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Seren of the Wildwood coverWhen a poetry collection opens with an epigraph from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” and a quote from Genesis about giants, I know I’m in for a good time. And that’s what I could call Seren of the Wildwood by Marly Youmans, published in 2023 by Wiseblood Books: a roaring good time. From clever passages that made me laugh, to startling scenes rendered in beautiful, compelling poetry and stunning artwork that was sprinkled through each page, Seren of the Wildwood is a great read for a Saturday afternoon when you don’t want to deal with the typical Netflix search or TV screens.

But Seren of the Wildwood is also more than a mere entertaining jaunt through a secondary fantasy world; it’s a clever feminist reinterpretation of fairy stories by a poet who has made this type of reinterpretation her life’s work. Before Seren of the Wildwood, Youmans published numerous retellings or beautifully redone epics in poetry. Each one of her books’ covers—including the artwork for this collection—brings together her ideas and protagonists, as well as giving us an impression of the familiar-yet-strange world her characters inhabit. The lines and drawings are often crudely done to mimic older styles, yet what each illustration depicts is complex—just like Youmans’s poetry.

After the epigraphs for Seren of the Wildwood, we still don’t yet get to Seren, our protagonist and main speaker; Youmans is toying with us, making us lean in closer like we would around a storytelling fire. She also harkens back to older fairy stories by placing a “Prolegomenon” at the beginning, rather than simply stating, Once Upon a Time. Instead of hearing our protagonist’s voice, we have Wren, someone we will later understand better, who introduces us to this world: “The wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch—the rituals of demon tribes” (p. 1).

Admittedly, the first few lines of the first poem didn’t impress me. The language was good and energetic, but the plot seemed pretty standard: girl alone in the woods, one who must hide from the demons who lurk:

Through every cranny of the wildwood realm,
And when they may, they catch the innocent
To hoodwink girls or torment heedless boys (p. 1)

Which in my mind translates to: Girls, don’t walk alone at night. And that is always the mirror-image consequence of boys-will-be-boys. Alas, I felt like I’d read this before, though I’d never come across Youmans’s work before. But after this new beginning, a sort of “once upon a time in the Wildwood,” Wren’s true voice as the narrator suddenly becomes visible/audible: “Enough. /  I’ve said too many things” (p. 1). From there the final stanza is completed, and we are plunged into the story once again—but now without Wren. Or answers. Only now could I sense sufficient difference—and magic in that difference—that I wanted to be pulled along into this secondary world.

The story of Wildwood is told in structured verses with a standard rhyming scheme and a variation in line length at their ends. The rhyming and predictability of the structure is, of course, meant to reference the older fairy stories, including those of Spenser and Shakespeare. Indeed, calling the love interest of the story “Ariel” is a direct reference to The Tempest—though here, the witchy figure of Ariel will eventually disappear and leave our protagonist Seren alone with a child).

Other fairy-lore Youmans draws on is rooted in Tolkien’s fantastic essay about the fairy story itself. It’s from this essay that we derive the understanding that fantasy literature must take place in a "secondary world.” The secondary world is a concept that we as audiences have become familiar with through Middle Earth and other famous fantasy locales, but one that has always been mysterious and unnamed in fairy tale stories told by old wives (and then collected in compendiums written by men). The wood of a fairy tale is rarely named—it is always local, always all woods—but in Youmans’s work, she names it. Wildwood is now the secondary world, and, by leaning on Tolkien at the beginning, she primes the reader for believing this to be a typical fairy-capture story. (Nevertheless, once I reached the end of this novel, I was more in love with Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” than I was with any version of Return of the King—and I think Youmans may feel the same way.)

Wildwood is the place of Seren’s descent into the fairy world, but instead of ending up in the Seelie Court or other fantasy landscapes, she ends up meeting people like Ariel—and also Lia, a previous woman captured, and eventually Wren, her savior and friend. Even as she meets Wren, however, this mysterious figure gives several different names (“Seult—it’s all the same— / Or call me Emelynne, / Celestria, Yvaine” [p. 53]), noting that Wren was a moniker from her childhood. There is a sense that Wren is all women in this way; she is all of those lost in the fae realm, taken advantage of, and then stripped of names, legacy, and past.

But since Wren is also the other woman of the wild woods, and Seren’s next-door neighbor, we suddenly see contrasts we’d never have seen under the male gaze of Ariel (or Tolkien). The wilderness these women live in together can be ruled by them; it is no longer dangerous but truly wild and fun. Their survival—especially Wren’s for such a long time in these fairy realms without being fae herself—demonstrates that it is possible to live freely, without men. Wren is the witch who should cause trouble in this type of story, the typical evil woman placed into a fairy story so that we venerate the good girl even more. But in this case, it is Ariel, Seren’s love interest who disappears and leaves her with a child, who is the villain.

Even without untangling all these cultural knots, the Wildwood, as I quickly found out, is still made of fairly standard stuff, just with a new person behind the enchantment. We still have the deep, dark woods, changelings, mountain ash trees, and magical fruit served in feasts. Once again, everything seems a pretty standard telling of a girl alone in the woods, “hoodwinked” into loving a boy—until this line: “Yet what Good are words of a girl / Against a coil of plot / Against an Ariel, / Against a braided knot?” (p. 21)

I stopped reading. I got chills.

This phrase still lingers with me because I knew at this point that all other references, all other changes to a typical fairy story, would be deliberate. Would be clever. Would be feminist and, oh, so lovely. What good is a girl against a plot? Oh, a girl’s chances against a plot—that of happy love and marriage, especially in the fairy realm—are limited. Seren meets those limitations head-on, and Youmans describes them with tender reverence and soul-sucking violence. The braided knot is marriage—to tie the knot—but it’s also a rope for hanging and binding. A Gordian knot, one which needs to be sliced in order to be free. It’s here, then, that the work changes, and we break away from all tropes, and we rewrite the story of being wild in the woods. And Wren, our ever-present first guide, is the lynchpin of all this.

Fear is present in these changes—how can a young girl not be afraid when she is alone and pregnant in the woods?—but there is also a stark wonder, a presence, and a friend: Wren returns with “a linen apron lashed around her waist / Her hair in braids up-coiled into a crown” which allows her to appear before Seren as “welcoming” and someone who “knew / Her many years before and was made glad / To see her face again, grown older now / But showing features of a treasured child” ([p. 53]). In short, when Wren shows up again, Seren is not alone—but she is also recognized. By meeting someone else, she becomes more herself. A line to a past is established, and though Seren has forgotten her siblings and parents, Wren grounds her in these destabilizing woods and the even more destabilizing process of birth.

Wren is also someone with braids, someone who can untangle all the lessons and storylines we have seen from the past, literally and figuratively. It is only Wren that can save Seren from the Wildwood’s dangers, but it is also only Wren who has simultaneously saved us as the reader from the previous tropes on which we may rely, like a bad pathway in the woods. As Tolkien points out in “On Fairy-Stories,” the word “trope” literally means a pathway. Often worn down, it is those turns in a story that we repeat again and again, like the girl pregnant in the woods by the fae, left to fend for herself. But with Wren, with this forest, with this particular tale, we know the ending will be different. The pathway is different. The “trope” has been taken—a little bit—but we are going to come to a fork.

And so, we keep reading, so we might find a different way out altogether.

Youmans’s use of Wren is in this way both stunning and smart. She has, with those initial quotations, already primed the reader for the story they are about to experience, plunging them into a fairy world of the Wildwood at the focal point of your typical young (and oh-so-naive) girl, who does what any girl does when she meets a cute, supernatural boy. Eventually, yes, she gets knocked up and left alone in the fairy realm. And she will later lament that her Ariel-man is a demon because he has disappeared and left her alone. She laments in poetry, and then Wren laments with her.

But what might have been be a Twilight-esque poem about the trickiness of men—or a standard chivalry narrative—now, with the entrance of Wren, turns out to be an epic adventure told from the perspective of a wronged girl who, even in the fairy realm, actually finds her true power and a true friendship.

It’s the second half of the collection that comes alive with this visceral new presence, this sharp voice that introduces us to this renewed world, and for several poems it is Wren who is the real star of Wildwood. Her poetic voice is strong and cutting, with sharp edges like the sharper images that accompany her prose. Yet her presence is not mean or violent like Ariel’s. She can’t be—not when it is her, during the agony that “split” (p. 56) Seren as she gives birth, who holds her hand. It is Wren who ushers Seren through all of her magical initiations, something that was desperately needed as Seren had been in nothing but “liminal” (p. 12) and dangerous states before.

Of course, there is a way that the birth of this child threatens the peaceful union established in the heart of the story. After all, it’s this part in all fairy stories where the woman disappears: her plot is over, now that her own happily ever after occurs.

But not in Youmans’s Wildwood.

Seren is stronger than ever after her birth—thanks to Wren, but also thanks to the monstrosity of her own child. He is a boy, but not just any boy; he is a large “Tempest-tossed” child who seems to take over their lives with his tantrums and “mad fits” (p. 59). The child’s intensity is also emphasized through the drawings that accompany the verse. At the beginning of this tale, the illustrations are standard fare, designed to establish a secondary fae world in the woods. By the time we reach Wilkin’s birth, however, the illustrations are more vivid: here he is, a giant, ripping out carrots from the earth. This child proves to be distinctly not the future in this world, however, and this further reversal in the typical fairy story allows for Seren to remain herself, next to Wren.

When this adventure ends—as they always do—it is Wren who Seren remembers most of all. Other characters are referred to as mere “lady” or “him” (p. 72); only Wren is given a name. The wild nights of the woods are over—but Wren, and her image in that fairy story, will remain.

And this poetry collection, too, is worth remembering. Seren of the Wildwood builds on the past epics from which the epigraphs are drawn, but fundamentally twists the narrative structure so that the hero is the girl—and this time saves herself. Youmans’s collection becomes in this way a clever and entertaining jaunt through a fairy world that is both familiar and completely brand new.

Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. She likes forensic science through the simplified lens of TV, and philosophy through the cinematic lens of Richard Linklater. Find more information on
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