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May 2013

Into the Wood, 9: Wild Men & Women

Merlin in the Forest by Alan Lee

Merlin (pictured in the beautiful drawing by Alan Lee above) is a figure intimately connected with forests in Arthurian lore. After the disastrous Battle of Arderydd, Merlin goes mad and spends years as a wild man in the woods, living a solitary, animal existance, before he emerges into his full power as a magician and seer. His prophesies are contained in Welsh poems said to be written by Myrddin himself (from texts dated to the 9th century and onward); many of them can be found in the Llyfr Du Caerfryddin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. In the "Afallennau" and "Oineau" poems (from The Black Book, translated by Meirion Pennar), Myrddin portrays his life among apple trees in the forest of Celydonn: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild; after not so dusty things and entertaining minstrels, only lack does now keep me company. . . ." He despairs that he, who once lay in women's arms, now lies alone on the cold, hard ground, with only a wild piglet for company (a creature much revered by the Celts).

This flight into wilderness is a common theme in shamanic initiation from cultures around the globe. Through deprivation, an elemental existence, and even madness, the shaman embarks on an inward journey; when he or she returns to world it is as a changed and not-quite-human being, aligned with the powers of nature, able to converse with animals and to see into the hearts of men. Suibhne (or Sweeny) in Irish lore, for example, is a warrior cursed in battle and forced to flee to the woods in the shape of a bird. Like Merlin, Suibhne goes stark raving mad during his long exile -- but when he emerges from the trial, he has mastery over creatures of the forest. (For a gorgeous modern rendition of this tale, I recommend the book Sweeny's Flight,  an edition containing Seamus Heaney's long poem based on the myth, along with photographs of the Irish countryside by Rachel Giese.)

By Alan Lee

In epic romances, knights and other heroes go into the woods to test their strength, courage, and faith; yet some of them also find madness there, like the lovelorn Orlando in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the most popular poems of the Italian Renaissance. In Gawaine and the Green Knight, an Arthurian romance from the 14th century, a mysterious figures rides out of the woods and into Camelot on New Year's eve. His clothes are green, his horse is green, his face is green, even his jewels are green. He carries a holly bush in one hand and an axe of green steel in the other. The Green Knight issues a challenge that any knight in the court may strike off his head -- but in one year's time, his opponent must come to the forest and submit to the same trial. Gawaine agrees to this terrible challenge in order to save the honor of his king. He slices off the stranger's head -- but the knight merely picks it up and rides back to the forest, bearing the head in the crook of his arm. One year later, Gawaine seeks out the Green Knight in the Green Chapel in the woods. He survives the trial, but is humbled by the green man and his beautiful wife through an act of dishonesty.

14th century manuscript illustration for Gawaine and the Green Knight

In the French romance Valentine and Orson, the Empress of Constantinople is accused of adultery, thrown out of her palace, and gives birth to twins in the wildwood. One son (along with the mother) is rescued by a nobleman and raised at court, while the other son, Orson, is stolen by a she-bear and raised in the wild. The twins eventually meet, fight, then become bosom companions -- all before a magical oracle informs them of their kinship. The wild twin becomes civilized, while retaining a primitive kind of strength -- but when, at length, his brother dies, he retires back into the forest. Rather than a shamanic figure or a legendary hero, Orson is an example of the Wodehouse (or wild man) archtype: a primitive yet powerful creature of the wilderness. Other examples can be found in tales ranging from Gilgamesh (in the figure of Enkidu) to Tarzan of the Apes.

A Virtuous Lady Tames a Woodwose (a tapestry from the Church of Iceland)

"The medieval imagination was fascinated by the wild man," notes Robert Pogue Harrison (in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization), "but the latter were by no means merely imaginary in status during the Middle Ages. Such men (and women as well) would every now and then be discovered in the forest -- usually insane people who had taken to the woods. If hunters happened upon a wild man, they would frequently try to capture him alive and bring him back for people to marvel and wonder at."

Other famous wild men of literature can be found in Chretien de Troyes's romance Yvain, Jacob Wasserman's Casper Hauer (based on the real life incident of a wild child found in the market square of Nuremberg in 1829), and in the heart-stealing figure of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. (We'll talk more about "wild children" in a separate post.)

Robin Hood illustration by Howard Pyle

Mythic tales of forest outlaws feature a very different kind of wild man, for in such stories (the Robin Hood cycle, for example) the hero is generally a civilized man compelled, through an act of injustice, to seek the wild life -- without ever quite losing the trappings of civility in the process. These tales tend to take place in the merry Greenwood and not the fearsome Dark Forest: a place of shelter and refuge rather than a perilous world inhospitable to mortals.   

"This British take on the forest evolved long before Shakespeare," writes poet and scholar Ruth Padel,  "centered on the Rymes of Robyn Hood: eighty or so fourteenth-century ballads, full of James Bond fights, male camaraderie, adventures and escapes, but also of passionate longing for a people's hero. They date Robin Hood Illustration  by Howard Pylefrom the time of the Peasant's Revolt, 1381. Sometimes Robin is a disaffected Saxon lord who flees to the woods to become a mediaeval Batman, dressing his men in green, robbing the rich to give to the poor.

"Behind them is the star role of the forest in the politics of disaffection which, kick-started by Norman rule, runs through English history from the thirteenth century on. Outlaws, outside the law, took to the forest, which was outside civilization. Yet the law itself was unjust. 'They were not outlaws because they were murderers,' says T.H. White of Robin's men in The Sword in the Stone. 'They were Saxons who had revolted against the Norman conquest. The wild woods of England were alive with them.' Forest law claimed most forest for the king. The king's deer were protected by Norman barons and their officers, Sheriff of Nottingham clones. It was death for a commoner to kill the deer -- yet they did, all the time. They plundered the forest for meat and firewood; they cut down trees for grazing. Most Robin Hood films begin with a peasant killing deer and Robin protecting him against a Norman lord. Helping the poor, outlawed Robin stands for the hope of better law against corrupt nobles, sheriffs, priests, injustice."

A detail from Robin Hood and his Merry Men by N.C. Wyeth

Magical tales of hermits and woodland mystics form another category of the wild man/woman archetype. Christian legendry, for example, is filled with tales of saints living in the wilderness on a diet of honey and acorns. This, again, is bolstered by the actual experience of people in earlier times, when it was not uncommon for folk marginalized by the community (mystics, witches, widows, herbalists, root doctors, eccentrics, and simpletons) to live in the wilds beyond the village, by choice or necessity. An elderly neighbor of mine here in Devon remembered such a figure from her youth, a harmless old soul who lived in a cave and was said to have prophetic powers.

Hansel and Gretel's Witch by Rima Staines

The wild woman archetype has come down through the centuries primarily in a scorned and diminished form: the wicked witch of the fairy tale forest. These women are invariably portrayed as ugly old crones (at least in the versions of the tales that we know best today): godless or pagan creatures aligned with nature, not civilization; evil in intent, or at least amoral; knowledgeable, and therefore dangerous. Their spells and potions are remnants of pagan ways and beliefs, natural magic, hedgerow medicine, herbalism, and rural midwifery...all of the things that came to be seen as wild, wanton, associated with women, peasants, and other "backwards" folk of the countryside.

(We should remember, however, that there's also a long folkloric and historic tradition of "cunning men" living in the wild, versed in natural magic and folk medicine. Among the root workers  and hoodoo doctors of the American South, for example, or practioners of the Cunning Arts of the British Isles, one finds both women and men weaving magic and medicine from herbs, charms, roots, stones, wax and flame; from words, songs, music, and the whispering of the bees.)

Baba Yaga by Forest Rogers

Baba Yaga, from Russian fairy tales, is one of the few fairy tale witches distinguished with a name, and the complexity of her character can be seen in the many stories told about her:

Baba Yaga by Rima Staines"Baba Yaga brings many of the dominant themes of Russian fairy tales together," writes fairy tale scholar Helen Pilinovsky. "She travels on the wind, occupies the domain of the leshii, the forest spirits, is associated with death, and is an acceptable surrogate for the generic ved'ma, or witch. Also known as 'Baba Yaga Kostinaya Noga,' or 'Baba Yaga Bony Leg,' she possesses gnashing steel teeth and penetrating eyes, and, in short, is quite enough to intimidate even the most courageous (or foolhardy, depending on the tale) hero or heroine. Like the witches of other cultures, her preferred method of transportation is an implement commonly used for household labor, though unlike the witches of the West, rather than traveling upon a broom, she chooses to ride in a mortar, rowing with a pestle, and uses a broom to sweep away the tracks that she leaves. Her home is a mobile hut perched upon chicken legs, which folklorist Vladimir Propp hypothesized might be related to the zoomorphic izbushkii, or initiation huts, where neophytes were symbolically 'consumed' by the monster, only to emerge later as adults.

"In his book An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack Haney points out that Baba Yaga's hut 'has much in common with the village bathhouse … the place where many ritual ceremonies occurred, including the initiatory rituals.' This corresponds to the role that her domicile plays in the fairy tales of Russia: though the nature of the initiation differs from story to story, dependent upon the circumstances of the protagonist, Baba Yaga's presence invariably serves as a signifier of change. Baba Yaga's domain is the forest, widely acknowledged as a traditional symbol of change and a place of peril, where she acts as either a challenger or a helper to those innocents who venture into her realm. In Western tales, these two roles are typically polarized, split into different characters stereotyped as either 'witch' or 'fairy godmother.' Baba Yaga, however, is a complex individual: depending on the circumstances of the specific story, she may choose to use her powers for good or ill."

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Trina Schart Hyman

In her excellent book From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner suggests a kinship between forest-dwelling crones and the beasts of the woods. "In the witch-hunt fantasies of early modern Europe they [wolf and crone] are the kinds of being associated with marginal knowledge, who possess pagan secrets and in turn are possessed by them." In Little Red Riding Hood, for example:  "Both [wolf and crone] dwell in the woods, both need food urgently (one because she's sick, the other because he hasn't eaten in three days), and the little girl cannot quite tell them apart."

In older versions of the story, called The Grandmother's Tale, the wolf-in-Granny-disguise tricks the girl into dining on meat and wine. She doesn't know that it is her grandmother's flesh and blood she's ingesting. French folklorist Yvonne Verdier liken this grisley meal to a sacrificial act, a physical incorporation of the grandmother by her granddaughter. It's a scene reminiscent of a wide variety of myths in which a warrior, shaman, sorcerer, or witch attains another's knowledge or power through the ritual ingestion of the other's heart, brain, liver, or spleen -- but Verdier views it in more symbolic terms: "What the tale tells us is the necessity of the female biological transformation by which the young eliminate the old in their own lifetime. Mothers will be replaced by their daughters and the circle will be closed with the arrival of their children's children."

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin

Several poets have explored the connection between the young female heroes of fairy tales and the witches who dwell at the heart of the woods, speculating on how the first might one day turn into the second. In "Becoming the Villainess," Jeanine Hall Gailey writes of one such young woman: "It seems unlikely now that she will ever return home, remember what it was like, her mother and father, the promises. She will adopt a new costume, set up shop in a witch's castle, perhaps lure young princes and princesses to herself, to cure what ails her — her loneliness, her grandeur, the way her heart has become a stone." 

High Tor Guardian by David Wyatt"The daughter is too bold to be anything but a cuckoo in the nest," says Holly Black in "Bone Mother." "Good girls sit home and sew in the dark. They don't go seeking fire in the witch's woods....There, she learns to part seed from stone, sweet from spoilt, fate from fortune."

In "Baba Yaga Duet" by mother-and-daughter authors Midori Snyder and Taiko Haessler, the younger initiate boasts to the witch: "I will teach you, now that you have burned your old recipes, the new ones I remedied. And I will uncover the hidden plants I've stashed in my hair, the worlds I have in my mouth, the tattoos woven in my skin and the sky I discovered in my breast."

"Here is the part I like, where I become the one to grant those wishes as I please," says the narrator of Wendy Froud's poem "Faery Tale" (in the anthology Troll's Eye View), who has done her time in the hero role and is now relishing her cronehood. "Snakes and lizards, toads, diamonds, pearls and gold, a poisoned apple, gingerbread, a pumpkin coach, a gilded dress. Tools of my trade, my teaching aid. My gifts, my curses. Prince to frog, frog to prince, iron shoes and feet that dance and dance and dance, and I like it both ways, like to bless them and eat them."

Faeries by Brian Froud

Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee

There is, of course, a more positive way to look at the Wild Woman of the woods, which psychologist and cantadora storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés has explored extensively in works such as Women Who Run With the Wolves

"Fairy tales, myths, and stories provide understandings which sharpen our sight so we can pick out and pick up the path left by the wildish nature. The instruction found in stories reassures us that the path has not run out, but still leads women deeper, and more deeply still, into their own knowing. The tracks which we are following are those of the Wild Woman archetype, the innate instinctual self....

"To adjoin the instinctual nature does not mean to come undone, change everything from right to left, from black to white, to move from east to west, to act crazy or out of control. It does not mean to lose one's primary socializations, or to become less human. It means quite the opposite. The wildish nature has vast integrity to it. It means to establish territory, to find one's pack, to be in one's body with certainty and pride regardless of the body's gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one's behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one's cycles, to find out what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can."

Pope Tricksie and the Wolves by Tricia Cline

"It's not by accident," Estés adds, "that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades. It is not so difficult to comprehend why old forests and old women are viewed as not very important resources. It is not such a mystery. It is not so coincidental that wolves and coyotes, bears and wildish women have similar reputations. They all share related instinctual archetypes, and as such, both are erroneously reputed to be ingracious, wholly and innately dangerous, and ravenous."

Four porcelain sculptures by Tricia Cline

I'll end today with another quote on the Wild Woman from Estés, which I believe applies to all you Wild Men out there too:

 "We are all filled with longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned
antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of the Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed."

Little Red by Jackie Morris

The wonderful wildwood art above is: "Merlin in the Forest" by Alan Lee and a painting by Alan (I'm afraid I don't know this one's name); a 14th century manuscript illustration for Gawaine and the Green Knight; "A Virtuous Lady Tames a Woodwose," which is a 15th century tapestry from the Church of Iceland; two Robin Hood illustrations by Howard Pyle; "Robin Hood and His Merry Men" by N.C. Wyeth; "Hansel & Gretel's Witch" by Rima Staines; Baba Yaga" by Forest Rogers; "Baba Yaga by Rima Staines; Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" by Trina Schart Hyman; "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin; "High Tor Guardian" by David Wyatt; two wild faeries by Brian Froud, "Moor Maiden" by Virginia Lee, "Pope Trixie and the Wolves," "The Exile of the Manticore," "The Exile of the Deer," and "Ursula's Kid" by Tricia Cline; and "Little Red" by Jackie Morris.

Into the Woods, 8: Wild Sanctuary

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanekall art by Jeanie Tomanek

Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz saw the fairy tale forest not only as a place of trials for the hero, but also an archetypal setting for retreat, reflection, and healing. In a lecture presented to the C.G. Jung Institute in Switzerland in the winter of 1958-59 (subsequently published as The Feminine in Fairytales), she looked at the role of the forest in the story of "The Handless Maiden" (also known as "The Armless Maiden," "The Girl Without Hands," and "Silver Hands"). In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king — who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son — but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest. "She is driven into nature," von Franz points out. "She has to go into deep introversion.... The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word."

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Von Franz compares the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature. "In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she notes, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In her essay "Silverhands: Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder  comes at the story from a different angle in her excellent essay "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rites of passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new–found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rites of passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

Fairy Tales by Jeanie Tomanek"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:

" 'The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means "to continue without cessation," and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.'

"To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discussed her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself -- as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child. 

"I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write." *

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale "Brother and Sister"). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance — but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in "Brother and Sister," for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in "The White Deer," where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rites-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

The gorgeous paintings above are by one of my all-time favorite artists, Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta. 

"My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden,'" says Jeanie. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times."

The paintings here are: The Handless Maiden, Forget Me Not, Communion, Fairy Tales, The Diary, Silver Hands, Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears, The Diary, Envoy, and Sometimes in the Forest.  (All imagery copyright by the artist.) Please visit Jeanie Tomanek's website to see more of her work, and  Everywoman Art on Etsy to purchase originals and prints. You'll find an interesting interview with the artist here.

* I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay, and I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this splendid essay in full. My knowledge of the Vicki Fever interview in Poetry Magazine comes entirely from Midori's essay, and I want to credit that properly here.

Tunes for a Tuesday Morning

Since yesterday was a holiday, our "Monday Tunes" are on Tuesday this week, and we're still roaming among the trees, led on this time by women's voices....

Above: "Stags Bellow," a wonderful woodland (and ocean) song by Martha Tilston, who lives not far from here on the Cornish coast. It's an autumnal piece, but it fits our theme, if not the season, and is too lovely to wait until autumn to share.  It comes from Tilston's 9th album, Machines of Love and Grace (2012).

I wish I could also play her Little Riding Hood song, "Red," this morning -- but there are no good videos for it, alas. (There's a poor quality one here, but it doesn't do the song justice.) "Red" is on Tilston's 2004 album Bimbling, and if you're a fairy tale fan, it's well worth seeking out the recorded version.

Next, two songs by the American folk singer and songwriter Alela Diane, who is based in Portland, Oregon.

Above: "Pieces of String," a lovely song from her debut album, The Pirate's Gospel, back in 2006.

Below: "The Alder Trees, " a gently magical arboreal song from her second album To Be Still, 2009.


"The Willow Tree," a sad but very beautiful song performed by the Celtic harp trio Triskela (Diane Stork, Portia Diwa, and Shawna Spiteri), from the Bay Area of California.

And for the last song, let's add some men's voices too:

Here's "Oak, Ash, and Thorn," sung by the English folk singer & folk scholar Fay Hield, backed up by The Hurricane Party: Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney, Andy Cutting, and Hield's partner Jon Boden. This impromptu performance was filmed in the bar at Cecil Sharpe House (home of The English Folk Dance and Song Society) after Hield's gig there last autumn. The words are from a Rudyard Kipling poem, put to music by the great Peter Bellamy.

The Dog's Tale

Tilly plots to be the first Canine Poet LaureateThe Dog's Tales: a series of posts in which Tilly has her say...

We're supposed to be out of the office during this holiday weekend, but I've snuck back in while my People aren't looking so I can write up my Saturday post. My paws are a little clumsy, but if I sit up like a Person, I can just about manage the computer by myself. My post today is my first piece of canine poetry:

Ode to the Neighbor's Cats

Thou still unravish'd demons of fur,
      Thou taunting creatures of tooth and tail,
As brazen beasts as e'er there were
      Whilst over garden wall do sail:
What evil does thou plot today
      To taunt a brave and noble dog
Who's honor bound to chase away
      All cats who set foot in this yard?
 What beasts are these, half Siamese?
      What mad pursuit? What fleet escape?
What howls and barks? What wild ecstasies...


But wait, but wait...what's this?

The Path on Nattadon Not Taken

Oh no! I hear my People coming!

The Path on Nattadon Not Taken

Quick! Turn the computer off!


"Me? What am I doing? Uh...nothing."

Dog Howl

"Just sitting here chewing my bone...."

P.S. There are more of my poems hidden in the picture captions. Just run your cursor over them. Love, Tilly

Myth & Moor update

The edge of the woods...

I'm away today, as it's the start of a long holiday weekend here in the UK. I'll be back at my desk, and back to the "Into the Woods" series of posts, on Tuesday, May 28. Have a good weekend, everyone.

“I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing. (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.) But warm, eager, living life — to be rooted in life — to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less.” ― Katherine Mansfield


…where enchantment awaits

Into the Woods, 7: The Dark Forest

Fur Feather Tooth and Nail by Arthur Rackham

"In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," writes Dante in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The path is hard to find and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards...but helpers, too, appear along the way: good fairies, wise elders, and animal guides, usually cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

The Dark Forest is not the merry greenwood of Robin Hood legends, or a Disney glade where dwarves whistle as they work, or a National Park with walkways and signposts and designated camping sites; it's the forest primeval, true wilderness, symbolic of the deep, dark levels of the psyche; it's the woods where giants will eat you and pick your bones clean, where muttering trees offer no safe shelter, where the faeries and troll folk are not benign. It's the woods you may never come back from.

The Faery Ring by Alan Lee

"The woods enclose," writes Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber. "You step between the fir trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up. There is no way through the wood anymore; this wood has reverted to its original privacy. Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again for there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety; grass grew over the tracks years ago and now the rabbits and foxes make their own runs in the subtle labyrinth and nobody comes.... "

"I stood in the wood," Patricia McKillip tells us in Winter Rose. "Now it was a grim and shadowy tangle of thick dark trees, dead vines, leafless branches that extended twig like fingers to point to the heartbeat of hooves. The buttermilk mare, eerily, eerily pale in that silent wood, galloped through the trees; Goblin Market by Arthur Rackhamtree boles turned toward it like faces. A woman in her wedding gown rode with a man in black; he held the reins with one hand and his smiling bride with the other. She wore lace from throat to heel; the roses in her chestnut hair glowed too bright a scarlet, mocking her bridal white…When they stopped, her expression began to change from a pleased, astonished smile, to confusion and growing terror. What twilight wood is this? she asked. What dead, forgotten place?"

The goblins of the glen, in Christina Rossetti 's great poem "Goblin Market," are thoroughly dangerous creatures. When young Laura buys but will not eat their fruit...

"Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Against her mouth to make her eat."

Goblin Market by Arthur Rackham

Chase of the White Mouse by John Anster Fitzgerald

Goblins by Brian Froud

To know the woods and to love the woods is to embrace it all, the light and the dark -- the sun dappled glens and the rank, damp hollows; beech trees and bluebells and also the deadly fungi and poison oak. The dark of the woods represents the moon side of life: traumas and trials, failures and secrets, illness and other calamities. The things that change us, temper us, shape us; that if we're not careful defeat or destroy us...but if we pass through that dark place bravely, stubbornly, wisely, turn us all into heroes. 

"The sense of secrets, silence, surprises, good and bad, is fundamental to forests and informs their literatures," notes Sara Maitland in Gossip from the Forest. "In fairy stories this is sometimes simple and direct: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods, and then suddenly they come upon the gingerbread house. Snow White runs in terror through the forest and suddenly stumbles upon the dwarves' cottage; characters spending scary nights in or under trees suddenly see a twinkling light -- and they make their laborious way towards it without having any idea what they will find when they arrive.....

"The forest is about concealment and appearances are not to be trusted. Things are not necessarily what they seem and can be dangerously deceptive. Snow White's murderous stepmother is truly the 'fairest of them all,' The wolf can disguise himself as a sweet old granny. The forest hides things; it does not open them out but closes them off. Trees hide the sunshine; and life goes on under the trees, in thickets and tanglewood. Forests are full of secrets and silences. It is not strange that the fairy stories that come out of the forest are stories about hidden identities, both good and bad."

The Gingerbread House by Trina Schart Hyman

The Queen's Pearl Necklace by John Bauer

Appearance deceive in the dark of the woods. You must beware of the helpful wolf by the path, of the beautiful woman who asks for a kiss, of the cozy little house with its door standing open, a meal on the table, and its owner nowhere in sight. No matter how tired you are, warns Lisel Mueller (in her poem "Voice from the Forest"), do not enter that house, do not eat the bread, do not drink the wine: "It is only when you finish eating and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes, that the ax falls or the giant returns or the monster springs or the witch locks the door from the outside and throws away the key."

But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman advises (in his poem "Instructions"), be courteous. And wary. "A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door, as a knocker, do not touch it; it will bite your fingers. Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing."

Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the faeries can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones.

The Lamb and the Serpent by Arthur Rackham

And yet, despite all the fairy tale warnings, sometimes we're compelled to run to the dark of the woods, away from all that is safe and familiar -- driven by desperation, perhaps, or the lure of danger, or the need for change. Young heroes stray from the safe, well-trodden path through foolishness or despair...but perhaps also by canny premeditation, knowing that venturing into the great unknown is how lives are tranformed. When Gretel walks into the woods, writes Andrea Hollander Budy (in her poem "Gretel," from The House Without a Dreamer) "she means to lose everything she is. She empties her dark pockets, dropping enough crumbs to feed all the men who have touched her or wished." In Ellen Steiber's "Silver and Gold," Red Riding Hood is asked to explain how she failed to distinguish her grandmother from a wolf. "It's complicated," she answers. "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the ones who love you and the ones who will eat you alive." But what she doesn't say is that if the wolf comes again, she will surely follow. Why? Carol Ann Duffy answers in her poem "Little Red-Cap" (from The World's Wife): "Here's why. Poetry. The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place lit by the light of owls." To the place of poetry and adventure. The place where the hard and perilous work of transformation begins.

Sara Maitland compares the transformational magic in fairy tales to the everyday magic that turns caterpillars into butterflies. "[S]omething very dreadful and frightening happens inside the chrysalis," she points out. "We use the word 'cocoon' now to mean a place of safety and escape, but in fact the caterpillar, having constructed its own grave, does not develop smoothly, growing wings onto its first body, but disintegrates entirely, breaking down into organic slime which then regenerates in a completely new form. It goes as a child into the dark place and is lost; it emerges as the princess, or proven hero. The forest is full of such magic, in reality and in the stories."

Little Red Riding Hood by Richard Hermann Eschke

The Briarwood by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

My husband, Howard Gayton, a theatre director, uses the term "the Dark Forest" to refer to the part of the art-making process when we've lost our way: when the creation of a story or a painting or a play reaches a crisis point...when the path disappears, the idea loses steam, the plot line tangles, the palette muddies, and there is no way, it seems, to move forward. This often occurs, interestingly enough, right before true magic happens: first the crisis, then a breakthrough, an unexpected solution, and the piece comes to life. In a journal he wrote some years ago, while creating a fairy tale play in Portugal, he noted:

Brian Froud"Today I arrived in the middle of the Dark Forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even our opening meditation today felt tired. The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and, as always, the forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps the performers are getting stuck and are unable to develop their parts. Perhaps it's that our storytelling has become flat, or that I'm neglecting some simple but crucial aspect of the directorial process. Or maybe it's all of these things....

"It's difficult to keep my original vision of the piece as I travel through the forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come to fruition. I know that I can't lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and one's own ability. I can't turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere.

'I'm reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I once took to Santiago de Compostela, biking alone across the Pyranees of France and Spain. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles. I couldn't turn back, I was too far along the path -- but if I didn't get to the monastery before sundown, I could lose my way in those cold, dark mountains, even die of exposure. It's a similar feeling that I have now: I'm exhausted, I don't know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on."

Troll in the Wood by John Bauer

So what should we do when we're in the Dark Forest, creatively or personally? Perservere. As Howard says, plough on. The gifts of the journey are worth the hardship, as writer & writing teacher Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew notes:

"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale, and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path. They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise. From now on, when you come upon darkness, you'll know it has dimension. You'll know how closely poppy seeds and dirt resemble each other. The forest will be just another story that has absorbed you, taken you through its paces, and cast you out again to your home with its rattling windows...."

And as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests (in Letters to a Young Poet):

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Including the bears and the beasties, the fungi and faeries, the wolves and witches hidden in the deep forest...and the frightening, spell-binding, life-changing stories to be found only in the dark of the woods.

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Art above: "Fur, Feather, Tooth and Nail" by Arthur Rackham, "The Faery Ring" by Alan Lee, two illustrations for Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" by Arthur Rackham, "Chase of the White Mouse" by John Anster Fitzgerald, "Goblins" by Brian Froud, "The Gingerbread House" by Trina Schart Hyman, "The Queen's Pearl Necklace" by John Bauer, "Hansel and Gretel" by Arthur Rackham, "The Lamb and the Serpent" by Arthur Rackham, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Richard Hermann Eschke, "The Briarwood" (from the Briar Rose series) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Through the Dark Forest" by Brian Froud, "Troll in the Wood" by John Bauer, and "She Kissed the Bear on the Nose" by John Bauer.

Into the Woods, 6: Wild Community

Art copyright by Brian Froud

Art copyright by Wendy Froud

Art copyright by Alan Lee

"Time and time again I am astounded by the regularity and repetition of form in this valley and elsewhere in wild nature: basic patterns, sculpted by time and the land, appearing everywhere I look. The twisted branches in the forest that look so much like the forked antlers of the deer and elk. The way the glacier-polished hillside boulders look like the muscular, rounded bodies of the animals -- deer, bear -- that pass among these boulders like loving ghosts. The way the swirling deer hair is the exact shape and size of the larch and pine needles the deer hair lies upon one it is torn loose and comes to rest on the forest floor. As if everything up here is leaning in the same direction, shaped by the same hands, or the same mind; not always agreeing or in harmony, but attentive always to the same rules of logic and in the playing-out, again and again, of the infinite variations of specificity arising from that one shaping system of logic an incredible sense of community develops . . . 

Art copyright by Marja Lee Kruyt

. . . felt at night when you stand beneath the stars and see the shapes and designs of bears and hunters in the sky; felt deep in the cathedral of an old forest, when you stare up at the tops of the swaying giants; felt when you take off your boots and socks and wade across the river, sensing each polished, mossy stone with your bare feet. Felt when you stand at the edge of the marsh and listen to the choral uproar of the frogs, and surrender to their shouting, and allow yourself, too, like those pine needles and that deer hair, like those branches and those antlers, to be remade, refashioned into the shape and the pattern and the rhythm of the land. Surrounded, and then embraced, by a logic so much more powerful and overarching than anything that a man or woman could create or even imagine that all you can do is marvel and laugh at it, and feel compelled to give, in one form or another, thanks and celebration for it, without even really knowing why."  

- Rick Bass ("The Return," Orion Magazine)

Art copyright by David Wyatt

Root Dog

“Ethics that focus on human interactions, morals that focus on humanity's relationship to a Creator, fall short of these things we've learned. They fail to encompass the big take-home message, so far, of a century and a half of biology and ecology: life is -- more than anything else -- a process; it creates, and depends on, relationships among energy, land, water, air, time and various living things. It's not just about human-to-human interaction; it's not just about spiritual interaction. It's about all interaction. We're bound with the rest of life in a network, a network including not just all living things but the energy and nonliving matter that flows through the living, making and keeping all of us alive as we make it alive."

Carl Safina (The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World)

Art copyright by Virginia Lee

“If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate.”  - Terry Tempest Williams

Art copyright by Rima StainesMore art from the woods of Devon: "What He Didn't See" by Brian Froud, , woodland faery sculpture by Wendy Froud, woodland faery drawing by Alan Lee,  "Imbolc" by Marja Lee Kruyt"The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt, Tilly among the roots, "Summer Land" by Virginia Lee, and "Bluebell Honeymoon" by Rima Staines.

Into the Woods, 5: Wild Folklore

Green Man by Brian Froud

The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or "Jack of the Green") tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other. Earliest known examples of the foliate head (as it was known prior to Lady Raglan) date back to classical Rome — yet it was not until this pagan symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and proliferated across Europe. Most folklorists conjecture that the foliate head symbolized mythic rebirth and regeneration, and thus became linked to Christian iconography of resurrection. (The Tree of Life, a virtually universal symbol of life, death and regeneration, was adapted to Christian symbolism in a similar manner.)

Green Man Carving

Oxford Jack-in-the-GreenThe Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring, fertility, and May Day celebrations. In a number of English towns (such as Hastings in East Sussex) the Jack pageant is still re-enacted each year. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the streets accompanied by men (and now women) dressed and painted all in green, others dressed and painted entirely black, and children bearing flowers. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds while the Jack, a trickster figure (and traditionally lecherous) chases pretty girls and plays the fool. When he reaches a certain place, the Morris dancers wield their wooden swords and strike the leaf man dead. A poem is solemnly recited over his body,  and then general merriment breaks out as the crowd plucks Jack's leaves off for luck.

("The killing of a tree spirit,"  notes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, "is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.")


Tree men aren't unique to the British Isles; they can be found in folk pageants all over Europe. In Bavaria, for example, a tree–spirit called the pfingstl roams through rural towns clad in alder and hazel leaves, with a high pointed cap covered by flowers. Two boys with swords accompany him as he knocks on the doors of random houses, asking for presents but often getting thoroughly drenched by water instead. This pageant also ends when the boys draw their wooden swords and kill the green man. In a ritual from Picardy, a member of the Compagnons du Loup Vert (dressed in a green wolf skin and foliage) enters the village church carrying a candle and garlands of flowers. He waits until the Gloria is sung, then he walks to the alter and stands through the mass. At its end, the entire congregation rushes up to strip the green wolf of his leaves.

The Green Man's female counterpart is the Green Woman, or the Sheela-Na-Gig . . .

Green Women drawings by Brian Froud

Sheela-Na-Gig carving

. . . usually depicted in stone carvings as a primitive female form giving birth to a spray of vegetation. Green Women are far less common than Green Men, being rather harder to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration -- and yet quite a few them appear in Romaneque churches built before the 16th century. Although Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-Na-Gigs, they can be found throughout the British Isles, as well as in France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

Like the sacred "yoni" carvings of India, it was once customary to lick one's finger and touch the Sheela-Na-Gig's vulva for good fortune.

A Shrine for the Mother of Birds by Fidelma Massey

A number of contemporary artists have found inspiration in the ancient lore of the wood, including Brian Froud in Devon (creator of the Green Man painting and Green Women drawings in this post) and Fidelma Massey in Ireland (creator of mythic sculpture like the magical tree-woman above, "A Shrine to the Mother of All Birds"). There have also been two international art series recently that have drawn their inspiration from the folklore of the wild: Eyes as Big as Plates (originating in Norway) and Wilder Mann (originating in France).

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Norway

Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

The two photographs directly above, and the one directly below, come from Eyes as Big as Plates, an ongoing project dreamed up by artists Riitta Ikonen (originally from Finland) and Karoline Hjorth (from Norway). "Inspired by the romantics’ belief that folklore is the clearest reflection of the soul of a people," says Ikonen, "Eyes as Big as Plates started out as a play on characters and protagonists from Norwegian folklore. During a one month residency at the Kinokino Centre for Art and Film in south-west Norway, Karoline and I collaborated with sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens. The series then moved on to exploring the mental landscape of the neighborly and pragmatic Finns."  The third chapter of the project has taken Ikonen and Hjorth to New York City this spring.

“This blending of figure and ground," explains the artists, "recalls the way in which folk narratives animate the natural world through a personification of nature. The slippage of elderly figures into the landscapes suggests a return to the earth, a celebration of lives lived, reinforcing the link between humanity and the natural world.” 

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

The images below come from Wilder Mann, a photography series by Charles Fréger (based in Rouen, France), who spent two years traveling around Europe documenting the folk pageants and festivals of what he calls "tribal Europe." The resulting photographic exhibition just moved from New York to Switzerland, and the images have been collected into a stunningly beautiful art book. (You can see more of Fréger's photographs here.)

As Rachel Hartigan Shea explains in an article about the series, "Traditionally the festivals are a rite of passage for young men. Dressing in the garb of a bear or wild man is a way of 'showing your power,' says Fréger. Heavy bells hang from many costumes to signal virility. The question is whether Europeans — civilized Europeans — believe that these rituals must be observed in order for the land, the livestock, and the people to be fertile. Do they really believe that costumes and rituals have the power to banish evil and end winter? 'They all know they shouldn’t believe it,' says Gerald Creed, who has studied mask traditions in Bulgaria. Modern life tells them not to. But they remain open to the possibility that the old ways run deep.'"

Likewise, the mythic scholar Daniel C. Noel is struck by the masculine power of Green Man lore: "Whether the Green Man, is some sort of Jungian archetype 'returning' from a primeval past, a Celtic survival in the psyche, seems not as important to me as the metaphor he constitutes for men, and for the gender-embattled culture, in the present and future.  Whatever the metaphysics of this fascinating figure, it is enough that he is a green ideal and a good idea arriving from wherever to inspire us. We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood." 

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

Let's give Henry David Thoreau the last word today on why the wild and the folklore of the wild still matter: "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?" he asks (in Walden). "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?"

Photographs copyright by Charles Fréger

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

The art above: A Green Man painting by Brian Froud; a Green Man carving in a church near Birmingham; Jack-in-the-Greens in Oxford and the City of London (photographs from the "In the Company of the Green Man" blog);  Green Women drawings by Brian Froud; a Sheela-na-gig carving at a church in County Clare, Ireland; "A Shrine for the Mother of the Birds" by Fidelma Massey; three photographs from Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth's "Eyes as Big as Plates" collaborative art project, the first from Norway, the second two from Finland; and four photographs from Charles Fréger's "Wilder Mann" series: a sauvage in Switerland, three kurkeri in Bulgaria, a careto in Portugal, and a devil in St. Nicholas' retinue in the Czech Republic. All art works are copyright by the artists. 

Some recommended reading, nonfiction: "The Land of the Green Man" by Carolyne Larrington; "Gossip from the Forest" by Sara Maitland (published as "From the Forest" in the US), "Forests" by Robert Pogue Harrison, "Green Man" by William Anderson & Clive Hicks, "Sheela-Na-Gigs" by Barbara Freitag, and "Meetings With Remarkable Trees" by Thomas Pakenham. Fiction: The Mythago Wood Series by Robert Holstock; "Forests of the Heart," "The Wild Wood," and  "Jack in the Mist" by Charles de Lint; "In the Forests of Serre," "Winter Rose," and "Solstice Wood" by Patricia McKillp; "The Bear and the Nightingale" by Katherine Arden; "Tender Morsels" by Margo Lanagan; and "The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest," a Datlow-Windling anthology. For children: "Grumbles from the Forest" by Jane Yolen & Rebecca Kai Dotlich and "Into the Forest" by Anthony Browne. Poetry: "The Forest" by Susan Stewart. Art: "Wood" by Andy Goldsworthy and "Wilder Mann" by Charles Frer.

Today's post goes out to mythic maskmaker's Shane & Leah Odom; and to Charles de Lint, who brough Green Men to Bordertown.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Tree Nymph by Virgina Lee

I'm running late this morning as I'm a bit under the weather today, but here are the Monday Tunes at last: some music from the woods and wilds in order to keep to our woodlands theme. These songs come from Soundcloud rather than YouTube because I couldn't find video performances of the pieces I particularly wanted to play this morning....

First up, "Home" by the Michigan alt-folk trio Breathe Owl Breathe, gently calling us out of the house and out of doors:

Next, "On Trees and Birds and Fire," a magical little tune from I Am the Oak, the band of the Dutch singer/songwriter Thijs Kuijken, based in Utrecht:

Third is "Furr," a charming story of woods, wolves, and transformation from the Oregon alt-folk band Blitzen Trapper:

Next, "The Wild Hunt," a rather upbeat song about death and the Wild Hunt legends of northern Europe: myth meets Bob Dylan. It comes The Tallest Man On Earth, which is the stage name of the Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson:

And last, here's the English alt-folk band Matthew & the Atlas, calling us back from the wilds again with their utterly gorgeous song "Come Out of the Woods":


Beauty as the Beast by Virginia Lee


The drawings above are "Tree Nymph" and "Beauty as the Beast" by the always-amazing Virginia Lee, no stranger to the wilds herself.

Into the Woods, 4: The Dog's Tale

Tilly Coming Down From Nattadon Hill by Stu JenksThe Dog's Tales: a series of posts in which Tilly has her say....

I've been asked to give my thoughts on woods and wilderness from a furry, four-footed perspective. It's simple. We should spend more time there.

My People are intelligent People, and so I don't understand how they have gotten this matter precisely backwards. We spend some time each day outdoors, but many more hours in the House or Studio. Surely it is obvious that this is the reverse of what life ought to be?

My People like poetry, and so I present this poem by Mary Oliver to make my case. This poet belongs to a dog named Percy. Percy is very wise.

Percy and Books

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it, and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out, and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say, Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.
Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was not enough. Let's go.


Photograph above: "Tilly Windling-Gayton Coming Down From Nattadon Hill" by Stu Jenks.