'Wildwood Chronicles' conjures a Portland fantasy

Decemberists' Meloy, wife publish 3rd book in series

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PORTLAND — Unseen in the tree-shrouded hills overlooking downtown Portland are rifle-toting coyotes wearing Napoleonic uniforms, birds ferrying human children on their backs and an army of mole knights living underground.

These are characters that have sprung from the mind of Colin Meloy, frontman and songwriter for the indie folk band The Decemberists.

Meloy and his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis, recently published the third installment of a popular adventure book series for middle-schoolers called “The Wildwood Chronicles.” The third volume is titled “Wildwood Imperium.”

The main character of the three books isn’t a character, but the wooded hills on downtown’s doorstep.

In “The Wildwood Chronicles,” those woods are off-limits to humans, unless they are touched by the right magic. Prue McKeel, 12, has that magic, as does her classmate Curtis. The book tells of their fantastical adventures in what adults call the Impassable Wilderness.

In the first book, “Wildwood,” published in 2011, Prue and Curtis venture into the wilderness to rescue Prue’s little brother from an exiled Dowager Governess who had him kidnapped by crows as part of her plot to wipe out all living things in the forest. In the second volume, “Under Wildwood,” there’s a plot to kill Prue, a mystic is murdered and Prue, Curtis and a rat named Septimus visit an underground city inhabited by moles.

There are more adventures, conspiracies and intrigue in “Wildwood Imperium.” The Dowager Governess has returned — in the shape of an ivy-covered creature leading an army of murderous ivy monsters.

On a rainy day in February, Meloy and Ellis were visiting Pittock Mansion — a chateaulike house that’s prominent in “The Wildwood Chronicles.” In the fantasy series, Pittock Mansion is surrounded by a village inhabited by talking animals — deer, badgers, rabbits and moles, who lead their daily lives alongside people.

The idea of a book set in these woods — called in reality Forest Park — came to Meloy from walks he and Ellis would take in them. They live in the Portland area.

“Years ago I had an idea of Forest Park as its own country, a place of course forbidden by adults, a place children would be curious about and find adventure there,” said Meloy.

Each book has nifty maps showing geographic details of “The Wood” — the name given by Meloy and Ellis to their fantasy realm. They used a real map of Forest Park as the basis for “The Wood.” Besides Pittock Mansion, there are other features that are real: a ravine that cuts through forest, an abandoned stone house, the Willamette River and a bridge across the Willamette.

To make Meloy’s concept of geographic details of Wildwood work, the duo had to stretch and scrunch some borders in the map of “The Wood” and add some features that don’t exist.

“You wouldn’t use Wildwood as a map to get around” Forest Park, said Ellis.

Verdant, eco-minded and sometimes New Agey, “The Wildwood Chronicles” series certainly feels like literature from this progressive corner of the Pacific Northwest.

Little Prue practices yoga, is a vegetarian, eats granola and tunes up her own bike — a single-speed with toe clips.

Folks at Pittock Mansion welcome the attention.

The mansion is owned and cared for by the city of Portland. Readers of “The Wildwood Chronicles” have come to the mansion and the surrounding woods to see the real places where the fantasy adventures occur.