Oak, ash and thorn

Essays Published January 20, 2010 in Published in the programme for the play 'Jerusalem', January 2010

Before the Normans arrived in 1066, and began to unravel the English sense of self at the tip of a sword, everyone in the country would have known the story of Wayland the smith.

Travelling storytellers ’ gleomen or scopmen as they were known ’ would have trawled his tale from village to town to port, embellishing it in the telling but keeping the basic spine of the story intact. The legend told of how Wayland, or Weland, a blacksmith whose works were the wonder of the world, was enslaved and crippled by a greed-blinded king and forced to work for him alone, and how he enacted his revenge in the most terrible way. The story of Wayland spoke to Old English society of themes at once specific and universal: power misused, leaders blinded by cupidity, ordinary men wronged and out for revenge. If we were searching for a foundation myth for the English people, the story of Wayland would be a strong contender.

Who in England knows the legend of Wayland today? The English, notoriously, have a blind spot when it comes to their myths, the legends of their past and their people, their folk tales and their origins. This is not something that could be said of any of the other peoples of the British Isles. The Scots and the Irish share CÃÂșchulainn and the legends of Finn, and celebrate any number of ancient and modern folk heroes; the Welsh have the Mabinogion and the re-invented Druids, and lay claim (in rivalry with the Cornish) to Arthur and Merlin. Britain’s ethnic minorities bring stories, folk legends, songs and still-living religions from India, Africa, eastern Europe and elsewhere.

But the English are strangely quiet about their deep past; disconnected, embarrassed. It’s a curious thing, for the country is full of living reminders of its mythical history and prehistory, from the green men on the lintels of old churches to maypoles and even Christmas trees. But the English have nothing to rival the Mabinogion. They have no W B Yeats or Dylan Thomas, diverting old myths through new channels. What are the foundation myths of the English? Who are their folk heroes? When they look for a mystical past, why do they turn to the Celts? Where did they come from, who built their landscape? Why are the barrows silent and where have the faeries gone?

It’s not as if the stories aren’t there waiting to be found. The old English tales are as deep, as archetypal, as any other myth cycle. As well as Wayland, the Old English pantheon included one-eyed Woden, also known as Grim, god of the slain, who walked the high downs with his familiars – the raven and the wolf – looking down on the world of men. There was great Thunor with his hammer of fire and his sacred groves, and Frig, Woden’s consort, pagan matriarch and goddess of the green. There were Balder and Ing and others long-forgotten, whose swords and carved idols are still dragged up today from riverbeds and bogs. There were orcs and ents, dwarves and elves, demon hounds and giants in the landscapes and mindscapes of England long before they re-emerged in the pages of Tolkein.

These were the gods and the demons of the Old English; dead but not resurrected, unlike their Celtic forbears or Christian conquerors. But the myths of a nation are about more than gods: they are about the folk legends, the small stories, the culture that grows from season and place. In England this gives us, amongst others, the strange mystery of the green man, his foliate head carved on churches over centuries, a heathen riposte on a Christian building. Who is he? If we once knew we have forgotten, like we have forgotten Jack in the Green and the origins of Robin Hood; like we have forgotten Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild and Jack Cade; like we have forgotten the craft of the village witch and the story of the wind smith, the meaning of the white horses and the ballads of the sea.

Times change and the world moves on. Perhaps the English have forgotten because they wanted to forget. Perhaps England is such a self-confident, forward-looking nation that it doesn’t need to bolster its self-image with half-remembered stories from a dead world. But it doesn’t seem that way to me. Rather the opposite: it seems as if, for some reason, the English are afraid of their myths – intimidated by their stories, maybe even by their past. For whatever political, sociological or historical reason – take your pick, according to your inclinations, from a ragbag of defendants that includes the Norman Conquest, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, political correctness or the simple process of historical forgetting – we do not seem inclined to dig into the barrows and unearth the old hoards. Maybe we are afraid of seeing our faces in the reflection.

Over a century ago, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling resurrected Puck, the impish faerie that Shakespeare had himself laid down from the collective memory centuries before. In Kipling’s tale, Puck is the last of the faeries – ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’ – summoned accidentally from his barrow by theatrically-minded children. The first tale he tells them is the tale of Wayland the smith.

And so the cycle continues. Because though we have forgotten much in England, we don’t have the option of leaving the past behind. No-one ever does. Weirdly, obtusely, at the margins and from the corners of our eyes, the old myths can still be seen. A hundred years on from Kipling, the long barrow on the ridgeway near White Horse Hill is still known as Wayland’s Smithy; the old smith, it is said, will shoe any horse left there overnight if a coin is placed on the stones. The third day of the week is still Woden’s Day, the green men on the cathedral ceilings receive coats of fresh paint, and every May Day, even now, the strange green dance goes on in crevices and byways while most of the nation is driving to the out-of-town retail park.

This is the England of Johnny Byron, a post-modern Puck, a dangerous spirit of the old world and the new, leading the children astray, telling them stories, a story himself. The old gods are still with us, and the myths. Not because we have held onto them, but because they have held onto us. We tried to banish them, like the council tries to banish Johnny from his wood and the developers try to banish the woods themselves. But like Puck, they linger in the barrows long after they were supposed to be gone. ‘I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn,’ says Puck in Kipling’s tale, ‘and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.’ Perhaps when climate change comes to England it will banish the oak and the ash and the thorn, but more likely they will cling on, like Puck and Johnny and Wayland and Grim, like lichen on bark or moss on stone; impossible to shift, so common as to go unnoticed unless we go out and search for them.

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