The Wisdom of Magda Digby (part I)

Robert Newman, a longtime reader of the Owen Archer series, recently shared with me, for my approval, his study of Magda Digby’s wisdom. With his permission, I will be serializing it as a prelude to the publication of THE RIVERWOMAN’S DRAGON (Owen Archer bk 13). I’ve refrained from editing. These are his thoughts, and I’m always fascinated to learn how readers see my work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Happy reading!

My guest author: Robert Newman grew up in Freeport, Long Island, where his ancestors arrived from England in the sixteen hundreds.  After completing a Ph.D. in metallurgy he was a university professor, researcher, missionary, and computer programmer.  Since retiring he spent time woodworking with hand tools, bread baking, listening to early jazz, and reading fiction.  Magda Digby spoke to him in different ways during the last ten years and her wisdom guides him in his eighties as he struggles with difficult illness.  He wrote this essay last winter.  Bob lives in Smoke Rise, Georgia, with his wife Spomenka and their corgi Duga.

The Wisdom of Magda Digby

Robert Newman
27 March 2021

Owen asked Magda, “What did you mean by the question about what folk see when they see a wolf?  How could it not be the animal?”
“A riddle for thee, Bird-eye.”

I wish I could say that I have solved this riddle to my satisfaction, but even after three readings of the book I have not yet done so.  I don’t recall exactly when I began reading Candace Robb’s books, nor do I remember what attracted me to that first book.  Fortunately, I began with The Apothecary Rose, the first in the Owen Archer Mystery series.  I have read all twelve of the books multiple times over the years and have found myself making check marks in the margin when I encountered texts that caught my attention.  Although the protagonist in these historical novels is Owen Archer, I discovered that those most often marked were the wisdom statements uttered by the character Magda Digby. 

While I was reading the last two books in the series, which were written after a ten year hiatus during which time Candace Robb had written the Kate Clifford trilogy and two novels about historical characters who had appeared in the Owen Archer novels, it occurred to me that it would be a worthy project for me to write an essay about Magda’s wisdom statements.  I have taken some liberties with the text to condense the dialog and set the context, but I have made every effort not to change the meaning intended by the author.

The Players

We have limited knowledge of Magda Digby ⸻ the Riverwoman, the healer, the midwife, the herbalist ⸻ except that she lives in a small hut outside the city walls of York that is built on a rock along the bank of the River Ouse.  As the stories progress we learn that she is not only a mother and a grandmother but soon to be a great grandmother, which gives us at least some idea of her age.  Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Magda is that she speaks in archaic English and always refers to herself in the third person.  She also makes a practice of assigning metaphorical names to people that reflect their position, their vocation, their behavior, or their physical appearance.  These names are not meant to be derogatory, but descriptive and intended to convey meaning to the hearer.

The central character in these stories is Owen Archer, a Welshman who was captain of archers in service to Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, who is an historical character (1310-1361).  During a campaign in France, Owen lost the sight in his left eye, which limited his ability, in his opinion, to be an effective soldier.  Because of his partial blindness, Owen found it necessary to turn his head from side to side to better see everything around him.  For this reason Magda calls him Bird-eye.  In order to keep him in his service, the Duke saw to it that Owen was properly educated, taught to read and write, and then used him as a spy, a term that has a broader meaning than we would assign to it today. 

Before his death, the Duke of Lancaster suggested to John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, also an historical character (1305-1373), that he engage Owen as his personal spy.  Owen is actually an information gatherer and problem solver rather than an espionage agent.  Because of his age, the mystery surrounding him, and his flowing black robe, Magda refers to Archbishop Thoresby as Old Crow.

Who better to explain the character John Thoresby than the author, Candace Robb.  “When I cast John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, in the first Owen Archer novel, I did not expect to grow fond of him.  Now I sit here mourning him.  I’ve learned, through him, a drawback of writing about real historical figures their lives can end all too soon, before I’m ready to part with them.  Once he caught my heart, I dreaded the years ticking over towards his historical death.  He was one of those rare gifts to a novelist, a character who seemed to write his scenes.  From the beginning, he flowed from my imagination.  He was always reliable.”[ii]

Not surprisingly, Magda Digby expresses very similar impressions about Old Crow“She chuckled to herself.  John Thoresby had proven to be an unexpectedly complex man of quiet wisdom, surprisingly inspiring love.  She was honored that he trusted her to care for him [when he was dying] she had not expected to feel so.  She would mourn his passing.”[iii]

Another important character who is a frequent recipient of Magda’s wisdom is Lucie Wilton, an apothecary who marries Owen Archer after the death of her husband.  Lucie is the daughter of an English knight and a young French woman who was a war prize for the knight.  After her mother died, Lucie spent her early years in a convent until she married the master apothecary Nicholas Wilton, many years her senior, who had previously become enamored with her lovely French mother when he was a young apprentice and was ultimately responsible for her untimely death by an accidental medicinal overdose.  Magda knew the family during this time and was the midwife who delivered the baby Lucie.

The final character associated with Magda is a young girl named Alisoun Ffulford. Alisoun’s family died in the plague when she was eleven years old, and she later becomes Magda’s apprentice and learns to be a healer in her own right.

Magda’s Way of Knowing

You bring calm with you Dame Magda.  It is a gift.”
“Nay, it is a skill learned by observing, listening, trying, and discarding.  Thou couldst do the same.[iv]

Magda’s way of knowing can be conceptualized as tacit knowledge.  Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) believed that discovery was the most illuminating, significant part of science.  He believed that there was a subjective, intuitive aspect to discovery in which the discoverer perceived the particulars, but by employing skills learned over a long period of time was able to integrate these particulars into a fuller picture of reality and truth.  Hedisagreed with the logical positivist philosophers of his time who thought that science was simply verification and proof of explicit, objective facts.  At some point he began referring to this acquired skill as tacit knowledge.[v]  In the vernacular, it is knowing more than we can tell.

The following exchange with Alfred, Owen’s second in command, is an illustration of Magda’s tacit knowledge.  Magda simply knows more than she can explain to Alfred.  She’d learned long ago to heed such a gut-deep feeling.  Magda and Alfred are sitting close to the fire circle in her small hut, sharing a fish stew; he asks her about living on the river.

“Do you never feel too alone here, when the river rises round you?”
“Nay, then the Ouse is Magda’s protector, and her ears can rest easy.  Magda will notice sounds out of place.”
“Why do you live here?”
“It is home.  Magda can no more explain that than thou couldst explain why thou art so loyal to Captain Archer.”

Magda intuits that with Alfred here to protect her, Owen’s household is unprotected.

“Magda is worried about Dame Lucie and her household tonight.  Magda thinks they might be in danger.”
“Why do you think so?”
“A fair question, but Magda cannot satisfy thee with facts.  She fears this.  Strongly fears this.”
“That is good enough for me.”

In a similar vein, Magda says.

“Be patient, Bird-eye.  Alisoun will come to Magda or thee in her own time.”
“How do you know?”
“Some things cannot be otherwise, Bird-eye.”

Perhaps it is simply knowing in one’s gut.  Owen commentson Alisoun’s progress as a healer.

“Alisoun is maturing in your service.” 
“She is,” said Magda, a smile in her voice.  “She is a lesson in trusting thy gut about someone.  Magda doubted up here,” she tapped her head, “but believed down here,” she pressed her stomach.”

Developing tacit knowledge, like developing wisdom, takes time, but Magda is in no rush.  A year has passed since Archbishop John Thoresby died, but eleven years have passed since that book was published.  Magda is still seeing the particulars and integrating them into a whole picture, and she is still speaking in riddles.  She is comfortable with uncertainty, and I wonder if she knows the answer to her own riddles.

“Magda, how do you know?”
“Not the question, Bird-eye.  Open thine eyes.  Trust thyself.  The wolves circle their prey.  Thou hast the sight to see what awakens.  What do folks see when they see a wolf, Bird-eye?  The animal?  Think again.  Trust thyself, Bird-eye.  Thou art called.”

[i] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 166

[ii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, Author’s Note, p 281

[iii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 8

[iv] The Guilt of Innocents, © 2007, p 138

[v] Everyman Revived, The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi, Chapter 2 © 1985 Drusilla Scott.

[vi] The Guilt of Innocents, © 2007, p 116-118

[vii] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 27

[viii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 141

[ix] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 11


Thank you, Bob!

Watch for part II next week!

5 Comments on “The Wisdom of Magda Digby (part I)

  1. That whole article was a delight and I was once again transported to another time.i found myself nodding as I read on in agreement with all he said..I too started with The Apothecary Rose and and have read every book since.Every character in these books are interesting but Magda is special and something deep within us needs to reach out to her or for her to reach out to us fulfilling a need we cannot articulate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe Magda’s appearance and speech patterns may tell us something more about her character. I’m sure she’s very much aware that speaking in the third person and inventing nicknames for people does come off as extremely eccentric behavior. This means that at least, she doesn’t care about public opinion, and at most, she may be deliberately making use of this image. Namely:

    1) It makes sinister and dangerous people like Archdeacon Anselm underestimate her, so when they are around “the crazy old lady”, they’re more relaxed and their lips are more loose than when they are around Owen, for example;
    2) It repulses close-minded people who think in stereotypes, so Magda can be sure that she’s surrounded by the right kind of people who can look beneath the surface and don’t judge a book by its cover

    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting ideas, John! I love hearing how readers perceive her. Thank you!
      To my mind, Magda’s far too comfortable in her own skin to care how she is perceived–though she is keenly aware of people’s perceptions of her so that she knows which way the wind blows.
      But I’m just the writer; a book becomes each reader’s book, and that’s truly magical.


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