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Literature / Wise Child

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Wise Child is a Low Fantasy novel by Monica Furlong, published in 1987.

In a remote Scottish village, nine-year-old Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, a healer and sorceress, after the death of her grandmother. When Wise Child’s estranged mother, Maeve, a black witch, re-enters her life, the girl must choose between the more difficult but rewarding life of Juniper and the luxurious but empty life offered by Maeve.

But danger is imminent in the village, where the people are superstitious and ruled by the teachings of local priest Fillan, who denounces Juniper as a witch and a heretic for her outsider ways. In living with Juniper and undergoing mysterious tests and a trial of faith, Wise Child discovers the extent of her supernatural powers—and her true loyalties.

The first of the "Doran trilogy", followed by Juniper (1990) and Colman (2004), which serve as a prequel and sequel, respectively.


Tropes present in Wise Child:

  • Abusive Parents: Maeve is neglectful at best, having abandoned Wise Child for years prior to the novel and being cold and distant towards her during the brief time they live together again. At her worst, she is emotionally and physically abusive, having hit Wise Child at least twice in her childhood: once slapping her for mistaking a voodoo doll for a normal doll to play with and, another time, hitting her across the hand with a fire poker so badly that it left her with a scar.
    • Wise Child's uncle, Gregor, is implied to be this towards her cousins, as her aunt Morag is afraid of him and Colman was physically beaten by him.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: Exploited by Maeve to tempt Wise Child into leaving Juniper to live with her; one of the luxuries she promises her is a pony of her own. When Wise Child temporarily lives with her, she indeed receives the pony and names him Bran, then later uses him to escape when she discovers that Maeve intends to hurt Juniper with use of a wax voodoo doll.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Though Juniper cares for the villagers and always aids them when they consult her in times of emergency, they by and large distrust her and deride her as a Wicked Witch. This comes to a head at the end, when Fillan succeeds in turning them against her by blaming her for the famine and puts her on trial.
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  • All Witches Have Cats: Juniper is believed by the townsfolk, including Wise Child at the beginning, to be a witch, and she has two cats named Ruby and Pearl. They seem to serve no real magical purpose, however. The closest to it that it gets is that Pearl jumps on Wise Child's broom and accompanies her on her doran test, and it's implied she speaks, but it's not elaborated on.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Juniper is described as "darker-skinned" than the village folk, with brown eyes instead of blue. Her backstory is mentioned (and shown in Juniper), in that she originally came from Cornwall and was a princess there, but that's all.
  • The Baby of the Bunch: Wise Child was treated as such by her cousins during their childhood, due to her being the youngest and smallest. They were generally patient with her, but a notable time when they weren't was what led to her first meeting with Juniper (they left her behind on a walk home to teach her a lesson when she refused to walk and wanted to continue being carried, but Juniper found her and took her to them).
  • Burn the Witch!: Burning isn't involved, but otherwise played straight because it still involves persecution and death. Juniper is arrested, trialed, and threatened with execution after being scapegoated by Fillan and the villagers for the winter famine that beset the village. Without Wise Child and Colman's intervention, she would most certainly have been killed.
  • Cain and Abel: Not in the traditional sense, as they never come to blows (or interact in the story itself), but Fillan and Cormac are brothers and complete opposites in terms of morality and relationships with Juniper. Fillan is hateful, narrow-minded, and leads the persecution of Juniper; Cormac is gentle, soft-spoken, and is a friend to Juniper because she is the only person to treat him with kindness.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The fiery stone that Maeve gives to Wise Child as a present upon their reunion becomes important later, as it turns out to be able to summon Maeve to Wise Child's location, much to the latter's panic.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Fillan is an Irish priest who holds Mass every Sunday, and Wise Child, along with all the villagers, is Catholic and regularly attends.
  • Evil Redhead: Maeve is described to have long red hair, and is defined by being a cruel, abusive mother to Wise Child. Fillan, the antagonistic priest who despises Juniper, is also mentioned to be an Irishman with red hair.
  • Flying Broomstick: Wise Child undergoes a test as to whether or not she has the potential to be a doran like Juniper, which involves being given a hallucinogenic that grants her the experience of flying on a broom to a place that will someday be significant to her (in her case, the Great Glen in Brodgar).
  • Healing Hands: Juniper's power lies in her ability to heal and cure others, best shown when she somehow speeds up the healing of the cuts on Colman's legs and feet from walking up the cliffs barefoot to visit Wise Child at Juniper's house.
  • Idle Rich: After a week, Wise Child finds that this is her problem with living in Maeve's house. She has nothing to actually do when servants perform all the work, is left bored when not reading or riding her pony, and misses spending time with Juniper, especially because Maeve remains cold and unaffectionate towards her.
  • Irish Priest: Fillan is an Irishman and is the priest of Wise Child's village (noticeable because the rest of the people, save Juniper, are Scottish).
  • Kick the Dog: Maeve exiles a tenant and his family off of her land merely to teach the other tenants a lesson about complaining, and Wise Child notices all the people who live on her land are so poor that even the children are always working.
  • Low Fantasy: Qualifies as this in the sense that, save for Wise Child's Flying Broomstick test of character, no big magical events or spells occur in the otherwise ordinary medieval Scottish setting. Juniper's powers as a doran are vague and based mainly on healing and nature.
  • The Marvelous Deer: At the festival of Beltane, which Wise Child and Juniper go on a journey to attend, a stag approaches Wise Child and offers himself as a sacrifice as part of a ceremonial ritual, which involves it literally being crowned.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Wise Child has nine cousins, which is the main reason she can't go to live with her uncle and aunt after her grandmother's death—they are too poor to take in yet another child.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Cormac, who is hated and treated as an outcast by the village because of his leprosy, which is believed to be his punishment from God for being sinful. Wise Child initially shares the villagers' opinion, even throwing a rock at him when he comes to Juniper's doorstep to retrieve food that was left out for him (which Wise Child was unaware of), before she finds out Juniper has been caring for Cormac and treating his condition. Wise Child eventually befriends Cormac and learns of his past as Fillan's brother.
  • Nice to the Waiter: While living with Maeve, Wise Child befriends her personal servant, Jeannie, by sharing her breakfast with her. In contrast, Maeve dismisses her as "just a servant" when Wise Child mentions her as a friend.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Juniper is called such because she uses the plant often for her remedies. Her real name is revealed to be Ninnoc. This also applies to Wise Child, as her nickname is a teasing word for an Adorably Precocious Child that would be translated as "wise child" in English.
  • Opposed Mentors: The crux of the plot is based on the conflict of Wise Child's loyalties between her mentor Juniper and her mother Maeve, who are both sorceresses with very different paths. Juniper is hardworking, humble, and uses her powers to heal and care for the poor and sick; Maeve is wealthy, haughty, and uses her powers to live a luxurious life that serves only her own interests at the expense of the poor people who live on her land. Wise Child switches in living with either of them, and experiences both their lifestyles firsthand.
  • Parental Abandonment: Literally, in Wise Child's case. Her father is a sailor at sea and her mother left her, so she was raised by her grandmother. The one-two punch of being deserted by both her parents has given Wise Child something of an abandonment complex, and she takes it hard the first time that Juniper leaves her at the house alone to go on a brief trip.
  • Parental Substitute: Juniper becomes this to Wise Child, serving as both her mentor who teaches her about herbs and healing (in addition to subjects such as Latin, English, arithmetic, and sewing) and her much-needed mother figure, who listens to her, cares for her, tells her stories, and is unconditionally loving and accepting of her—all in contrast to Wise Child's biological mother, Maeve, who does none of that.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Wise Child was raised by her paternal grandmother while her parents were gone; her grandmother's death at the beginning is what leads to her adoption by Juniper.
  • Red/Green Contrast: Somewhat easy to miss because the descriptions are not immediate with each other, but Juniper and Maeve are enemies and Opposed Mentors to Wise Child, and are also described as being dressed in those respective colors. Juniper constantly wears red dresses and a ruby ring, and Maeve wears a dark green dress (doubling as a Redhead In Green because of her red hair).
  • Rich Bitch: Maeve is mysteriously wealthy enough to own a mansion and a vast estate of land on which serfs work for her, as well as a cruel, contemptible person and Abusive Parent to Wise Child.
  • Sinister Minister: Fillan is the village's priest and is the closest thing to a Big Bad in the book, as he actively stirs up antagonism against Juniper by preaching that she is evil. This comes to a head near the end, as he uses the winter famine to justify having Juniper arrested and blamed for causing the starvation.
  • Spoiled Brat: Wise Child is derided as this by the local village adults and her own cousins, due to having been raised with more food to eat and better clothes than them. The reality is more complicated, as she acts self-centered and bratty largely to hide her sadness and insecurity over being abandoned by both her parents (her father, Finbar, is a sailor always away at sea; her mother, Maeve, is abusive, neglectful, and only pays attention to her when she wants to use her for ulterior motives). Juniper is the only adult who understands this and shows her love, patience, and compassion as her Parental Substitute, which is vital to Wise Child's Character Development into a more mature and worldly person.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: It's imparted that "girls don't learn Latin" (quoted by Wise Child and Colman from her uncle Gregor) because it makes them unfit for marriage, and Wise Child is envious of Colman at the beginning because he gets to go to school to be educated, whereas she—being a girl—only went to a girls' school to learn spinning and sewing, which she hates.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Both Juniper and Maeve have weaving looms in their homes, and Wise Child singles out spinning and weaving (and textile work in general) as something she hates doing because it's "what girls do". Juniper also sews a dress for Wise Child to wear at Beltane.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Implied to be one reason (along with possibly her young age) why Wise Child initially has little memory of Maeve, and only remembers having been afraid of her. After she meets her again, Colman warns her not to live with Maeve because his mother Morag told him that Maeve had been a cruel parent. This comes up near the end, after Maeve is driven off by Juniper when she arrives to take Wise Child back with her, when Wise Child has a resurfacing memory of Maeve scarring her hand with a fire poker and breaks down because of the trauma associated with it.
  • Treasure Room: A prevalent rumor about Juniper is that she has caves full of jewels and gold under her house. This is untrue and the caves are just that, empty caves. While Juniper is out of the house, Wise Child and Colman's quest to find the rumored treasure when exploring them is what leads to Wise Child getting injured and having to be rescued. When Wise Child tells her about the rumor, Juniper asks why she would keep a hoard of gems all to herself when she could instead sell them to feed the starving children in the village.
  • Unbalanced by Rival's Kid: Subverted. After being taken in by Juniper, Wise Child later discovers that Juniper and her father had been in love, but her mother, Maeve, "persuaded" him that he loved her instead. Both mother and daughter think that Juniper took Wise Child in and works her to the bone due to this trope. Juniper later assures Wise Child that she bears her no ill-will (though she is understandably frosty about Maeve), that she loves her like a daughter and that she works her hard only because she believes Misery Builds Character.
  • Vain Sorceress: Heavily implied. Maeve is described often as being very beautiful and proud, and having many male admirers. She offers Wise Child the chance to be taught how to be beautiful like her and to be admired by men in the same way, insinuating she uses her powers for just that.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Wise Child and Colman fall into this at times, tending towards childish bickering and tackling each other on occasion. Justified as they're still children.
  • Voodoo Doll: Wise Child has a vague childhood memory of finding such a doll in Maeve's possession and being smacked by Maeve for trying to play with it. At Maeve's house, she discovers that Maeve made such a doll of Juniper and wrapped wire around the head; this is what gives Wise Child the final push to leave Maeve and return to Juniper, who turns out to be ill with a headache because of the doll. After Wise Child tells her about it, they bathe themselves in water infused with rowan leaves as protection against it.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: Wise Child is deeply tempted by Maeve's offer to come live with her and, after getting tired of the hard work and chores at Juniper's house, runs away to do just that. Actually living with Maeve proves to be far less exciting, as the freedom from chores means Wise Child is frequently bored and Maeve, unlike Juniper, is not loving or affectionate.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Wise Child's father, Finbar, is a sailor who is always away at sea and rarely returns, having left her in the care of his mother. This, combined with Maeve's abandonment, is all but outright stated to have given Wise Child deep-seated insecurities about feeling unwanted, which is why she initially behaves like a Spoiled Brat. They reunite at the very end after Wise Child and Juniper escape the village and reach the coast.
  • Wicked Witch: Juniper is widely rumored to be this and treated like one by the villagers because of her different way of living (she lives alone outside the village, uses her herbs for healing in a manner that seems magical, and does not attend church). She isn't one and is actually a doran, a person defined by living as one with nature, but it doesn't stop Fillan from exploiting the villagers' fears to turn them against her.
    • Maeve is a straighter example, as she seems to have powers of her own (she has numerous male admirers, is mysteriously wealthy with a large house and servants, is implied to have enchanted Finbar somehow to make him choose her over Juniper, and she gives Wise Child a magic stone that has adverse effects on her), but they are not explicitly shown.