Tag Archives: The Wicker Man

Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.

The Genesis of ‘Old Crotchet’

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The instant that I saw her and her companion, I knew that I would have to write about her. It was not only her face, but also her mode of dress and stature, as well as her stiff deportment, which invited comment. I cannot say that I fell in love with her, for I do not generally find women with thick leathery skin and unprepossessing looks topped off by a sinister expression appealing, but she did intrigue me. She also appeared to be somewhere in the region of four hundred years old. Whether the two of them are Jacobean or late Elizabethan, or merely fashioned to appear of that age, it is hard to say, but what can be said of them with some certainty is this: their appearance is singular.

Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset, the seat of the Lyte family from the 13th to the 18th centuries, was restored to its present charming state under the ownership of Sir Walter Jenner, who purchased the estate in 1907, but since 1949 it has been under the stewardship of the National Trust. It has served as home to these two antiquated ladies for an unspecified period of time, and who brought them into the house, and for what reason, has been long lost to memory. The guides at the house refer to these two figures as ‘the good companions’, and although their purpose is uncertain, it has been suggested that they were employed on those inauspicious occasions when thirteen diners were expected for dinner, with one, or both of them, being brought to table to make up the numbers. This detail was the germ around which the story of Old Crotchet was to coalesce.

Both the mannequins and their residence invited something of a supernatural treatment, and it was with a nod or two to M.R. James, that the idea of penning a ghostly tale against a festive backdrop suggested itself. That it has been published in the height of summer – insofar as it may be termed as such, given the autumnal feel to the weather of late – is somewhat inapposite, yet unavoidable, for having completed it in April, I did not wish to wait until winter to make it available to the public. This does however remain, in many respects, ‘a ghost story for Christmas.’

It seemed apt to set it at a moment in the past when the old rural order was reaching its point of dissolution, and longstanding customs and folkways – such as wassailing, as detailed by Ronald Hutton in his ‘The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain’ – were dying out, or almost dead. There was no period of social disjuncture greater than that occasioned by the Great War of the last century, a conflict that hastened the decline of the country house and social deference, as well as accelerating technological development. It is thus the clash of the modern with the traditional, the urban with the rural, symbolised by the arrival of George with his young wife Celia in their Talbot Tourer, which awakens Old Crotchet, like some domestic guardian spirit, from her many centuries of slumber.

Hinton St Cuthbert Manor exists in the imagination alone; it is something of a composite, an amalgam of the imaginary and the real, drawing elements and features from a number of historic houses in the south of Somerset. From Lytes Cary it takes its relatively modest dimensions and Great Hall, the latter with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, wooden panelling and stained glass windows providing the perfect setting for a Twelfth Night dinner. Other aspects of its appearance – its honeyed Hamstone exterior, barley twist chimneys and plasterwork ceilings for example – were drawn from Barrington Court and Montacute House, both of which are open to the public, and under the care of the National Trust.

Although the publication of Old Crotchet is out of season given its midwinter setting, it appears to be in step with an appetite to revive the ghost story for a contemporary television audience, as evidenced by the current screening of a new supernatural drama series by the BBC – ‘The Living and the Dead.’ This, coincidentally, also happens to be set in Somerset, albeit some three decades earlier in 1894.  Like ‘Old Crotchet’, it focuses upon the theme of the intrusion of the modern and the metropolitan – in the form of Nathan and Charlotte Appleby – into the world of the traditional and the rural, and its coming leading to the awakening of a supernatural presence that has long lain dormant. That is where the similarities between the two come to an end, for the tone employed in each differs significantly, with Old Crotchet being shot through with a strong vein of wry humour, which is absent from the BBC production.

From what I have seen thus far, ‘The Living and the Dead’ is handsomely filmed, and in terms of its look manages to capture its era successfully, although some of the characterisation is perhaps better placed in the 1990s rather than the 1890s. If you do not find its initial instalments engaging, it is worth persevering with, for it truly gets into its stride by the third episode. I shall reserve judgement on its overall merit until I have watched the entire series. Clearly, a considerable amount of investment has been ploughed into its production, yet for all that, a big budget need not be necessary to create a piece of television that elicits a sense of psychological unease in the viewer. One need look no further than Christopher Lee’s masterful delivery of a number of M.R. James’s tales in his ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, originally screened in 2000, for an example of what can be achieved using relatively modest resources. It is a great pity that he is no longer with us, and given that I have mentioned him, it would be remiss of me not to note that some reviewers have drawn parallels between ‘The Living and the Dead’ and ‘The Wicker Man.’

Although the writers of the former appear to have drawn upon some elements of the latter, it falls far short of approaching the 1973 cult classic’s atmosphere, originality and deranged air of menace, so eloquently embodied in Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. ‘The Wicker Man’,whose director Robin Hardy has just passed away, was a unique cultural artefact, very much of its time, with its texture being enriched by its idiosyncratic soundtrack. ‘The Living and the Dead’ should thus also be considered on its own terms, and seen as a reworking of certain supernatural themes with a contemporary audience in mind.

Old Crotchet is the first in a series of West Country Tales, many of which will possess a supernatural or occult element, as well as a marked streak of wry humour.  To preview, or purchase Old Crotchet for 99p or 99c, please click here. This novelette is free to download for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.