Coming up on Saturday, August 20th:

Poster art by Jeannie Tomanek

This will be my last event for the Widdershins 2016 exhibition: a talk on folklore and myth in healing traditions, woven with storytelling by my husband Howard Gayton, an actor and dramatist. I haven't given this particular talk before -- it's a new piece spurred by some of the things we've discussed here on Myth & Moor, so it would be lovely to see some of you there, if you're in striking distance of Devon.

Faery drawing by Brian FroudGreen Hill is also sponsoring two film showings that you may be interested in: There's an evening devoted to Labyrinth on August 12th, presented with a talk by Widdershins artist Brian Froud, who designed the film. And there's a matinee showing of Willow the following day. Follow the links for more information. 

Tickets for all of these events can be purchased at Green Hill, through the Green Hill website, or by phoning 01647 440775.

The gorgeous painting above is by Jeanie Tomanek. The faery sketch is by Brian Froud.


Once upon a time....

Among the trees

One of the very best books I've read this year is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish, the author of West of the Moon and other excellent works of myth-based fantasy for children.

 HJ FordNow while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend (her daughter and ours have been best friends for many years), in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty damn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting.

"As a child I was usually deep in a book," Kath writes in the volume's introduction, "and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

The wildflower path

Wild apple blossom

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

The black hound comes

Blue sicklewort

Hound and wildflowers

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

HJ Ford

White stitchwort

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Oak elder

Fairy tale reflections

Seven Miles of Steel Thistle is available from The Greystones Press, a terrific new publishing venture by Mary Hoffman and Stephen Barber. (Check out their other books too.) You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

Once upon a time

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine LangrishWords: The passages by Katherine Langrish in the post above and in the picture captions are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The illustrations are by H.J. Ford, from the Fairy Books edited by Andrew Lang.


Widdershins 2016

About the exhibition:

Dartmoor, a landscape steeped in mythic and legend, is home to a large number of artists inspired by mythic themes. The works in this show explore myth, folklore, and faery tales in diverse ways, ranging from earthy to ethereal, sensual to spiritual, and frightening to whimsical...shaped into paintings, sculptures, assemblages, magical clocks, handbound books, and more.

Participating artists:

Alan Lee, Marja Lee, Virginia Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, David Wyatt, Rima Staines, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow, and me (all from Chagford); Hazel Brown (from Torquay); Pauline Lee (from Ashburton), Neil Wilkinson-Cave (from Moretonhampstead); and Paul Kidby (from Hampshire, but with strong Dartmoor connections).

In addition to the main gallery show, Green Hill will display mythic art and crafts throughout the art centre (by Alexandra Dawe, Leonie Grey, Sally Hinchcliffe, Meg Meg Connolly, and others); and books and prints will be on sale in the Green Hill shop. They've also organized a program of related events to run throughout the summer: workshops, talks, film showings, etc., for both adults and children. Please contact Green Hill Arts, or visit the Calendar section of their website, for more information.

I'll be at at the Meet the Artists evening on August 6th; at a Coffee Morning with three other women artists (Wendy Froud, Marja Lee, and Hazel Brown) on July 11th; and I'm giving talk on August 20th on The Power of Story: Healing & Transformation in Folk & Fairy Tales. Do come if you can.

For photographs from the first Widdershins exhibition in 2013, go here (via Virginia Lee) or here (via Rima Staines).

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee


Hedgies

Hedgehog photograph by Alamy

It's Hedgehog Awareness Week, sponsored by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I adore hedgehogs, so here is some of my favorite pieces of hedgehog art. (The artists are identified in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Hedgehog art

"Artistotle says that hedgehogs can foretell a change of wind," writes mythologist J.C. Cooper, "and accordingly 'shift the outlook of their earth-holes.' Pliny and Aelian go further, maintaining that hedgehogs have two holes, North and South, and block one or the other as the wind changes. Other beliefs were that the animal  uses its spines to take the shock if it falls from a height, also that it collects grapes on its spines by rolling on them, then takes them home for winter storage. Plutarch says he had seen this done, the creature 'looking like a bunch of grapes shuffling along the ground, so thickly covered was the animal with its booty.' The Beastiaries used this belief to illustrate 'finding the True Vine of Christ,' though the act of stealing the grapes was 'the Devil robbing men of their souls' -- in general in Christianity the hedgehog depicted the Evil One and evil-doing.

"In early times the hedgehog was generally a symbol of the Great Mother, but in particular it was the symbol of the Sumerian Ishtar. Irish lore associated the hedgehog with witches who could take its form to suck cows dry. In China it also had a sinister reputation as one of the Five Animals [along with Fox, Weasel, Snake, and Rat, sacred but not to be trifled with]."

Hedgehog art by Rima Staines

Hedgehogs play a more postive role in the fairy tale tradition, where they appear as Animal Guides, Animal Brides/Bridegrooms, and revenants of wise and gentle nature.

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

In Slavic tales in particular, notes Margaryta Golovchenko, hedgehogs are the keepers of knowledge and order and embodiments of magical power:

"The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven.  And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane /Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

"Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture -- the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms."

Hedgehog art

An illustration from Foxwood Tales by Brian Paterson

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

Hedgehog art

The J.C. Cooper quote is from Symbolic & Mythological Animals (HarperCollins, 1992). The Margaryta Golovchenko quote is from an essay published by Tiny Donkey/The Fairy Tale Review (March, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors & artists.


A Dartmoor Beltane

Beltane 1

Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a  grand green time was had by all  -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)

In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.

Beltane 2

The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.

Beltane 2

Beltane 3

Beltane 4

The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.

Beltane 5

Beltane 6

Beltane 7

The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present.  Then the Piper breaks the circle...

Beltane 8

...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...

Beltane 9

...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.

Beltane 10

Beltane 11

The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too,  jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.

Beltane 12

Beltane 13

We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.

Beltane 14

But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers,  the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.

Beltane 15

Beltane 15b

And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

Beltane 16

Beltane 17

Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.

Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.

Beltane 18

The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.

Beltane 19

A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.

Beltane 20

Beltane 21

Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...

Beltane 22

Jason heading around the fire, Pig (he dog) behind him

...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...

Beltane 23

And Rowan...

Beltane 23b

And Susie...

Beltane 24

Beltane 24b

And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.

Beltane 25

Andy, our piper, takes a turn, and when he's halfway around the fire he brings his wife, Nomi, and their child into the Jack and the three of them dance together.

Beltane 26

Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

Beltane 27

....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.

Beltane 28

Beltane 29

I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength."  And so I dance too.

Beltane 30

Beltane 31

And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.

Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.

Beltane revellers, human and canine

Beltane 33

Hawthorn tree in bloom


        Drumming Winter Away
         by Jane Yolen

        Boom, da-boom
         the brrr of the year,
         the burring of skin
         stretched ear to ear.
         The grin of spring,
         the ground of spite,
         the rise of fern,
         the shortened night.

         The well-ruled month,
         the lengthened day,
         less time for sleep
         more time for play.
         The pearling buds,
         the shafts of green,
         the fuzz on trees,
         as twigs all preen.

        The waft of perfume
         in the air,
May blossoms on the hawthorn         the warp and weft
         of spring weave there.
         Boom, da-boom,
         we beat the drum
         for spring to come.
         For spring to come.

 

Beltane 34The photographs here were taken by David Wyatt, Susie Violette, Jason of England, Suzi Crockford (the hawthorn tree) and me. The poem by Jane Yolen is copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.


Up the May!

Leaf Mask by Brian Froud

Happy May Day and Beltane, celebrating the turn of the Great Wheel to the greening of the year. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the lambs are leaping, the frogs are spawning, the ponies are foaling on Meldon Hill, and the Jack of the Green is dancing at the crossroads to bless us with the land's fertility....

Piper & Obby Oss

May Day Procession

Last May we held a traditional May Day Procession here in Chagford, complete with Jack in the Green, Obby Oss, piper, drums, green men/women/children and a deer man or two: the requisite blending of the sacred and the rude. The next Procession is planned for 2017, and we hope it The Obby Osse dances past the hardware store, with the Jack in the Green close behindwill be even rowdier than the first -- but for the year inbetween, it's a quiet affair: just a few friends gathered in a field to maintain the rite's continuity. Perhaps Jack will come to join us all the same: toasting the land and re-affirming the bonds of our human, and more-than-human, community.

Go here for the legends and lore behind the Maying; go here for photographs from our Jack Procession last year (with a post about folk pageants and "wild time"); and go here for a video of Beltane Border Morris up on Dartmoor at sunrise this morning, dancing the day and the season in, as these good folks do every year.

Then fill your house with May flowers (hawthorn tree blossoms); hang primroses over your doors and your cows; and down a toast to the Jack of the Green, and to the wild deep within us. Up the May!  

The trees are budding

Dartmoor pony & foal by Carol Amos

Andy Letcher, May Day 2015

Frogs in the studio pond

"The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May."   - Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte D'Arthur)

Beltane Border MorrisThe Green Woman drawing above is by Brian Froud. The first photo was taken by Ashley Wengraf; the third and sixth by Ruth Olly; the pony & foal by Lillian Todd-Jones; the last photo (of Beltane Border Morris dancing on the moor early this morning) by Andy Letcher. The others are mine. Run your cursor over the images to see the picture captions.


Wildflower season

Wildflowers on my desk

Although it's still too cold to feel like spring, the wildflower season has begun. The bluebells are unfurling, and soon our woods will be a Faerieland carpeted in flowers.

Bluebells are especially loved by the faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken. Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).

Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.

Devon Bluebells

Bluebell Faery by Brian Froud

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:

"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."

(Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended.)

Devon bluebell wood

Harebell Faery

Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy. 

Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.

Wild violets 2

Wild violets

Milk for the faeries

Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane. Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.

Primrose Faery by Brian Froud

Primroses

"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a lovely book about medicine plants through the four seasons).  "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.

"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."

VioletOn this cold wet day, after a long hard winter, I entrust myself to the woodland's flowers. Bluebell, primrose, stitchwort, pink campion: they're all emerging now despite the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They are not waiting for a "perfect" day to bloom, and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life once more. Recovery from a long illness is not like stepping through the door into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.

This is life. This is spring. Cold, wet, and grey...but full of wildflowers.

Woodland daffodils & other wildflowers

Dog & wildflowers 2

Dog & wildflowers 2Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012; winner of the 2013 Robert Holdstock Award), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998).  Pictures: "Bluebell Faery," "Harebell Faery," and "Primrose Faery" by Brian Froud, from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors & artist.


"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," writes Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor.

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," Wendy continues. "They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her The Troll Bride by Brian Froudtrollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge," Wendy concludes, "for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

There are roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, of which Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.


In a Devon Wood

In a Devon Wood

Faeries of the Wood by Alan Lee

Woodland Sentinel

Stitchwort on the Woodland Floor

Faery Queen by Alan Lee
  The Elves

    by Denise Levertov

    Elves are no smaller
    than men, and walk
    as men do, in this world,
    but with more grace than most,
    and are not immortal.

    Their beauty sets them aside
    from other men and from women
    unless a woman has that cold fire in her
    called poet: with that

    she may see them and by its light
    they know her and are not afraid
    and silver tongues of love
    flicker between them.

Faery Knight by Alan Lee

Woodland Dreaming

The First Blueblls

Faerie Court by Alan Lee

Woodland Writer & Hound

Roverandom by Alan LeeThe poem above is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983); the poem in the picture captions is from The Journal of Mythic Arts (2006); the exquisite pencil drawings are by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee, who first introduced me to the Devon woods. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.