The Mysteries (& Magic) of Writing

In an interview on the weekend Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel The Books of Jacob was recently published in the US, and moderator and fellow novelists Rabih Alameddine ended with an exchange about something dear to my heart. Rabih was asking about a phenomenon Olga mentioned in an essay regarding how, in the process of writing, “the world comes to help” (Rabih’s translation of the original in Polish). Rabih described it as a spiritual, mystical phenomenon. Olga, who is not only a Nobel Prize winning author but a practicing psychologist, said she considered it a psychological experience, although she could also see the mystical aspect. She further commented (translation): “I do believe that this process sharpens our focus and extends our consciousness. We perceive details that would not be perceivable in normal states of reality. I’m a psychologist, and the process of writing a novel is not very well understood and researched.” Rabih added that it’s an addictive state. Things happen that in a normal state would not work. Things happen to solve the writing problem. Olga agreed. So do I.

I was thrilled to hear this exchange because it’s something that has fascinated me throughout my career. This “help” manifests in myriad ways, but most recently it was the magic I think of as my subconscious embedding an idea in my writing that swims up into my consciousness when I need it. I’ve just submitted the manuscript of Owen Archer #14, A Fox in the Fold, and, from the beginning with my choice of a title, my subconscious knew what the book was about long before I understood.

I chose the title as a continuation of my trend of animals in the titles–A Conspiracy of Wolves, A Choir of Crows, The Riverwoman’s Dragon, A Fox in the Fold. I was not yet sure who was going to be the fox, but I had several candidates. None of whom became the quite obvious fox. One day, as I was coming up with a name for a character in the book I felt a little thrill; yet I wasn’t quite on board. Not yet.

Another example: Very early in the book I have Owen’s daughter Gwenllian tell a young man with a facial injury the story about her father’s scar. I meant it to convey the 10-year-old’s kindness as well as her pride in her father. Yet as the story developed I realized it pointed to the very heart of the tale.

Which I’d yet to figure out–that happened well into the writing of the book, about 2/3rds of the way through a draft, when it struck me that the person who had become central to the mystery might be significant to Owen. Could it be? Was this that person? I sat down and asked Owen what this book was about. His response made so much sense that I immediately began to revise the existing draft. Which is when I realized the significance of Gwen’s story.

I’ve many more stories like this–the choice of reading a book of fiction that is worlds apart from what I’m writing but jogs something in my mind that leads to reconsidering something in the work in progress, which then clicks into place and solves the puzzle of just what it is I’m writing. Or the tone of a film I’m watching for relaxation inspiring me to rethink the voice in which I’ve been writing. And on and on.

It’s so true. The world comes to help. But how? It’s such a mystery!

Many thanks to Third Place Books for hosting the book event with Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft, moderated by Rabih Alameddine. I haven’t yet begun The Books of Jacob, but I anticipate being as absorbed in it as I was her earlier book, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.


Just before Christmas the fabulous Nancy Pearl invited me to be on her program Book Lust. I enjoyed our conversation immensely. Nancy asks the best questions.

A Book Event & Fabulous Reviews for The Riverwoman’s Dragon

On Thursday, 11 November, at 6:00 pm PST, I will be in conversation with Patricia Bracewell on Facebook Live, sponsored by the Edmonds Bookshop. Here’s a link with all the information!
Pat & I are having fun planning a conversation & readings with an emphasis on the mystical aspects of our works (dragons, seers, ghosts, protected forest glades). You don’t want to miss this!

Of course, this is in celebration of the worldwide publication (in English) of The Riverwoman’s Dragon, in ebook & hardcover. If your local bookstore doesn’t have it, ask them why not!

Here’s a sampling of the accolades the book is receiving:

5 star review from Marlene Harris at Reading Reality! “…the burning heart – very nearly literally – of The Riverwoman’s Dragon is a witch hunt. So for this entry in the series the author has changed the point of view of the action from Owen Archer to the witch herself, the riverwoman Magda Digby. And what a fascinating story it is! … She’s a wisewoman who might just be a practitioner of real magic. Or might just be an old woman who has experienced a lot, shares the wisdom she has gathered in her long life, and just occasionally dreams that she is a dragon swimming in the river. That this particular question is never really answered feels like an integral part of her mystery. … And in the end, this one still manages to tie itself back into the long-simmering political crisis that is about to rear its ugly head, and to the events of the previous book in the series, A Choir of Crows. I enjoyed this entry in the series for the new insights it brought into a beloved character, its slightly different perspective on Owen Archer’s York, and for the way it echoed entirely too many 21st century crises by reflecting them into a past in which they fit just as well as they do today.”

Another 5 star on eyes.2c Reviews! “”Forever I’ve been fascinated by Magda Digby, the Riverwoman, her dedication, her wisdom, her insights… There’s movements within movements at work here. Greed, evil and death stalk the folk of York. A superb blend of mystery, pestilence and mysticism.”

Publishers Weekly called it “craftily plotted” and says “Robb effortlessly integrates details about the state of medical knowledge at the time through the characters of Magda and Owen’s apothecary wife. This is a highlight in a solid series.”

And Kirkus Reviews acknowledges: “Magda, who’s appeared in many of Owen’s adventures, is the rightful star of this tale of murder, betrayal, and superstition.”

I hope to see you Thursday!

The Wisdom of Magda Digby, Part IV

We come to the final installment of Robert Newman’s tribute to Magda Digby. With his permission, I’ve been serializing it as a prelude to the publication of The Riverwoman’s Dragon.

These are Bob’s thoughts, unedited by me. In this final section he collects some of the Magda moments I returned to as I wrote The Riverwoman’s Dragon. Happy reading!

About my guest: 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.

Wisdom in Teaching

In The Nun’s Tale, Lucie Wilton approaches Magda for advice on how to treat Joanna Caverly, a nun who had escaped from the convent and had been involved with several people who had been murdered and was herself traumatized by the experience.  Magda employs silences and asks questions not unlike a psychologist.  What makes her wisdom unique is her ability to lead Lucie to her own conclusions about how to approach Joanna, rather than telling her what Magda already knows — that what she would personally do in this situation is not what Lucie should do, or can do, so she must work around this dilemma. 

“Magda, you are the one who should speak with Joanna  You would plot a course to coax more out of her than I shall ever hear.”
“Oh, thou’rt such a bungler, indeed.  ‘Tis of course why the Old Crow and the Squirrel wish thee to speak to Joanna.”

Lucie paused.  The Old Crow, she knew, was the archbishop.  The Squirrel – ah! – Dame Isobel, with her chubby cheeks and fussy little hands.  Lucie learns from Magda’s metaphor. 

Magda asks Lucie, “What is the trouble with Joanna Caverly?”

“I had a dream last night…Joanna was a spider and I followed her as she wove a web.  I would begin to see a pattern, try to guess where she would move next, and I was wrong most of the time.”
“Did she finish the web in thy dream?  Was the web well-ordered?  What dost thou think it means?”

Lucy groaned, exasperated.  “I hoped that you would tell me!”
“Surely thou hast a thought or two, Master Apothecary?”
“I guess that Joanna knows what she is saying, that she deliberately confuses me.”

“A spider does not set out to weave an imperfect web.  Is Joanna a spider or a woman?  ‘Tis the trouble with dreams.  They seduce the dreamer with their seeming wisdom.”

Disappointed, Lucie said, “I must return to the abbey.”
Magda wagged a finger.  “Thou didst not come to Magda to talk of dreams.”

“What would you do with Joanna?”
“Thou art alert.  Thou hearest Magda’s silences.  Thou wouldst not take Magda’s advice.”
“Please, Magda, tell me.”
“Magda would leave the child in peace.”
“Ask her nothing?”
“And tell her nothing.”

When Lucie pleads for an answer instead of thinking for herself, Magda offers an allegory, not a direct answer; she knows tacitly that Lucie is ready to understand.  Magda is skilled at knowing who is ready to understand her and who is not.

“When storms blow down the Dales to Magda’s house, these old hands ache as a warning that the river shall soon rise.”
“You have a feeling it would be best not to know what happened to her.”
“But thou wouldst not abide by Magda’s feeling.  Nor shouldst thou.  Thy task is to learn her secret.  The Churchmen insist.”

Owen’s good friend Ned has escaped from York because he has been falsely accused of murder.  Owen finds him on the moors in a confused state of mind.  Magda again takes on the role of a psychologist, not answering his questions but skillfully leading him to think for himself. 

“Dagger-thrower is not himself.  It does not take a Magda to see that.  Thy friend has chosen his own way.  He is thy concern.”[2]

“Magda, is Ned telling me the truth about how he came to be here?”
Magda said nothing…

“You have nothing to say?”
“Nay.  ‘Tis not for Magda to tell thee whether or no thy friend can be trusted.  Thou canst judge for thyself.

The minstrel Ambrose, a friend of Pirate, has spent years in France and tells Owen that he has discovered that there are those in the English king’s household that are directed by the French court and are slowly poisoning the king’s son, Prince Edward, with small doses of mercury.  Owen asks for Magda’s opinion. 

“Would the symptoms the princess described support these claims?”
“Quicksilver is an inconstant healer.  It is possible Minstrel is right.  Trust him, Bird-eye.  He has no cause to lie to thee.  Nor would he come such a way to speak nonsense.

Magda, as a rule, is consistent in encouraging Owen to trust his own gut feeling but this time she feels he will benefit from direct instruction.  And she is clear in setting boundaries to her role ⸺ Owen is the detective, the seeker of answers, Magda is a healer.

“The Minstrel left much unspoken.  Thou art the one who gathers the threads and weaves the tapestry.  Not Magda.  Open thine eyes, Bird-eye.  Magda has told thee what she knows, but she is a healer, not the one to seek out the answers.  That is for thee to discover.”[5]

Magda Posits a Question About Tolerance

This next conversation with Owen caught me by surprise because it is not a subject on which I expected Magda to express an opinion.  But it certainly does reveal the depth and breadth of her spiritual understanding and attitude, and her wisdom about the nature of people.  But Magda does not presume that she has the answer, only that she has the question. 

“Thou hast a difficult role, Bird-eye.  Magda has ever sensed the weight of it on thy broad shoulders…Magda senses thou’rt sad about Michaelo as well.”  Before he could speak, she held a finger to his mouth.  “No, Magda understands.  Thou dost fear that he is not the redeemed soul thou hast believed him to be.  Hast thou ever thought that what Black Swan feels for men is simply his nature?  Nothing to punish him for.”

“God condemned sodomy.”

“Men wrote thy bible.  Men lead thy church.  Men create unnatural laws that cripple their fellow men so that they might control those they do not understand.  Thy church has made many such laws, and good men who serve thy church suffer for no good cause.  How different might Black Swan’s life have been if he had been permitted his love for men, Magda does not know.  The sin that brought him to Old Crow’s attention was about far more than carnal love.  He had given his power to a man who was consumed by hate [Archdeacon Anselm].  Hast thou looked into thy heart and judged him so harshly?  Or her, this woman thou didst once embrace?  Or dost thou merely fear thou wilt not be happy when thou dost discover the murderer?”

As Magda speaks to Owen she speaks as a friend and as a teacher.  She speaks gently while turning attention from Owen the spy to Owen the young man. 

She placed a palm on his eye patch.  “Thy wounding forced thee to look within.  Magda has seen thy hand fly up to thy wounded eye as if it has suddenly spoken to thee with a pain that has no source that thou canst detect.”

“I do feel something.  But what does that have to do with Brother Michaelo’s confession?  Or Lady Eleanor’s possible guilt?”

“Didst thou sense a lie in their words?  Gifts, skills, talents — they torment folks with riddles.  Thou must learn through practice, as thou didst learn to be an archer.  Thou’rt a good man, Bird-eye.  Courageous, true, and gifted with inward sight.  And if Magda had met thee when she was young, she would have done anything to share thy bed.”[6]

Aha!  We discover that Magda Digby is authentic in all she is, including her sexuality. 

A Final Riddle

The one thing that stands proud from the first book to the current last book in the Owen Archer series is Magda’s wisdom to observe silently, listen patiently, and speak carefully.  She does not believe her gift is supernatural, but how she knows what she knows remains clouded in mystery.  Owen asks Magda how she knew about Hoban’s murder.

 “Magda recognizes the signs, not how or why this or that is revealed to her.  She has no answers for thee, Bird-eye.  This is thy conspiracy of wolves.  Thou hast the charge, Magda merely warned thee.  Thy task.  Open thine eye.”  She tapped the place between his eyes, then pressed there.
“I don’t understand.  Had I the Sight I would have known what was to come.  I might have prevented Hoban’s murder.”
“Not fore-seeing, clear-seeing.  A gift to all who count on thy protection, Bird-eye.  Trust thyself.  Thou seest far more clearly than most.”
“A conspiracy of wolves — what did you mean by that?”
“That is for thee to discover.  And how thou must move forward.”
“You speak in riddles.”
“Thou’rt a riddle breaker.”

This is a riddle I have not been able to solve.  I have considered the possibility that Magda has a suspicion of who is actually responsible for the killings.  But I have learned that Magda is never quick to reveal what she knows.  Perhaps I just have to take her at her own word here ⸻ “Magda recognizes the signs, not how or why this or that is revealed to her.  She has no answers for thee, Bird-eye.”  Like Owen, I am left with a riddle.  Like Owen, I am being challenged to analyze, to seek answers.  And, like Owen, I am left to think for myself.  I suppose that I am apprenticed to Magda Digby, AKA Candace Robb.   


These references are included for those who have read the books, kept a copy on the shelf, and may want to discover the context in which these wisdom statements were uttered by Magda Digby.  I also found them to be necessary when I was composing this essay.

[1] The Nun’s Tale © 1995, p 170-173

[2] The King’s Bishop, © 1996, p 162-163

[3] The King’s Bishop, © 1996, pp 174

[4] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 63

[5] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 123

[6] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 198-200

[7] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 165


In rereading Robert’s last paragraph, I cannot resist saying in my mind, No, Robert, not “analyze,” then thou’rt leading thyself by the intellect. How canst thou seest a new idea when using what thou hast learned from others? Set aside effort and allow the answer to arise in thee. And then I smile, because I feel that I, too, am apprenticed to Magda Digby.

I am incredibly grateful to Robert for the love and care he poured into pondering Magda Digby’s wisdom, and in writing this beautiful essay. Let’s give him a hearty round of applause!

The Riverwoman’s Dragon, Owen Archer #13, is published 26 August 2021 in hardcover in the UK; 1 October in ebook worldwide; 2 November in hardcover in the US. Pre-order it from your favorite independent bookstore!

The Wisdom of Magda Digby Part III

I trust you enjoyed the first 2 installments of Robert Newman’s tribute to Magda Digby the past few weeks; with his permission, I am serializing it as a prelude to the publication of The Riverwoman’s Dragon (Owen Archer bk 13, published 26 August 2021 in hardcover in the UK; 1 October in ebook worldwide; 2 November in hardcover in the US). After today, there will be one final installment. These are Bob’s thoughts, unedited by me.

In this week’s sections, Robert touches on aspects of Magda Digby that I particularly appreciate: her kindness, by which I do not mean niceness, but a genuine wish to be gentle with people, never inflict unnecessary pain, yet being frank; and her skill in listening–as Robert notes: “How often do we ask too many questions and offer too many opinions when folk just want to talk?  How often do we stop listening when we’ve heard what we wanted to hear?” When I write a scene in Magda’s point of view, I am essentially being her, and, in doing so, I am inspired to be more like her. While writing The Riverwoman’s Dragon I’ve been making an effort to be kind and to listen deeply, and, I must confess, both practices are challenging, especially on Twitter–but I am reward by how much sweeter they make my world.

I hope you enjoy part III!

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.

Wisdom in Healing

When the eleven-year-old Alisoun finally comes to York seeking protection at the minster hospital because she fears her uncle, Magda explains to Owen why she is afraid. 

“All in her house died [of the plague] but Alisoun.  Mayhap they wonder how she came to be saved.  Fools oft see evil in good.”[i]

Not much escapes Magda, and it seems that many of her statements of wisdom are ever sitting on her tongue, ready to help those around her.  When Owen and Lucie have sent their children to a manor outside the city of York to protect them from the plague, Owen expresses doubts about having done so.  Magda gives sound advice regarding the decision.

  “Thou wast wise to send thy children out of York.”
“Was I?”
“Why dost thou yet debate thy decision?  ‘Tis done.”[ii]

I had a very good and wise friend who once told me not to reevaluate a past decision based on present knowledge.  A corollary is that a person must be granted the possibility that a decision they made in the past which now seems in error, may well have been the right decision considering the information available at the time.  Wisdom and tolerance are required here, Magda has both. 

When, in response to an inconvenient request, Alisoun, who has become Magda’s apprentice, rises and snaps her skirt.

“Have a care Alisoun.  Thou hast fire in thy eyes  and it is blinding thee.”[iii]

When Owen expresses concern that he is distracted from the task at hand by his anger, Magda offers her wisdom.  

 “Anger can cloud thy vision.  Remember that violence rises out of fear and pain.”[iv]

Again, she reveals her spiritual and earthy wisdom when her good friend Lucie Wilton is about to assist her with the amputation of a man’s badly burned arm.  Magda believes that a person’s strength comes from within themselves, and that they should acknowledge that.  Furthermore, she is able to see her role in healing from a perspective that many might overlook.

“Thou shouldst not be ashamed to admit thou canst not bear his pain.”
“It is not that.  I have never assisted with such a surgery.  But I believe God will give me the strength.”
“Thy strength comes from thee, not thy god.”[v]

“I could not do what you have just done.”
“Magda thought of the healing she was making possible, not the horror of the act.

Owen learns that Lucie Wilton’s apothecary husband Nicholas was taken in by religious visions told to him by Archdeacon Anselm when they were young boys.  Magda’s assessment of gullible folks like Nicholas is ⸻ “Soft eyes, soft head.  Soft-eyes is weak, not evil.” 

Magda explains her reason why Nicholas believed the Crow’s visions.

“Magda has watched folks crawl on bloody knees where their saints beheld visions, Bird-eye.  ’Tis powerful stuff for some.” [vii]

She has observed that many people who are devoted to the Church lose their common sense, a weakness that may lead them to make foolish decisions; they are not evil, but they are weak.  They are also not discerning when offered words couched in religious terms.  Not so for Magda Digby.  When a friar comes to Magda requesting her help with a pregnant lover, she resorts to humor, not judgment.

“And how wilt thou pay Magda. Eh, Dunstan?”
“Prayers said for your soul every day until I die.”
“Prayers of a sinful friar?  Even if Magda shared thy faith, she would not count thy prayers worth much.

And yet, Magda, in her spiritual wisdom does not dismiss all aspects of the 14th century Catholic Church, and does not dismiss the personal faith of others.  Alisoun explains this to the young nun Marian.

“What she believes is of no concern to me.  She encourages me to honor my beliefs.”[ix] 

Although Magda scoffed at prayer, she encouraged Alisoun to use her apprenticeship to develop her own skills as a healer, including her faith.  

“All that goes before shapes thee.  Even thy habit of prayer.  Magda honors that.”[x]

Magda is quite willing to discuss her hesitancy to accept Christian beliefs with friends like Owen and John Thoresby, but in her wisdom she understands that these are not topics to discuss with everyone.  On more than one occasion she had encouraged her apprentice in her beliefs, and she does so with the young nun Marian in A Choir of Crows.  She astutely knows when it is time to say no more. 

“Magda understands thou hast dedicated thy voice to prayers to thy god.  Is that so?”
“You speak as if you are not a Christian.”
“Magda honors all creation, and lives to serve.  Such a voice as Minstrel describes is not to be neglected.  Thou must care for such a gift.”

Marian took the bowl Magda offered to calm her and drank it down.
“My eyelids feel heavy.  You swore no spells.”
“Magda uses the earth’s bounty to heal.  No more, no less.  We are of earth.”
“Our bodies, yes.  But not our souls.  They are of God.”

This touched Marian’s fear [so] Magda did not argue, but changed the subject“A bit of broth now?  To nourish thy body.”[xii]

WhenMagda realizes Marian can not accept her comment, she knows there is no need to discuss this further.  Spirituality for Magda does not include, nor does it depend on religious dogma.  Furthermore, it is not exclusive so she is able to acknowledge another’s alternate conclusions and decisions.

Wisdom of Discretion

When we first encounter Magda Digby in The Apothecary Rose, Owen Archer is investigating the mysterious deaths of two men who died in a similar manner in the minster hospital.  Rumors about one of the men lead Owen to Magda; he is surprised by her lack of curiosity. 

“You did not ask my name.  Or the name of the woman who told me of you.”
“’Tis better not to know the names.  Get thee gone Bird-eye.  Magda does not need thy kind.”

Not only knowledge, but also the art of listening and observing, seeking and offering a limited amount of information is at the heart of Magda’s wisdom.

“Say only what thou must.  Thou art here to listen.  Thou art a healer, not a spy.”[xiv] 

“Thine opinion is naught but interference.  If thou wouldst care for her again, do what she asks and no more.[xv]

When talking with the young nun Marian, Alisoun recalls Magda’s instruction to listen and be patient.  

Alisoun almost dare not breathe, recalling that Magda would say,Continue with them as thou hast begun.  Do not stop at the fact that thou didst hope to hear.  A deeper truth may follow.  Listen as long as thou canst.”[xvi]

Magda is not only able to hold her tongue, but she has an innate ability to observe and to reason out what her observations mean.  Owen is attempting to locate Jasper, a young boy who witnessed a murder and has gone into hiding.  A possible resource in the search for the boy is a man named Martin Wirthir.  Magda knows much of what goes on in and around York, so Owen asks her about Wirthir. 

“You know Martin Wirthir?”
“Aye, Magda thinks she knows this man.  Pirate is what she calls the rogue.  Sounds like him.  Watches out for Jasper, though he’s not so good at it, being in hiding himself.”
“Who does he hide from?”
“He has come to Magda because she does not ask such questions.”

 “Why do you call him Pirate?”
“’Tis something about him.  What does such a man, not a weaver, want in York?  Magda asks herself.  And why does he hide?  Ah, she thinks, perhaps he smuggles the wool that the King wants to steal from the merchants for his war.”

But after telling Owen what she has surmised about the man, she turns the focus back onto Owen.

“Thou art clever in thy bones, Bird-eye.  Thou hast put much together.”[xvii]

How often do we ask too many questions and offer too many opinions when folk just want to talk?  How often do we stop listening when we’ve heard what we wanted to hear?  How much self-discipline and control of one’s tongue is required to do what Magda does?  Not much escapes her. 

[i] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 186

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

[iii] The Guilt of Innocents, © 2007, p 156

[iv] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 143

[v] The Cross-Legged Knight, © 2002, p 29

[vi] The Cross-Legged Knight, © 2002, p 32

[vii] The Apothecary Rose © 1993, p 177-179

[viii] The Lady Chapel, © 1994, p 86

[ix] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 139

[x] A Conspiracy of Wolves © 2019, p 2

[xi] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 119

[xii] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 121

[xiii] The Apothecary Rose © 1993, p 55.

[xiv] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 5

[xv] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 9

[xvi] A Choir of Crows, © 2020, p 140

[xvii] The Lady Chapel, © 1996, p182


Look for the final installment next week!

The Wisdom of Magda Digby Pt. II

I trust you enjoyed the first part of Robert Newman’s essay last week; with his permission, I am serializing it as a prelude to the publication of The Riverwoman’s Dragon (Owen Archer bk 13, published 26 August 2021 in hardcover in the UK; 1 October in ebook worldwide; 2 November in hardcover in the US). These are Bob’s thoughts, unedited by me. As you can see, that was a comfortable decision on my part–he’s a beautiful writer.

Note to the wary: You will notice that these sections quote primarily from the tenth book in the Owen Archer series, A Vigil of Spies. If you have not yet reached that point in the series, rest assured that although you will learn about Magda Digby’s friendship with Archbishop Thoresby in his last days you will not find spoilers about the crime investigation in the novel.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Happy reading!

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.

Wisdom in Believing

Owen noticed that Magda stood quietly, eyes closed, one gnarled hand clutching the opposite wrist.  She did not pray, so she always said, and yet her stillness suggested a state, if not of devotion, then of concentration.[i]

After leaving Alisoun at the farm following the burial of her family, Owen and Magda head back to York in a boat, rowing down the River Ouse.  She offers Owen a drink from a small bottle and the conversation turns to Church dogma.

“Was a time thou wouldst accept naught from Magda, Bird-eye.”
“Perhaps I was not so thirsty then.”
“Magda would give much to know what calls back the manqualm from time to time, Bird-eye.  Thy priests say ‘tis the scourge of thy god, punishing thee for thy unholy ways.  Mayhap ‘tis why Magda survives.  She is invisible to thy god.”

Although Magda lives a saintly life, she is not a Christian and finds the Church’s teachings to be poor, superstitious excuses for common sense.  Owen has grown to trust her as a friend and values her perspective that is free of fear imposed by Church dogma.  Magda poses a question.

“But how do thy priests explain the death of infants, Bird-eye?”
“To my mind it is the parents who are punished by such a death, Magda, not the child.  I have heard it said that such a child was too good to live; God chooses to take such children directly to heaven so that the world might not taint their souls.”
A snort.  “So thy god leaves only the unworthy on earth?  Bah!”
“We cannot always know the Lord’s purpose.”

Magda wagged her head.  “Thou art not taken in by such nonsense.”[ii]

Owen feels uneasy about agreeing with Magda so he gives a simplistic, conventional answer.  Having made her point about the weakness of his argument, Magda changes the subject. 

Wisdom in Friendship 

Magda’s conversations with Archbishop John Thoresby during the last few days before his death provide insight into her humanity.  It was an unlikely friendship between a healer and an archbishop of the Church.  Magda was a pagan as far as Thoresby could decipher, though she gave of herself and her services in a most Christian way.  And yet he had decided he wanted none other than Magda caring for him at the end of his life.  He had come to believe that her good works far outweighed those practices he felt he must disapprove of as a leader of the Church.  He had come to trust her as a friend.  Thoresby wants Magda to understand his status in the realm so he explains the role of the Church in the political machinations of England.

“You realize that the Church of Rome is more powerful than any individual kingdom?”
“Magda is aware that churchmen use fear of terrible suffering after death to control most of her countrymen.  That has been sufficient understanding of thy power for Magda’s purpose.”

Thoresby explains how the Church affects not only Catholics but also controls immense wealth and influences the politics of the realm, but she is not impressed.

 “This does not sound spiritual to Magda.”
“No.  If the pope and his archbishops are carrying out their duties, they have little time for the spiritual life.”

Thoresby is embarrassed by this interchange but Magda is not.  She chuckles at the disparity between the two of them.

He was embarrassed by this admission and it was then that he’d realized he had revealed his spiritual poverty and that he’d sought out Magda not just as a healer but also as a spiritual guide, sensing in her a depth of soul that he no longer found in himself.[iii]

These pages tell us there is much more about these two very different people than initially meets one’s eye.  Each must make changes to their initial impression of the other.

Strange Old Crow, Magda thought, as she glanced at the finery in the chamber and she in her gown of multi-colored rags in charge.  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 she had not expected to feel so.  She would mourn his passing.[iv]

Magda is comfortable in the company of Archbishop Thoresby despite their belief differences, and he is comfortable with her presence in his last days because there is no malice in her, and she is therefore able to comfort him.  There is trust and intimacy revealed in Thoresby’s responses to Magda.

 “Dame Magda?”
“Magda is here.” 

Thoresby tugged at the curtains of the bed.  “I would have some light.”  The small, elderly woman drew aside the curtain, standing on tiptoes to tug it wide.  She helped him sit up.  She smelled of smoke, spices and earth, a not unpleasant combination.

“Art thou thirsty?  Fear dries the throat, eh?”
“How did you know?”
“Thine eyes.”

He reached for her hand and she, in turn, firmly grasped his, her warmth and strength flooding up his arm to his heart. 
“God resides in you.”
“Thou hast strange ideas.  Rest thine eyes whilst Magda mixes a soothing powder for thy wine.” 
“I was imagining myself climbing the tree to die,” he admitted to her before he let go of her hand.”
She asks him, “Hast thou ever thought to take thine own life?”

Thoresby paused.  He never answered her questions thoughtlessly.  There was something about her that inspired him to search deep within for his answers.  He believed that, in doing so, he learned much of value. 
“No.  I cannot recall a time when I despaired of finding a way out or grasped at death as an acceptable solution.”
“Magda thought not.”

Magda opens up to Archbishop Thoresby in a way she has never revealed herself before, wise but imperfect.  True Magda.  Thoresby makes a request.

“I have opened my heart to you about my daughter.  Now I would learn something of you.  Why do you speak of yourself as Magda, not I?  It is as if you are outside yourself.  I don’t understand.” 
“Magda Digby once forgot that her gift as a healer was for all folk, not only those she thought worthy folk.  She forgot that her opinion must count as naught, that she must step aside from herself.  I is not for a healer.”
“You neglected someone?  Refused them healing?”
“Much to Magda’s shame.”

“I have conjured bad memories.  Forgive me, my friend.  I would say you have long since made reparation for your very human error.  You are remarkable for holding to such an ideal.”
“Magda is not remarkable.  She is merely a vessel for healing, and she had not surrendered her pride as completely as she should have.”
“Our duty is difficult to know, Dame Magda.  I doubt that many of us ever fully understand our purpose, and, if we do, few of us have the courage to embrace it without occasional rebellions.  Even Christ questioned God’s purpose in the suffering he was about to endure.”
“Magda is glad to hear that this man thou callest a redeemer was not cursed with perfection.”

In anyone else, such irreverence would make him uneasy.  Perhaps it was that he sensed no malevolence in her.”[vi]

In his last moments, Thoresby lay back against the cushions and reaches for Magda’s hand. 

“Have you thought of what I might leave to you, my friend?”
“The memory of thy friendship will be most precious to Magda.”  
After a last shuddering breath, he was still.  Magda gently closed his papery eyelids and offered her final words, “May thou rest in peace, Old Crow.  May thy God embrace thee.”[vii]

[i] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 23

[ii] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 25-27

[iii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 3-6

[iv] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 7-8

[v] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 169-170

[vi] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 171-172

[vii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 279


Watch for part III next week!

The Riverwoman’s Dragon is available for preorder online and at your independent bookstores. Thank you for reading!