'A Way through the Tangled Woods': Paganism & Witchcraft in the Golden Age of Children's tv
(Lecture by Dr John Callow at Treadwell's Occult Bookshop, 33 Store Street, London WC1 on Sat 15 October 2016)
I've heard Dr John Callow speak before. He's an unashamed disciple of Richard'Kip'Carpenter, creator and main scriptwriter of Robin of Sherwood; and indeed has followed The Master into tv scriptwriting (he has an academic day-job too, and writes books on James II, Karl Marx and Keir Hardie). So I wasn't going to miss this talk; arranged by Treadwells in association with the Folk Horror Revival series of events at the British Museum.
Sadly, the promised illustrations didn't materialise; so it was just as well that John's subject-matter was pretty vivid (even though, I have to confess, I'd heard a lot of it in his last lecture, which WAS illustrated).
Also, a wonderful surprise awaited any Robin of Sherwood fans who attended. I walked into the bookshop and came face-to-face with none other than Friar Tuck himself - Phil Rose. Those of us who attended The Hooded Man Convention last May missed him amongst the guests (particularly since all the original Merries had featured in the audio adventure from a script of Kip's called The Knights of the Apocalypse, which was launched at the Con). We heard he'd been ill; so I was delighted to see how well he looked, in spite of a rather worrisome cough.
John opened (once again) with the story of Kip Carpenter vs Mary Whitehouse; an encounter won rather decisively by Kip (if Kip's account, retailed by John is to be believed). The reason why Kip attracted Whitehouse's attention, of course, was that his take on the Robin Hood legend included elements of paganism, demon worship and witchcraft. At 6.30 on a Saturday evening in the 'family viewing' slot.
John then went into more detail about the influences that fed-into Kip's vision of Sherwood. These included a thorough grounding in the Robin Hood ballads, a knowledge of English folk customs, of Gardnerian Wicca, of the various past film/tv interpretations of Robin Hood, and of a number of conjectured literary influences including Sir Walter Scott.
But Kip didn't stop at the Robin Hood tradition. He deftly braided elements of magic and paganism into the mix, mainly via the shamanic figure of Herne the Hunter, the antler-crowned Lord of the Trees.
John therefore then gave us a historical review of the figure of Herne, from his first appearance in The Merry Wives of Windsor as a malignant ghost haunting Windsor Forest; through Harrison Ainsworth's highly sensational account in his novel Windsor Castle (which lavishly embroiders Shakespeare's bare account into a gothic farrago set in the time of Henry VIII); to artist Mary Fairclough's pencil sketch (in early C20) which shows Herne for the first time as a greenwood spirit concerned with renewal and growth, rather than a frightful sylvan hobgoblin.
On fact, in my opinion it was the poet and academic Eric Mottram who first synthesised the two contrasting aspects of the literary character of Herne. I'd guess that he didn't know of Fairclough's sketch; but he certainly knew Ainsworth's work intimately - and indeed grounded his extended poem Windsor Forest (1977) in the events depicted in the novel; even using Ainsworth's very words describing Herne's hunting skills (only cast into his idiosyncratic 'found-poetry' poem-form) -
Expert beyond us in woodcraft
he could rear a wild boar
dig a badger unkennel a fox
bay a marten vent an otter
fly a falcon .....
But - once stripped of his expertise (part of the price he paid for the healing of a death-wound) - Herne hangs himself on an oak tree (that subsequently bears his name); and at once becomes part of the forest he haunts -
his lost craft and gained thunder laughter
took to roots and compelled homage
in the scathed oak kingdom ..
In Kip's version, of course, he's become Lord of the Trees, still fierce in protecting and avenging the forests; and something of a deity (later pagans have conflated him with Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god).
John stated that his favourite RoS episode is Lord of the Trees, containing as it does elements of Gardnerian paganism, folklore and shamanism, as well as the usual Hood-esque swashbuckling. In fact this is the episode wherein Herne demonstrates graphically that he combines elements of deity with all-too-human vulnerability, when he is wounded (in the thigh - just like the Fisher King in the Grail stories - which I bet Kip knew perfectly well).
And then of course - for all us Robert Addie fans - there's the famous sequence where Guy of Gisburne, having attacked Herne's sacred tree with an axe, is tormented with tree-madness in the forest; thus reminding us that literary Herne began life as a vengeful spirit, who might indeed have been totally 'made up' by Shakespeare; just as the pagan ritual in the episode was self-confessedly 'made up' by Kip. The whole point of John's lecture was to demonstrate just how much pre-existing lore and other influences, went into that 'making-up'.
And finally, during the Q&A session afterwards, Phil Rose raised a diffident hand; and went on to tell us some stories of the making of RoS. During the shooting of the scene where Gisburne attacks Herne's Tree with an axe; he said; things did not go easily. During the first take, the head of the axe flew off; during the second, the haft broke. Props Department then bought a new huge axe and told Robert Addie to really go all out with it. Robert did so, struck the Tree heavily;and the Tree groaned. Phil said the cast was left in no doubt that this had been a sacrilegious act!
Well, we'd been promised a bit about The Owl Service mini-series (1969) on the flier; but there was so much to say (and hear) about RoS that the Owls didn't get a look-in. Perhaps next time?