Listen to any good traditional storyteller and, sooner or later, you will find yourself walking into the woods.
Woodlands are full of immediate life, colour, sound, scent, and danger, no matter what the season. They are worlds away from the barren, unforgiving desert, or farmland all tamed and neat; they don’t have hidden kingdoms like rivers and lakes, or powerful elemental magic like the sea. Across the traditional stories of the world, woodlands are earthy places that you seek out if you want to be lost, to relinquish control, and to return to your wild roots.
Or are they?
For some years now I’ve been searching for folk tales from Britain and Ireland that tell of the natural world. It was inevitable that the search would lead me to tales of the woods. My path to collect these stories has been winding, challenging at times, always varied, and sometimes surprising. The journey has taught me much about the idiosyncrasy and practicalities of folktale, and also about how we as a society really relate to actual woodlands.
The wilderness myth
…[He] walked the woods, learning the ways of the animals and birds and their language, eating nothing but berries and roots. His stories from this time were little more than one long, bitter complaint at the unfairness of life, especially in the winter when the food became scarce…
Walk into any woodland in Britain today, and you will find nature that has been tamed. The wolves are long gone, but with a trained eye it is possible to read the history of our woodlands from their structure: the abandoned hazel coppice, introduced trees and boundary banks. Virtually no woodlands in Britain today have been left to grow truly wild, although we know that our remaining fragments of so-called ‘ancient woodlands’ have been woodland since at least the first maps in the 1600s.
If our land was left to its own devices, most of it would, over the course of hundreds of years, revert to woodland. It was this vegetation that our ancestors laboriously cleared for agriculture, right back to the time when the hunter-gatherers changed to a more settled lifestyle and started to grow most of their diet, rather than hunt for it.
I believe the notion of ‘wildwood’ in our imaginations runs deep. Firstly, it may represent the fear and the thrill of being in a truly wild place where humans are not safe and not in control – the kind of place where you could be attacked or eaten at any time. But it may also represent the nature of the land itself, which is always trying to revert to woodland, and needs managing in order to prevent this from happening.
These human-centred themes of control and loss of control related to the wildwood are found clearly in our folk tales. Mad Sweeney, the ancient Irish king, becomes half-bird and lives in Ireland’s woodlands throwing wild insults at anyone who tries to tame him. Merlin learns nature-lore and turns wildman in the Cumbrian wildwood, much to the fear of his relatives. Lovers elope to the wild woods to escape society.
However, the wild rarely helps our heroes with their status or power in the human world. In our folk tales, as in real life, there are always humans ready to assert themselves through owning and controlling the land.
Power and dominion
Not breaking the gaze, he lifted his silver hunting horn to his lips and blew a single, wild note; and the two men turned their horses and rode for their lives.
From ‘Herne the Hunter’
Folklore and history often emerge through folktale, and this is clearly demonstrated in the stories of woodland that I’ve found. Many stories reflect the unfairness of royal control and ‘afforestation’ of the British landscape, and it’s pleasing to discover that our woodland folk tales hold no respect of class or ruler. Here, the wildness of woodland mingles with the sheer delight of righteous lawlessness to defend the needy, of which the most famous example is Robin Hood. The old tales and ballads may have served the role of propaganda at a time when disobeying the rules to feed your family was a matter of life and death.
The stories also tell of how our woods were managed and their materials used in everyday life. There are threads of connection here to re-forge, craftmanship to understand and history to re-learn. In these days of consumerism, we often forget that our relationship with the landscape was very often one of necessity and trade.
But where human control for profit meets the wildwood in folk tale, there is often a heavy price to be paid.
Woodlands of wyrd
…he came to another little cottage, and there inside it was a woman even older than the one before, her skin like a wrinkled crab-apple at the end of winter, sitting in her chair rocking back and forth, back and forth…
From ‘Jack and the Green Man’
Those who are new to folk tales are often surprised and unsettled by what they find. Folk tales are not neat and tidy. They are often fragmented, unapologetically dark and with a blatant disrespect for happy endings. But above all, they talk of magical forces, the non-human and fairy beings who have rules very different to humans, and may act with no explanation or afterword.
Our woodland folk tales are no different, of course. Here we find ghostly hounds, fairy spirits and disagreeable bogles. Many stories talk of the spirits of the trees themselves, and we get a glimpse into the timescales and rituals of the tree communities that create the woods.
When a blundering human wanders into the woods, by choice or coercion, they may be lucky enough to get away with a mere brush with the otherworld, or a blessing. But they may also find themselves in the clutches of forces they cannot escape from- particularly if they take more than they should.
Folk tale fortitude
In the real-world dance between humans and woodlands, control and wild, humans have the upper hand; but the current climate and ecological crisis is looming. Humans have clearly pushed things too far, and through our actions we are endangering our own existence and pushing thousands of other species towards extinction. One of the solutions to this crisis being explored in Britain and across the world is ‘rewilding’ – losing control and allowing natural processes to take over the land again. It’s something I am exploring in Devon through my conservation work.
Timescales are challenging us. The tragedy of Dutch elm disease, and now the pandemic of ash dieback, reminds us that landscape change outside of our control can happen in a short space of time. But humans still have despotic power over the wild places, and the destruction is undoubtedly accelerating. Recently I have watched in horror as HS2 destroys our precious ancient woodland in a matter of days in the name of greed and profit, despite all the protest and evidence that the development is not needed.
The challenges facing our society can be overwhelming. As a conservationist and a storyteller, I have found great inspiration and heart in these stories. Like all folk tales, there are layers of meaning and emotion here that can reflect back our current circumstances and bring new insight into the choices ahead.
In Woodland Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland I’m offering up a heady mix of ecology and magic, mulch and mystery, timber and tradition. I hope you enjoy the stories, and that they bring you refreshment and inspiration in the dark woods we are all travelling through.
This article was also published on the History Press website as an introduction to Woodland Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland in September 2020.