And the conclusion!
Many thanks to readers, and to author, Elizabeth Cunningham, for sharing herself here. If you haven't picked up her book, Red-Robed Priestess, hopefully this interview has peaked your curiosity.
Brooke: Maeve has moments where she can't remember things, or is a little lost about where she is. Do you think this has more to do with her aging, or her feeling her freedom from the past? Do you think there is a difference? Do you think genuinely forgetting is a necessary part of living in peace?
Elizabeth Cunningham.: When she rides west to return to Mona, Maeve experiences a sort of loosening of identity. She is radically alone, no one’s mother, lover, or friend. She says when she lived in her hermit cave she felt the company of the dead and living from her past, but for a time even this orientation falls away. When she lives on Dwynwyn’s Isle, taking her place, their identity is temporarily merged. The story doesn’t offer an absolute explanation. It is partly age, but her loss of self is intermittent. She remembers everything when disaster calls her back. I don’t know if forgetting or remembering brings peace, per se. In his dementia, my father was often agitated, trying to work things out in a way he could not as his conscious self. Yet he was oddly more accessible. My mother-in-law remembers very little with any consistency. She is quite content, pleased with herself even, but then she always has been. It is interesting to me how much themselves people still are without memory. I also have a feeling that at some point or points even that identity falls away. But I don’t really know yet. I am almost Maeve’s age, and I am having an identity meltdown myself now that I have completed twenty years of research and writing.
B: Jesus comes in very subtly in this book and is such a comforting presence. In my opinion his presence is powerful because he is not there all the time giving Maeve or anyone answers. Was there ever any temptation to have him be more of a savior in this book?
E.C.: No. In the earlier novels Maeve saves Jesus more frequently than he saves her. In this book, Jesus is not there to save but to give a different way of seeing human tragedy, as in Maeve’s vision of him when she returns to Mona. She sees him standing under the tree of life and he invites her to stand with him. “There’s nothing to fear, Maeve,” he tells her. And in that moment she knows his words are true, even though she also knows she and her combrogos face grave and unavoidable danger.
B: I was so comforted by Lithben meeting Jesus. She was no longer afraid, and I felt like I could let go of what had happened to her, because she seemed healed by her encounter with him. Was this an important story thread for you to come to terms with the rape of a child too?
E.C.: As I recall now, Lithben’s meeting with Jesus took me by surprise. I don’t remember planning it. It just happened. But it comforted me, too, and transformed Lithben from a mere child into a child with a huge soul, able to embrace all the contradictions in her anguished mother’s character. Lithben was traumatized not only by her own rape but by the atrocities her mother commits in revenge.
B: Now to the battles. I was blown away by the battle scenes, because they were completely not how I was expecting to experience them. They were interrupted by profound dreams and visions and Maeve's perception of the battles allowed the reader to experience the gore both right up front, and from a literal bird's-eye view, which created a poetic veil over the suffering. Did this help you to write such difficult scenes?
E.C.: The battle scenes were challenging to write, as you can imagine. I did lots of research, so that they would be as accurate as possible. But it just occurred to me: the best sex scenes are evocative rather than simply graphic. I didn’t want merely to write a blow by blow description. Maeve has shifted into a dove’s shape since the beginning of the series. It seemed appropriate for her to take that form in the battle scene on Mona. In the final battle Maeve is between the worlds and between life and death. This state allows her what Keats called “negative capability.” She can not only see from every point of view; she becomes each moment, each person, the very air itself.
B: I have to say that your depiction of the waiting for the battles terrified me!!! Perhaps more than the battles themselves! The way that you described the light, the earth, the time in between the action, where there was solid ground, but complete groundlessness. How do you account for having such a powerful understanding of this?
E.C. I don’t know how to account for it. I have a good imagination. And because I am human and share with all other humans the same basic, primal emotions, I can imagine things I have not directly experienced. I think this imaginative stretching is why people turn to stories, in print or film, fictional or not. It enlarges their experience; it encourages empathy.
B: Your description of the earth being just as much a victim in the battles as the people was powerful. In reading all The Maeve Chronicles, one could argue that you feature the earth as an important character in your books. Is this conscious of you?
E.C.: I don’t think it’s conscious—as in thought out ahead—or unconscious. It’s just how I have always experienced the earth—as alive. Certainly the Celts did, and maybe most people in most times have. People didn’t used to live at such a remove from the earth as the source of all life. A friend of mine who grew up in Pakistan said of her childhood there, “if you wanted butter, you had to have a buffalo and a way to feed the buffalo. You did not go to the supermarket.”
B: The relationship with the general, and the subsequent shape-shifting into hawk and dove was genius. I'm curious if there is a story about how this idea surfaced?
E.C.: As noted before, Maeve has shape-shifted into a dove from way back. And the general is naturally and inevitably a hawk. It might even be a bit of a cliché—except that Maeve really is a dove, in the same lineage as Asherah and Aphrodite. And this particular general really is a hawk. More on that below.
B: I could write an entire interview just about the relationship between Maeve and the General. It is the relationship that has stuck with me the most, because of the inherent complexities: the love that was clearly there, their mystical connection, and the fact that Maeve had met her match in so many ways. I loved how Maeve interacted with the General. I was very interested by the part when she was momentarily flummoxed by him shooting down her sense of the miraculous, and how she let go--without needing to convince him. As if she understood that she couldn't. Yet, she never lost footing with him. She let her power come forth to match his, in a kind of dance with him. She never let go of trying to bridge the gap, but she seemed to accept him and understand that he wouldn't back down from his duties or what he believed. She seemed to see him as herself. There was this mutual respect, and yet, an apparent incompatibility for them to be able to be at peace, as what they needed from the other was not possible for either to give. What does this complex relationship between Maeve and the General mean to you? Has Maeve met her match?
E.C.: Maeve’s match is Jesus, the one she loves “from before and beyond time in all the worlds.” But the general, who is fascinated by Maeve’s account of Jesus, is (perhaps literally) his brother. He has a presence as intense as Jesus’s, though his talents and path could not be more different.
The book is dedicated to Hawksbrother, my martial arts teacher. If you read the acknowledgments, you will note that it was his idea that Maeve and the general be lovers—something that might not have occurred to me otherwise. Hawksbrother loves military history and felt that General Suetonius had gotten a bad rap. He also insisted that Suetonius should come of Etruscan stock and understand such magic as shape-shifting. Though Hawksbrother and I only see each other in the classroom, over the years we have gotten to know each other quite well as sparring partners and have some of the same sort of respectful antagonism and affection as Maeve and the general. I am glad you find that relationship compelling.
B: I couldn't help but feel the divide that exists between Maeve and the General, exists between male and female energy on this planet, on some many levels. Would you agree with this statement? Is it necessary to heal this divide? Is it possible?
E.C: I don’t think Maeve and the general are not quite so iconic. They are not only male and female but both are caught between two world views that you could also call the indigenous (de-centralized, tribal) and the imperial. The general represents Rome and yet he admires the tribes he is paid to subdue. Maeve takes her stand with the Celts, but reminds her daughter Sarah that things are not simple. The Roman way of life is seductive and oppressive in much the way the American way of life is—or has been. Neither is sustainable.
Earlier we were both talking about embracing contradictions. I think reconciling male and female, global and local, progress and preservation—and so many other things seemingly at odds—is imperative. Is it possible? Who knows? Like many people, I am on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what will happen next. I am praying that I will play my part, big or small, with courage and grace.
B: One of my favorite parts is when Dwynwyn joins Maeve in her head. I found it so hilarious! Where did you come up with those pet names, like 'cabbage' and 'pigeon pie'? With everything else you do, have you thought of doing standup comedy?
E.C.: Dwynwyn is one of those characters—like Miriam of Nazareth—who arrives full blown (from who knows where?) and takes center stage. Starting with Magdalen Rising Dwynwyn was fixated on food. From Dwynwyn in Magdalen Rising comes one of my favorite quotations from The Maeve Chronicles:
“All hearts are hard till they’re broken. Then they’re a bloody mess, though not bad tasting if you cook and season them properly.”
In answer to your other question, I have never thought of pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. But on tour when I have given performances, talks, and taken questions from the audience, I have gotten to experience what it might be like (minus any additional pressure). It was fun and satisfying in the moment, but not something I need to take further.
B: A couple phrases that stuck with. What do they mean to you?
"You don't need to see me, just take my hand."
E.C.: In that scene, it was dark. Again, Dwynwyn is speaking to Maeve. Is she there literally? Who knows? But Maeve is comforted and guided by Dwynwyn’s hand as she walks into the nightmare landscape of a battle’s aftermath.
Maybe we are guided and comforted that way in our worst moments. We don’t need to see (understand) just trust.
"You will know what to do. For this you were born. For this you came into the world."
Those words, which Maeve speaks to her daughter Sarah as she comes to terms with her part in war, echo words from The Passion of Mary Magdalen. When Jesus leaves Maeve (again) to begin his ministry, she watches him call the first disciples, and hears those words for him: For this you were born.
They echo Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
Sarah is facing her moment of truth and Maeve is speaking prophetically. Perhaps we all come to a moment like this one when we know, in the largest sense, why we’re here, what we must do.
B: Question, just for fun. There are a lot of women in this book. What do you think The Maeve Chronicles would have been like if Maeve were a man, and all the main women were replaced with men? Would a story like this have even been possible?
E.C.: An answer just for fun. A story like that was told, starring Jesus and his disciples! It was time for the other side of the story, don’t you think? Maeve does!
B: And last question, do you write with the intention of your writing as having healing properties for others?
E.C. I have witnessed with an awe that humbles me that these stories do have healing properties for many people. Grace is amazing! I don’t sit down with the intent to heal anyone. My intent is to tell a story, to listen for the story, to allow myself to be turned upside down and inside out. When you give yourself to a story like Maeve’s, you are bound to be brought face to face with your fears, your wounds, your deepest longings, your joy. There is healing in that. Many readers enter into the story just as deeply as I have, and so it becomes their story, too.
B: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! I hope it was as fun for you as it has been for me to formulate these questions! This has been such a gift, to get to probe deeper into the content of the book, to synthesize it for myself, to ponder what has stayed with me and resonated deeply with me--and then to have the opportunity to ask questions!
E.C.: Thank you, Brooke, for your generous and passionate reading—and writing! Your questions were great fun to answer and more than fun. They gave me a chance to reflect on my journey with Maeve in a way that is helpful and healing as I prepare to go on, not without her (lo! she is always with us!), but into whatever adventures await. Thank you from my heart, dear soul friend!
Elizabeth Cunningham is the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of four novels featuring a Celtic Magdalen, including her latest, Red-Robed Priestess. The first three in the series areMagdalen Rising, Passion of Mary Magdalen, and Bright Dark Madonna.
Elizabeth is the direct descendant of nine generations of Episcopal priests. When she was not in church or school, she read fairytales and fantasy novels or wandered in the enchanted wood of an overgrown, abandoned estate next door to the rectory. Her religious background, the magic of fairytales, and the numinous experience of nature continue to inform her work. Cunningham also authored many individual books as well, such
Although Cunningham managed to avoid becoming an Episcopal priest, she graduated from The New Seminary in 1997 and was ordained as an interfaith minister and counselor. Both The Maeve Chronicles and her interfaith ministry express Cunningham’s profound desire to reconcile her Christian roots with her call to explore the divine feminine.
Since her ordination, Cunningham has been in private practice as a counselor and maintains that the reading and writing of novels has been has been as important to this work as her seminary training.
She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she leads singing and poetry circles as well rituals celebrating the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. The mother of grown children, Cunningham lives with her husband in a sacred grove in New York State’s Hudson Valley.
If you are interested in purchasing any of Elizabeth Cunningham's books, you can contact your local bookseller or support independent booksellers and order online through this link: http://www.indiebound.org/
Elizabeth and Maeve's blog: http://elizabethandmaeve.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/
Friend Maeve Rhuad on Facebook page for play by plays! http://www.facebook.com/
Elizabeth's fan page http://www.facebook.com/pages/
Author website: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com
CD of original music from The Maeve Chronicles (Yes, she sings!) http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/
Dates and locations of the virtual book tour are posted below.
Elizabeth and Maeve's Virtual Book Tour was kicked off 11/13 with an interview on Creatix Media (Click here to listen if you missed it: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/
creatrix-media-live/2011/11/ 13/maeve-chronicles-series- with-elizabeth-cunningham
Nov 16: Part 1 of interview with Transformational Writers www.transformationalwriters.
Nov 17: Meredith Gould Interview will post http://meredithgould.blogspot.
Nov 18: Jane Cunningham http://morethingsithink.
Nov 23: Part 2 of interview with Transformational Writers www.transformationalwriters.
Dec 2: Part 1 of Jodine Turner Interview www.jodineturner.com
Dec 8: Backdoor to the Moon Interview http://backdoortothemoon.
Dec 9: Part 2 of Jodine Turner Interview (www.jodineturner.com)