Since the ISIL attacks on Paris (and now speculation that ISIL beliefs inspired San Bernadino) brought the threat of religious motivated violence back into the western hemisphere, the question of corruption and its origin has been on the forefront of our collective minds. Corruption of values and purpose is the rot that overtakes the benign, like a moldy orange in a bag that spoils the bunch. Oranges can be rinsed in vinegar to help kill the corruption of mold spores, but cleansing the human consciousness of rot is tougher, especially when a tendency towards violence and cruelty has seeds in every human psyche, waiting for an opportunity to take root if we only have the chance or make the choice to allow it. Fears of corruption are rooted in our need to play out mental what-if scenarios: under what circumstances would I commit an atrocity? If I had been in Patty Hearst’s shoes, would I have willingly pointed a rifle at a scared teller?
Corruption taking root is exactly what has happened in Naomi Novik’s latest, Uprooted. Agneiszka, a 17 year old village girl with a penchant for messiness and wandering, lives in a valley bordered by a wood. The Wood is not a welcoming natural boundary though, it's possessed by something malevolent, a force that consumes people into the trunks of trees, turns people into conniving murderers, and slowly encroaches closer and closer to the village every day. Only a wizard known as the Dragon, who resides in a tower overlooking the valley, stands between Agneiszka’s friends and family and total devourment by the forest’s darkness. In exchange for his protection, the Dragon has one demand: a village girl to be his servant for ten years. Agneiszka’s friend Kasia is the obvious choice. She’s beautiful, brave, competent, and has been groomed for the role since she began to stand apart from the other, ordinary village girls. But Agneiszka isn’t as ordinary as she believes, and when the Dragon chooses her over Kasia, her confusion quickly turns to urgency when she realizes she was born with magical powers like the Dragon’s, and she will need to put them to use immediately to save Kasia and the village from the swelling forest.
Part of the forest’s corrupted power is in its ability to control the people it captures. The Wood can turn a pacifist farmer into an instigator of mob violence, or a quiet queen into a herald of war between countries. Loss of control to corruption is the Wood’s most frightening power, more so than its man-eating mantis bugs and killer wolves. As another wizard, Alosha, tells Agneiszka, “There’s something worse than monsters in that place: something that makes monsters.”
The threat of control, and loss of it, is a theme having a heyday not just on the news where we listen to stories of ISIL’s mastery of propaganda, but also on television shows like Jessica Jones where the big-bad, Kilgrave, is able to control the thoughts and actions of others, and in Grimm, where veterinarian Juliet loses herself completely to the control of a Hexenbiest, a spirit that takes root in a person's innate tendency toward cruelty and power. Grimm’s noble police Captain Renard also succumbs to outside control, when he’s possessed by the soul of Jack the Ripper and takes to murdering Portland sex workers. Captain Renard banishes Jack and regains control of himself, but is left to contend with what he did while under Jack’s influence. Juliet fights the power of the Hexenbiest at first, but soon its strength and invulnerability seduce her completely, and she commits atrocities against both her enemies and her friends that leave her with little chance of redemption.
(Warning: minor spoilers for Uprooted ahead).
The source of the Wood’s corruption in Uprooted also lies in the heart of a woman who was once a kind soul, but whose desire for revenge at the treatment of herself and her people becomes so overpowering it leads to the death and destruction of innocents for generations. When we see the Wood Queen before her corruption, when Agneiszka is given a glimpse into the past, it can be hard to fathom how a benevolent nature spirit fell from grace. But it’s the same story that those raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long been familiar with: humans started out good, were tempted into a bad choice (in the Wood Queen’s case, the temptation was heart break and vengeance), and then transform into someone unrecognizable. Even Lucifer was once an angel, just as Disney’s Maleficent was once a loving steward of nature. Novik’s Wood Queen and Disney’s Maleficent have a lot in common: using literal nature to show us the reality of our own inner natures, that it may only take a simple push to succumb to the darkness that already resides within ourselves. This is a theme fairy tales have been rehashing for centuries. Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods and meet a cannibal crone who devours children rather than nurture them, a subversion of traditional women’s roles. Little Red Riding Hood strays too deep in the forest and is consumed by the beasts she finds there.
Control becomes the driving power that Agneiszka and the Dragon will need to fight the Wood, but overcoming their ideals of how to exercise control pits them at odds with each other before they can make progress on saving their countrymen. While the Dragon prefers maintaining control of both magic and the Wood's threat with an iron fist, Agneiszka's powers are rooted in relinquishment to the beauty of nature, and a reminder that above every shadow is light.
Uprooted is an engaging addition to the long lineage of stories that fairy tales of being lost in the woods hale from, stories that ask how does corruption start, and how deep into the forest can we wander before we become unredeemable and can’t find our way out?