PARZIVAL....ahh, it's getting to the time of year again. Please ring bells, waft smoke signals, uncork the brandy for this mightiest of stories..and told over the Easter weekend no less! (Auspicious for the story). Kudos for the design and swift delivery of this poster by the talented Ian Forster over at www. graphic alchemy.co.uk I will throw in some sweet tasters of this story as we get closer.
Something on the Greenwood spirit this week -as cover while i continue to climb the crags and wander the wintering dells of the moor 'walking the stories'. This is another section from a commentary on a very obscure Berry Pomeroy tale. I do like the below notion of 'leaf bowed morality' -that the outlaw spirit of Robin Hood is not opposed to the order of the village but actually offers a higher mirror of the inner-behaviour of real chivalry - something so rarely practiced by the Sheriffs and Feudal Lords.
I had a wonderful time at the weekend at the Wood Sisters great storytelling festival, and the 'Tasting the Milk of Eagles' myth weekend - i feel mildly ablaze with story this week, despite the chilly turn.
Wandering the Haunted Forest
Many of us reading this will remember another walk through a lonely forest to a grandmothers: Red Riding Hood. We know from the trembling excitements of our childhood that the forest is a-teeming with rapacious wildness – both in supernatural form and slathering animal guise. It is resolutely not the cheery market square of collective certainties. It is oppressive, ghoulish, otherly. The verdant trails between settlements were scenes of both robbery and epiphany, empty saddlebags or occult revelation, depending on your motivation for travel. For the aspiring druid or magician it was a testing ground for growth and spiritual expertise, but to the working farmer or weaver, it represented a place beyond the edge of reason, unruly and brooding.
Red Riding Hood’s encounter with wolves could have been very real. The Saxon King Edgar, Anno 959, used to receive a yearly payment in wolf-skins from Welsh hunters, from the ‘Walds’ themselves – woods that harboured wolves and foxes. The term ‘forest’ was originally a juridical phrase; a designated area outside the castle walls, most likely meaning “outside”, from the Latin foris. This also clarified a difference between walled but spacious royal gardens that were on occasion referred to as silva, meaning wood. To a working class Englishmen, the forests were off limits on pain of all sorts of nastiness.
These noble glades and thickets teemed with coney, pheasant, partridge, grouse, hind, hart, buck, doe and fox. They were both in a state of preservation and pursuit: the peasants were kept out and so the woodland creatures enjoyed primacy until the nobles took the saddle and went mad for roving the emerald glades. It was a kind of early conservation act, Robert Pogue Harrison (Harrison 1992 :70) arguing that these very enclosures could have prolonged the life of extended woodland in an ever more industrial Europe. In this light, William the Conqueror is a kind of rough ecologist. In this way not every wood was a forest – it needed this royal designation, but almost every forest had woods within it. The writer John Manwood, who, in the Elizabethan era was a gamekeeper of Waltham forest, gathered and laid out this system of wilderness preservation in what he called ‘The Forest Law’.
It is no secret that Manwood hankered after an earlier era, when the law was kept with a dread fist for poachers. By his time, the great royal forests were degrading into hiding places and leafy refuge for all variants of wolfs-head and bandits. In Manwood’s Arcadian reverie, we are back in the time of the Saltus sacrosanctus, the sacrosanct wood. Any den of near-do-wells would be viscously plucked from the hide outs. To become an outlaw – a ‘wolfs head’ (the price of your head was equivalent to that of a wolf) – was to be civiliter mortuus, or civilly dead.
It was a banishment that could only be undone by suing for pardon from whoever condemned you in the first place. This would prove difficult if your only hope of survival was staying un-caught and out of sight. And the best place for that was the greenwood.
What critics of the royal hunting privilege refused to accept, is that an essential part of the kings personhood belonged to the forest. The wilderness beyond the walls of his court belonged every bit to his nature as the civilised world within those same walls…the hunt ritualises and reaffirms the king’s ancient nature as civilizer and conqueror of the land…as sovereign of the land, the king overcomes the wilderness because he is the wildest of all by nature. (Harrison 1992 :74)
So Harrison implies that the king must be aligned to and leader of all wildness, and so these royal swathes of green wood were ritual quadrants of the ancient, magical hunt. The hunt was a nod back to a time before delicate tea cups, four poster beds and foreign policy, it was to fill the kings head with hot blood, that he was a kind of king of the animals. Without this leafy machismo the worry would be that he was an effete man entirely of court, and that the land underneath his feet was actually out of his control. So these vigorous charges into the green pursuing the stag were a remnant of a pagan cosmology. And it is not to presume that it was just an empty gesture to archaic concerns; a poem from the Peterborough Chronicle reports the William the Conqueror “loved the stags as much/as if he were their father”.
William certainly kept such paternal instincts entirely within the forests his reign imposed, slaughtering, decimating and terrifying the English inhabitants of his new country for decades to come. It is an irony that the very forests he established became rugged homes for on-the-run nobles – becoming furious guerrilla bandits that would set the scene for the likes of real life outlaws Fulk Fritzwarin and Eustace the Monk, and the move over several centuries into the folk-mind of local story, with Gamelyn and Robin Hood. The association between woods and a certain rebel English spirit was established for good.
Leaf Bowed Morality
This sense of injustice creates an interesting dynamic in the rebel spirit, that it somehow represents the true conscience of the English, that not corrupted by wealth and greed. So, true nobility takes a dwelling place in the margins rather than the centre. In this light, the forest represents not the opposite of the steady village, but actually a higher mirror: of right doing, justice, fairness and equality. Whilst this has rarely been demonstrated by a flesh and blood wildwood bandit, it none the less stays central in the dream-consciousness of English folklore, a central tenet. In a dangerous kind of way it can be trusted. It may be that the older ‘Walds’ were more oppositional, a Dionesian uproar, darkly unruly.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012