Like Ged, Ninnoc is an ambitious, somewhat haughty, but highly gifted magic-user-in-training. She works with difficult mentors, faces important personal stakes, and must come to terms with herself in order to pass into adulthood. Moreover, like Le Guin’s later novels—Tehanu is particular—Furlong takes seriously the importance of “women’s” magic, and is more interested in how magic makes its mark in the world through salves and healing, by helping crops grows and animals bear children, than in explosive magical battles and the takedown of great monsters. There are battles, yes, but magic in Furlong’s Cornwall is a force of will and love and communal growth.
Ninnoc’s story in Cornwall is the prequel to a larger story originally begun in Wise Child, where Ninnoc as the doran Juniper plays the mentor role to an orphaned girl in Scotland and which, as Anne Thériault argues, provides an inspiring vision of motherhood. I haven’t yet read Wise Child, having come across Juniper alone in that providential used bookstore search, but I look forward to seeing Ninnoc’s/Juniper’s story unfold in both Wise Child and its sequel Colman.
Though Furlong is hardly regarded in the canon of fantasy writers, her magical fictions of the ancient Celtic world, told from the perspective of women’s experiences of this world, certainly deserve another look. Juniper is now firmly in my fantasy canon.