Wild Men & Women of the Forest
Tuesday, February 06, 2018
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.)
In epic romances, knights and other heroes go into the woods to test their strength, courage, and faith; yet some of them also 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.
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.
"The medieval imagination was fascinated by the wild man," notes Robert Pogue Harrison (in his book 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...but we'll talk more about "wild children" in another post.
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 from 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."
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.
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, 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, 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 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."
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."
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."
"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."
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."
"It's not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades," Estés adds. "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."
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."
The wildwood art above is: "Merlin in the Forest" and a Mabinogion painting by Alan Lee; 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; "Hansel & Gretel's Witch" by Rima Staines; Baba Yaga" by Forest Rogers; "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" by Trina Schart Hyman; "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin; a Wild Woman drawing by Brian Froud, "Nature's Bride" by Amy Ross; and "Little Red" by Jackie Morris.All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
Words: This post first appeared in 2013; all rights reserved.