Any time you go up hill in the tropics, you are bound to encounter more than one distinct ecosystem. The lower slope of our climb was covered in the riot of growth that constitutes premontane forest; higher up we passed through a thin band of oak-dominated forest, with its understory layer of spindly bamboo. (This is the type of forest, by the way, that originally inspired Eolyn’s childhood home, the South Woods.) Near the peak of Cerro Chai, strong winds and cold weather have stunted and warped the trees into what is popularly known as “elfin forest”.
NAPIRE students, in addition to being budding biologists, are deeply appreciative of fantasy and legend, and so they were watchful for elves as we entered the “elfin forest”. But of course, there are no elves in ‘elfin forest’, or anywhere in Costa Rica for that matter. The magical creatures that inhabit Costa Rican forests are called duendes.
I first learned about the duendes from my friends at Cuerici Biological Station, located a little further north of where we are now, at about 2500m elevation. Duendes are elusive creatures, and if you ask a Costa Rican to describe what they look like, individuals who claim to have seen them will answer with a puzzled frown. It seems the appearance of duendes can’t be captured in words. After listening to stories about them, I came to think of duendes as something of a cross between fairies and gnomes.
When I began writing Eolyn, I wanted a creature like the duendes to inhabit the South Woods. I almost used the same word, until I thought to look it up in a Spanish-English dictionary, at which point I discovered duende translates literally as “troll”.
Hmm, I thought. That’s not right at all. In Costa Rica, duendes are clearly not the same thing as trolls. So to avoid confusion in my novel, I changed the word ‘duendes’ into ‘Guendes’, hoping that the addition of ‘g’ would inspire images of gnome-like creatures.
It is thought that the Guendes use their magic at Summer Solstice to turn the sun on its path, causing the shortening of days and pushing the cycle of the seasons toward fall and then winter. Traditionally, the Mages and Magas thank the Guendes for this service by leaving gifts of food in the forest. Guendes hibernate during the winter, and for this reason it is the task of the Mages and Magas on Winter Solstice to call the sun back from the Underworld and invoke the lengthening of days that will lead to spring and summer.
Early in the novel, Eolyn has an encounter with Guendes. They find her in the forest, protect her from starvation and death, and eventually lead her to the home of Ghemena, the last Doyenne of the Old Orders. No explanation is ever given as to why the Guendes chose to intervene in young Eolyn’s fate. Were they simply taking pity on a lost and frightened child? Or did they recognize Eolyn’s potential to flourish as Ghemena’s student and preserve the endangered traditions of the Magas? And if they wanted Eolyn to become a maga, then why? Of what interest was it to them that this ancient craft be preserved through her?
I’ll leave it to your imagination to consider the possibilities; because though I might think I have the answer, in the end only the Guendes truly know…