Into the Woods, 8: Wild Sanctuary
Tunes for a Monday Morning

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.


Lovely...I spent much of yesterday researching the Ash wife myth, you just keep adding to the pile of things to find out about. The more I learn the less I know.

I can hardly address to which part i love the best...thank you Terri for compiling this beautiful array of knowledge today. A fellow wild child...have a beautiful day you and Howard and Tilly girl!!!

Youth is a country
I can no longer visit.
I am grown wild with longing.

The forest is overgrown.
I pluck false herbs and true,
test them on myself, turn wolfish.

When the tide is on me,
I race against the wind.
Nothing hobbles me now.

I run where I will,
drink down the stars,
lift my skirts, howl at the moon.

I remember you in the woods,
counting birds, capturing songs,
now oak and birch and ash yourself.

Who is the wilder now?

Terri, I've been loving this series, and have really been wanting to start a new 'movable feast'. However, a rotten case of the flu has got me not quite hale and hearty in body or brain, so I've dug out some old scribbles that are somewhat relevant, and posted them over in the attic. I hope someone else takes up the baton though, it's such a wonderfully rich theme (especially as I'm reading Jay Griffiths at the moment!)

So utterly beautiful, Jane.

Beautiful, sad, and life affirming all at once. There are all kinds of ways to be wild...

Flu or not, it's a lovely post, Christine.

Folks, here's a direct link, and I encourage you all to head over to the Attic to read it:

Great post, Terri.

I'd comment more - particularly on this theme, which is so close to my heart - but I'm in the depths of writing up my acupuncture/PTSD dissertation (not so wild a practice, but connected to it via long roots through civilisation's malaises of turning-from-the-wild.)

May I direct the odd reader or two to my piece from last year's Dark Mountain, 'Nettle Eater' - I think it chimes with some of the themes here. And it's based on Dartmoor, after all...

Looking forward to seeing you soon, on the other side of this particular academic hoop-jumping...

Tom x

Hmmm--title left off. Sorry: Wild Woman Running.

And this: ©2013 Jane Yolen, all rights reserved.

Even the christian poet and literary master of my adopted homeland uses the image of the Dark Forest and becoming lost in the wild at the beginning of L'Inferno.

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che' la diritta via era smarrita
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte..."

"In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth..."

It seems to me that this dark forest is also a part of that tradition of mediaeval Romance in which knights enter dark and tangled forests and therein undergo spiritual transformation but coupled with the platonic idea of nature is chaotic and confounding and an allusion to the dark wood that hides the entrance to the Underworld in Virgil's Aeneid. So it is given a decidedly different spin but I think its still a relative.

That's a slightly tangental contribution, I know, but it popped into my head. :)

I love this point, that there are all kinds of ways to be wild. I guess it depends on what we mean when we say wild. For me, it's about the fact we are children of nature, never mind our concrete houses and 9-5 jobs for money - we are another kind of animal in the world. So wild means being one's authentic, natural self. A wolfish woman ... or a woman who sits quietly in a corner, reading books ... or a soft-bodied grandmother ... or a shy, quiet, indoors kind of child.

Thank you for this series of posts, since reading them I've been drawn back into to my own forest home.

wonderful, chilling, beautiful.

Terri, thank you first off for this utterly brilliant series of Into the Wood tidbits. I want to have a little volume bound in leather with all these scraps of wood-wildness and magic inside. I've long been drawn to the figure of the wild wood-man/woman, the hermit living off berries and speaking to the little wrens. Perhaps it has something to do with being named Sylvia! All very dear to my heart. Your posts are constantly illuminating. What a treasure-trove!

I have a quick question for you too-- I've been researching Snow White, a tale I never thought I'd attempt to retell given its Disney-fication, but it fell into my imagination and won't leave, for my next Gray Fox Epistle. Something in the dark-wood initiation, the dwarves/robbers, the sleeping and then being awakened... chthonic, earthen... I read your excellent Snow, Glass and Apples, in which you mentioned Snow White alternatively being carried off by gypsies or upon reindeer antlers. Both very intriguing, and very much more interesting to me than being kissed/startled awake by the Prince-- what tales are those?? Can't find any other reference except yours! But now I can't rest til I know. Help!

Tom, your poetry is what my poetry dreams of being when it grows least it can dream!

With this post I'm put in mind of how the earliest settlers in Britain, the Neolithic farmers of 4000BC, must have interacted with the nomadic hunter-gatherers who preceded them.
Britain's forests are young, globally speaking; the last Ice Age removed any trees from earlier periods, even from the areas that weren't glaciated.
Once the ice sheet began to retreat and the scoured land warmed up, century by century, trees came. First the dwarf trees that still cling to Dartmoor and the Highlands; then the hazel, the rowan and the hawthorn, around the solid edges of the marshlands high with reeds and grasses.
Only once the land had risen high enough for the marshes to drain away did the great trees come - oak and elm and chestnut, walnut and beech and ash. The people who lived on the margins of the forest, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, left us evidence at Star Carr ( and the Somerset Levels.
When the Neolithic people settled and began to farm they had to clear spaces within the great forests to uncover the best land for their crops, and they interacted with the hunter-gatherers. They might even have been the same population.
But the notion that there were people in the woods, living a wild life, not dressed in woollen clothes but in furs, not farming but hunting, not settled but always on the move with the seasons and the migrating birds, must have begun in Britain with those first farmers.
Or maybe I'm just an ex-archaeologist with too much imagination...
P.S. Love the Bilibin - one I've not seen before.

one of my all time favourite wild man/outsider/shamanic characters is your Tomas in "The Wood Wife" Terri! He has deep magic grounded in awareness of the sentience of our beautiful earth as do you wise lady!

I loved this blog post. I learnt so much, and I made a list of all the books you mentioned so I can go and learn some more. Thank you! :-)

Ah, bless you, Christina! Thanks :)

Have been very busy until now so I can comment on the magical art and have swiftly scanned several
times. I have a book illustrated with what looks like Ivan Bilibin's work; have to find it amongst either
children's or art shelves. I love all medieval curlycue pictures. All representations of art and all fine.
Bilibin sounds like an extra Lord Of The Rings character. Thanks for moments of solitude and joy
during a loaded with too much week.

There is something blocking the throat
It starts from there--
It is fear of your own death
for that is the way it ends the tale.
You start out bare,brazen and beyond the pale
a golden tongue to charm the wren
and small fingers to unbind the lock
and to pick the keys.
The tales are peopled with death
riddled and addled with the bringers of unease.
You cannot pass--
Not every test and there is only so much
Your charms can take you.
The book is closed and you cannot climb out
straddling the binding for it is over for you
and the last pages are always blank to give Death
someplace to wipe his mouth.

Oh Tom, that's wonderful. I hope everyone here will follow the link....

I'll see you on Saturday, health and the gods willing!

That's not tangential at all, that's spot on.

Oh gracious, Sylvia, I wrote that article some years ago and will have to dig through my files to find my notes. I can't promise to do that right away, but I'll do it when I can and email you.

That's a very interesting thought, Lee. I recall reading somewhere (can't remember exactly where now) that one Victorian theory for the origin of faery lore was that Neolithic peoples found the earlier peoples so strange and magical that they thought they were supernatural beings....

Aw, shucks.

Gracious, that's an intense one. Gave me chills. It puts me in mind of Bob Hicok's "Bedtime Story" -- do you know it?

Thank you once again, everyone, for your kind comments.

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