Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Red Robed Priestess



Elizabeth, whom I refer to as LL LFC (long lost long found cousin) is resident at High Valley Farm in New York State. She is a writer, a poet, a counsellor and a singer. She is also a most gracious stalkee!

I happened on Elizabeth in a moment of vanity. “Oh an author named Cunningham? She is bound to be good”. That moment changed my life. The Maeve Chronicles are the only books which I have read more than twice (4th time and counting). I have become close to evangelical about recommending these books everywhere I go!

The books chronicle the life of the glorious Maeve, a feisty redhead Celt who is the Magdalen and twin soul to Jesus. In allowing Maeve a voice in these four books, Elizabeth has bought to life and archetype of he wild feminine so sorely missing in our 21st century world.

Maeve is feisty, sexy, irreverent, powerful and flawed. And for those of us hungry for another dimension to what it is to be woman, Maeve is deep nourishment for the soul.

As part of the celebration of the release of the Red Robed Priestess, the last book in the Maeve Chronicles, Elizabeth kindly offered me the chance to read and review it here.

In the Red Robed Priestess, Elizabeth brings Maeve back to Pretannia. Back to meet her long lost child. Back to face those who punished her. Back to her home.

Of course I leapt on the chance Elizabeth offered. But when this beautiful book arrived, I felt trepidation. Knowing this was the last book with Maeve meant saying goodbye and that was difficult to do.

To quote the Red Robed Priestess;

“It is strange to know when a goodbye is final. It is a gift.”

Here is my interview with Elizabeth

Thank you Elizabeth for offering me this chance – to read the Red Robed Priestess and review it here.

What is your favourite part of the book?

First, thank you dear LL LF cousin for embracing that moment of entirely sensible vanity and for being the sweetest, most supportive stalker an author could have. Every writer should be so lucky! And as I am sure everyone here knows, Jane is a brilliant artist, writer, and human being. So do stalk her!

Oddly enough I think one of my favourite parts in the final battle scene, which I so dreaded writing. I like it not because of the blood and guts but because of the between-the-worlds way Maeve experiences the battle, how she sees and feels it from every point of view.

I also enjoyed her time on Mona (Anglesey) the Druid Isle with friends she has not seen since they were teenagers. Those friends, once first formers, are now venerable druids, and yet still the same people. That is one of the gifts of writing from the perspective of someone older.

This might be a good place to say that though I wrote Maeve’s story chronologically, the novels can be read in any order. I worked hard to make sure that each novel can stand alone. The last can be first and the first last!

Maeve has taken part of my heart. In the Red Robed Priestess, as in all of the Maeve Chronicles, Maeve is a flawed but honest heroine. What do you think it is about Maeve that means people connect with her so deeply?

First, I have to tell you (with a smile) that when people refer to Maeve as a flawed heroine, as more than one person has, she says, “Flaws? What flaws!” Which may, in fact, be one of her flaws. She is self-confident to a fault. I suspect people connect with her because Maeve is not seeking perfection or enlightenment or some pure spiritual state. She is real; she is passionate. She loves hard and forgives easily. She does not expect perfection from others, either—which is why she can love someone like Paulina, the spoiled woman who enslaves her in The Passion of Mary Magdalen. She can also fight with people she adores, as she does with Jesus, and insist on the same emotional honesty she offers. For someone like me, who from childhood understood God to be demanding impossible moral perfection, Maeve is a breath of fresh air, a bracing, down-to-earth, liberating friend.

In this book Maeve returns to her home in Britain. You write as though the mountains of England are made of your bones. Was there a sense of home coming when you travelled there to research the book?

The British Isles have always seemed familiar and home-like to me. Most of my ancestors came from there, and the clergy line not so long ago. Also I was an English major and was raised on children’s stories by authors like the Anglo-Irish CS Lewis and English E Nesbit. Of course at one time I read all of Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy Sayer’s mystery novels. Onsite research has been important for all the novels. How else would I have known that there is mica in the rocks and soil surrounding the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus? For Magdalen Rising and Red-Robed Priestess, Dwynwyn’s Isle, a real place, was something I only could have discovered on foot.

In the preface you say “There were times when I sorely wished I had not entwined Maeve’s life with Boudica’s, for this story has demanded that I stretch my imagination and heart beyond where I thought I could” What were the challenges of writing about an historical figure like Boudica.

It was challenging to write about Boudica not because she is a historical figure but because her story is so tragic. It involves war and atrocity—atrocities committed not only by the Romans but by Boudica herself. More than Maeve, Boudica is a flawed and tragic heroine. I had to depict her courage and charisma as well as the unhealed wounds that drove her sometimes to near madness.

In the Red Robed Priestess, Maeve talks about the compression of time being dizzying. Maeve’s life is set in the time of Christ and this book is set in Roman Britain, can you talk about how you manage to take us there so convincingly?

Maeve speaks both from her own time and beyond time. We, her twenty-first century readers, are her long-awaited audience. She knows what would be familiar and what would be strange to us, when to explain something and when to evoke memories that live in our cells.

The above makes it sound as though the book is channelled, and it is not. My relationship with Maeve is a partnership, and I work hard at my craft. Throughout the writing, I was daunted by the idea of depicting the first century, including all sorts of things I have never experienced firsthand—like battle! I did a lot of research, scholarly and onsite. In the end, it is the power of the imagination that amazes me, that is a mystery. Because I am human and Maeve is human, I can enter into her perspective. What I don’t know she can tell me, my imagination can tell me. We all know more and less than we think we do.

Maeve is challenged, in the Red Robed Priestess, by the “truth”, a story being true if it is well told and the truth setting us free. What did these books teach you about the truth?

Questions about the nature of truth run through all The Maeve Chronicles. In Magdalen Rising, Maeve’s eight mothers, who originate the saying “a story is true if it’s well told,” spin wonderful tales about Maeve’s mythic paternity. It does not trouble them or Maeve that there is no one literal version. She has an innate grasp of poetic truth. As it turns out, Maeve’s mothers are also spin masters. There is a not-so-pretty truth about her father that they obscure. Later Maeve stumbles upon that truth, and it nearly destroys her and indeed sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Red-Robed Priestess.

Of course Maeve falls in love with someone who mystifies her with his belief in one God, one Story, one Truth. Just before his death, Jesus proclaims: “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth heed my voice.”

In Bright Dark Madonna, Maeve makes a deal with Peter, accepting that her own truth will be edited from Jesus’s story in exchange for keeping her child (whom the apostles are determined to take/save from her). When she later tells Jesus’s story and her own story to their daughter she edits out some of the harsher aspects, and later comes to grief for these omissions.

In Red-Robed Priestess, the now adult daughter of Maeve and Jesus challenges her mother just before her reunion with Boudica, “Are you going to tell her the truth or one of your stories?”

In terms of what I learned in the writing, I would have to say, I am on the side of truthfulness and equally on the side of truth expressed through story. Some fundamentalists once asked me if I felt guilty for writing fiction about what they considered to be Biblical truth. I answered, “There are four Gospels, each different from the others, one dramatically so, written with different intent to reach different communities. They are more like novels and histories.” Needless to say, that answer did not go over well, but I stand by it. Even when we are not writing fiction, when we are conveying what we consider to be fact, we are ordering those facts, shaping a narrative. It is inevitable. It is human. To be truthful, we need to be humble, to admit that we don’t know the truth is some abstract or absolute way. Our best check and balance is rigorous truthfulness with ourselves.

In the Red Robed Priestess, Maeve and her two daughters are explored as strong multilayered women. Do you feel their appearance in your imagination, and then into the book is linked the rise of feminine wisdom in the western world?

There have always been strong, complex female figures in literature as there have always been strong, multi-layered women. But only comparatively recently (in western literature) have women had the means to create and define those characters themselves, to write the story in their voice, from their point of view. In spite of the success of Jane Austen a generation or so earlier, the Bronte sisters published under male pseudonyms. That’s less than two hundred ago!

In our lifetime, we have witnessed the reawakening of longing for and celebration of the divine feminine. That longing woke in me before I knew there was any sort of a movement. I wrote about the spontaneous re-emergence of the goddess in my novel Return of the Goddess, a Divine Comedy. Writing that novel connected me with others on the same path. After a few years of exploration, I found I was missing an incarnate human goddess. I did not see why Jesus should be the only deity with beautiful bare (and sometimes quite dusty) feet. So Maeve came into my life, fleshy, sexy, multi-layered flawed heroine that she is. I believe we are all mediators of the divine and human, and so Maeve’s daughters and the other characters in the book are also complex and nuanced.

The Red Robed Priestess talks about completion of circles and the falling away of the old ways. Do you see that pattern being played out in our world today?

The Celts of Maeve’s time were gifted poets, artists, and warriors. They also participated in a trade system—though Roman writers of the time liked to depict them as noble (or bloodthirsty, depending) savages. Sound familiar? They had a tribal, de-centralized system, and a sophisticated legal system, but it was all in the oral tradition. Druids were the keepers of the culture, holding libraries of law, genealogy, history, and literature in their heads—as do people in some cultures today. But the Romans, whose system of law and whose penchant for empire is much more like the western powers of our time, indeed is one of the models for empire, saw the Celts and other tribal peoples as primitive. They wanted to access to the resources of the Celtic, Germanic and other tribal peoples and saw themselves as bestowing the benefits of Roman rule and civilization (plumbing and central government). They called it the Pax Romana. Today the United States prides itself on bringing democracy to countries we essentially occupy and whose cultures we undermine. It is essentially the same story. Before the United States became a “super power” it was the British and other European countries going around destroying native cultures, establishing colonies, controlling natural resources.

The poem you wrote in the back of the Red Robed Priestess speaks about Maeve not forsaking you. Your words struck a deep chord with me. I had to ready myself to read this book knowing I was going to have to say farewell Maeve. Do you have any advice for other readers in this boat.

I know it will be wrenching to come to the end of Maeve’s story. Have tissue ready. That said, Maeve will always be with you. (I know she gets irritated when Jesus says that to her, but it is true.) Not only can you re-read her stories as often as you like, but you can talk to her. People do. She talks back. Her voice is so distinctive, you will recognize it, and she has a refreshing way of cutting through platitudes and piety to get to the real, raw heart of the matter. She is your friend.

You have a unique relationship with Maeve – she inhabits your life as more than a fictional character. Can you talk a little about how she connects to you day to day?

Maeve is still there for me in just the way I describe above. I can and do talk to her, especially when I am wakeful in the middle of the night. I hear more than see her and sometimes she holds my hand or holds me.

What I miss terribly is the daily, yearly, decades long writing of the story. For more than a third of my life, whenever I’d be taking a shower or a walk or lying in bed before getting up, I would be thinking of the next scene, working out plot problems. Some solutions came to me in dreams. I lived inside the story, I had a complete other life, and I miss that life and partnership more than I can say. I am just beginning to emerge from a long time grieving, just beginning to lift up my head, look around and wonder what might be the next adventure. Whatever it is, I am so grateful for the adventure of writing Maeve’s story. And it means the world to me that she has become real to other people.

Thank you again to Jane for being such a good friend to Maeve and to me.

I am deeply honoured to bring you this interview and urge you to beg, borrow but preferably not steal, (Elizabeth deserves all the royalties she gets!) Maeve into your life. You will not regret it!

Please visit Elizabeth at and find out more about her, the Maeve Chronicles, her other work here or High Valley or the blog she and Maeve write or follow her on twitter @EliznMaeve. Elizabeth has an FB fan page created by her sister Ruth Cunningham (another cousin) And Maeve now has her own page as well (I am a very thorough stalker as you can see).


  1. I am so glad that i stalk YOU! This is fabulous!

  2. lol - what Hilary said! This IS fabulous - and I'm so glad I stalk you as well!

    Jane, you have been "close to evangelical ) about Elizabeth/Maeve to me - and I'm grateful. This interview has great questions - and equally great responses - and I'm very drawn to getting my hands on the book!

    Thanks Jane and Elizabeth, you lovely Cunninghams!

    p.s. Elizabeth, your story telling reminds me of the Jewish Midrash I first heard of in a Madeleine L'Engle book (and the first version of the Abraham/Isaac story that didn't make me want to puke). Love, love, love your work!

  3. Thank you, my dear cousin! So happy we found each other. And thank you Hilary and Square-Peg Jane for your kindly comments!

  4. This interview does well to illustrate why I happily stalk both of you! :oD

  5. The Cunningham cousins rock :)

  6. just beautiful. i totally want to get my hands on a copy.