(urth) Novel 3: Devil in a Forest
soloviev at irit.fr
Sun Jun 23 15:14:38 PDT 2013
I always been sure that the story happens in medieval England - Wat was
a very common name (e.g., Wat Tyler's revolt), he reminds also
strongly Robin Hood (I felt that is sort of de-romanticized Robin Hood),
Ganelon is in no way Tcheck as well -
I have to re-read it, to be sure that there is (or there is not) an
explicit indication to England -
Marc Aramini wrote:
> The Devil in A Forest
> Published in 1976, only a few years after the inordinately confounding
> and unclear “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, The Devil in a Forest seems
> completely straightforward, especially compared to Wolfe’s short story
> output in the first half of the 70s. However, there are still a few
> issues with ambiguity that should at least be touched upon.
> HISTORICAL ODDITIES AND THE TEXT: The very first conundrum involves
> the blatant anachronism of the frame quote: in the Christmas Carol
> Good King Wenceslas, which relates the story of a king who wonders at
> the life of peasant who lives beneath St. Agnes’ fountain, the good
> king goes forth to give the peasant alms on a snowy night. His
> servant gets lost behind him, but King Wenceslas’ footprints have
> enough heat to keep him warm and on the path.
> The problem? Historically, Wenceslas of Bohemia, who became the Czech
> saint, lived from 907 to 935 and was posthumously declared King.
> Agnes of Bohemia, whose fountain it was meant to be, lived at a very
> different time, 1211-1282. She was a Bohemian princess who gave up
> all that wealth for a life of charity and mortification of the flesh.
> She was originally engaged to the son of the holy Roman emperor at age
> 8 and when political machinations changed that destiny she turned to a
> spiritual life. Confusingly, her brother was actually Wenceslaus I of
> Bohemia (who is NOT Good King Wenceslaus). The Bohemian St. Agnes
> lived 300 years after the man who was inquiring about the peasant
> living in the shadow of her fountain.
> These issues are about to get more confusing – because it is possible
> a different St. Agnes is involved – Agnes of Rome. Why bring this
> up? She lived from 291-304, being martyred at 13. She was beautiful
> but scorned her suitors, and so the jilted identified her as a
> Christian. She was dragged naked through the streets to a brothel.
> In some versions of the story those who tried to rape her were
> stricken blind, since they were interfering with her symbolic marriage
> to Christ. This has a very close textual parallel: In /Devil in a
> Forest/, the abbe is stricken blind at the end for interfering with
> the marriage of the character Josellen and the possibly
> pagan/supernatural Barrow Man. If (as Josh Geller mentioned below in
> an old Urth list post), this is a riff on Olaf of Norway, then there
> is something neat tying the name Cloot to this. (I will flesh this
> out below). Wolfe intends his book to be Agnes of Rome, not Agnes of
> Bohemia – she is mentioned as the girl saint. He also mentions an
> 8^th century saint named Hubert. However, the setting should still
> probably be considered Bohemia or the Czech Republic due to the
> presence of Baba Yaga’s hut.
> What makes this even more confusing is the final epilogue, when modern
> pilgrims go to the shrine, and they read “It is also Shrine of Saint
> [illegible] who recovered his sight here after being blinded by
> witches … and lived as a holy hermit and performed many wonderful
> cures.” There is a saint who more or less fits this description from
> Bohemia, named John or Ivan, but he died in the ninth century. There
> is also the saint Gunther, born of a noble family, who eventually
> retreated to live as a hermit in 1008 after an illness. There is a
> path from the Bavarian Forest to the village of Dobra Voda called St.
> Gunther’s Way. He died at the age of almost 90 in 1045. Is the
> unnamed abbe Gunther? I could find no reference to a blind Bohemian
> Saint, but the abbe is not originally from the community and it was
> said that he was sent by a bishop from a city. This might fight
> Gunther’s story more than Ivan’s.
> The question now remains: is the powerful authority who gives Mark the
> gold coin at the end of the tale supposed to be the historical
> Wenceslas? Is the abbe Gunther or John/Ivan? Either way that
> fountain of St. Agnes is anachronistic. The conflict between paganism
> and Christianity makes great sense if this is the time of Wenceslas:
> his grandmother and mother argued over whether he should be Christian
> or pagan (the barrows in Bohemia from the 8th century and before were
> pagan in nature). The struggle between Mother Cloot the pagan rune
> caster/Baba Yaga hag and the abbe would make perfect sense if this
> tale was set in the 10th century, when Christianity’s hold on the
> Czech Republic was not yet too strong, and it would be reasonable for
> Mark to believe in both Jesus and the Barrow Man, as he claims in the
> last chapter. In addition, there is the painting of The Virgin the
> charcoal burners have – somehow both Mary and Freya. Actually, in
> botany, I found this interesting fact: “Freyja's name appears in
> numerous place names in Scandinavia, with a high concentration in
> southern Sweden. Various plants in Scandinavia once bore her name, but
> it was replaced with the name of the Virgin Mary during the process of
> Christianization. Rural Scandinavians continued to acknowledge Freyja
> as a supernatural figure into the 19th century.” Despite all this,
> St. Agnes Well is in Prague.
> This is complicated by the face of a man under the painting when it
> melts off – the Barrow Man? Freya’s brother?
> In light of the identification of Agnes as the girl saint, we can
> place this a bit earlier historically than the real Bohemian Agnes.
> The relationship between paganism and Christianity in the work is
> interesting: first the charcoal burner Gil claims that they set up “a
> statue of the Virgin ...wherever we burn, and that does for me and
> mine. She stood in Grindwalled in the old time when that was the only
> town there was, and this new place and the new people wasn't dreamed
> Let’s look at this city of Grindwalled. There is the fictional
> Grindwall, from Tolkien:
> A small hythe of landing place used by the Hobbits of Breredon and
> Haysend, on the Brandywine river and on the southern fringes of the
> Old Forest. It was outside the hedge of the high hay, and guarded by
> a strong fence that extended into the river called a grind.
> Grindwalled might just be the past participle of Grindwall, since the
> fence is mostly destroyed now. Its proximity to the forest is
> similar. When Mark, Josellen, and Cloot pass through the barrows and
> Grindwalled at night, there are hilly burrows where the old
> inhabitants lived and posts that extend out into the water just like
> the Tolkien description. In addition, Josellen calls the remains of
> the fence a grind (52). The blades of enemies were cast into the
> river to guard the ford. There is mention that the Good People were
> there (Gil, Cope, and Cloot trace their ancestry to a previous,
> supplanted forest culture, and when Mark tries to chime in that his
> lineage, with his father a shepherd for Pyedmeadows, makes him a
> forest person, he is scoffed at. The only other mention of Mark’s
> lineage (besides a Finnish dagger) comes when he hears the Barrow Man
> stalking at night and Gil coughs in bed next to him, making him think
> of that sound and the old dog that lived in the house of his infancy).
> Historically, there is also Grindelwald in Switzerland, but I am sure
> /Devil in a Forest/ has a Czech/Bohemian setting. I could not find a
> real city called Grindwalled, but my historical research is not holistic.
> Since Grindwall is not the only Tolkien nod, with the name of Gloin
> the weaver, I thought it would be interesting to look at some other
> similarities. Of particular interest is that The Old Forest in
> Tolkien is also bordered by barrows. Of the Old Forest in Tolkien,
> this was said:
> The Old Forest is one of the few survivors of the primordial forests
> which covered most of Eriador before the Second Age, and it once was
> but the northern edge of one immense forest which reached all the way
> to Fangorn forest.
> It is bordered in the east by the Barrow-downs, and in the west by the
> High Hay (also known as the Hedge), a large hedge which the Hobbits of
> Buckland cultivated after they cut the forest to make room for their
> new homes.
> The Hobbits believed the trees of the Old Forest were in some manner
> 'awake', and were hostile. They sway when there is no wind, whisper at
> night, and mislead travellers deeper into the forest. When the trees
> grew too close to the Hedge, hobbits cut down the trees nearest and
> created a clearing by a bonfire. Ever since then, the trees were more
> hostile. Deep within the Old Forest was the Withywindle Valley, a
> dark, evil and malevolent place which was the root of all the terrors
> of the forest.
> Just before the War of the Ring, the hobbits Frodo Baggins, Samwise
> Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took crossed through it
> trying to escape from the Black Riders. This is detailed in the The
> Fellowship of the Ring, in the chapter called "The Old Forest."
> According to this chapter, the trees had attacked Buckland much
> earlier by planting themselves next to the Hedge and leaning over.
> After this, the hobbits cleared a long strip of land on the outside of
> the Hedge and created a large bonfire in an area that later became
> known as The Bonfire Glade. After this, the trees became much more
> unfriendly to the hobbits.
> At the south-eastern edge of the forest, on the bank of the river
> Withywindle, stood the house of Tom Bombadil, who rescued Pippin and
> Merry when they were trapped by a tree Tom called Old Man Willow.
> This is the one Wolfe text I’m not going to make any definitive claims
> about the trees, instead focusing on the little pouch Mother Clute
> wears with its herbal scent. She is always chewing on the stuff and
> spitting it out – perhaps this is enough of the vile stuff of the
> forest for now, which both the authority at the end claims has some
> effect on those who believe in the supernatural, though none on the
> true believer. Wat claims Mother Cloot controls him at the end, his
> pupils vanishing as did hers under the influence of her herb (these
> pupils reminded Mark of the charcoal burner’s Virgin Mary as well).
> This pouch of herbs is said to influence the population and perhaps
> alter their consciousness to some degree – perhaps the ironic
> statement at the end “Funny to think that our own ancestors came out
> of all this, isn’t it?” … “My people came from Massachussetts” summons
> up the weird witch craft trials in Salem – by some also attributed to
> a certain type of mass hysteria brought on by a mold like Ergot of
> Rye. (Mother Cloot does have fungus like hair growing on a stick like
> AMBIGUITIES IN THE PLOT: This might be the only Wolfe work where the
> references are more muddied than the text itself; however, there are a
> few things that stand out. These ambiguities include the Barrow Man
> walking in Mark’s dream halfway through the book and his identity,
> Mark telling the secular authority at the end about the death of the
> Sexton Paul, the reason for the abbe’s blindness, and the highwayman
> Wat’s claim that he is asleep but that Mark is awake in his dream at
> the climax of the story.
> A brief rehash of the characters, with spoilers as to their fates:
> An unnamed travelling salesman: shot in the throat by Wat to start the
> book, but Gloin the weaver speculates that Wat isn’t the only fellow
> around with a bow. Gloin asks about whether he had any money on him,
> and Paul the Sexton and Cope the smith fall silent. To this, Mark,
> the apprentice of Gloin, indicates that Paul is only trying to enrage
> Gloin. Wat later confesses to killing him with his second best arrow.
> Josellen’s father: he runs the Broom and Barrel Inn, renamed after he
> and his deceased wife “took it over”. He is a stocky man and his
> death is the least ambiguous – when the soldiers occupy the town and
> institute something like martial law (or is it just bullying on that
> scale?), the father wants to get the abbe to help treat Gloin the
> weaver. The abbe is hiding in Cope’s forge, and as a result, Cope
> thinks that Joselyn’s father is looking to turn him in to the
> authorities, so attacks him in fury, then leaves him outside the
> occupied inn. He refuses to go to the fountain of St. Agnes, and
> later dies, where Mother Cloot accuses Cope of his murder after
> casting her runes. The reappropriation and renaming of the inn is
> recapitulated in the syncretic nature of the shrine (from Agnes to the
> abbe) and the religious sentiment of the community (from paganism to
> Christianity – Cloot seems to have real powers at times, such as
> influencing Wat, but her rune casting seems theatrical).
> Paul the Sexton: his death is actually the central mystery of the
> text, but it seems clear from Wat’s reaction at the body when he looks
> back at his henchman Gil that he knows Gil is the most likely
> suspect. Third person omniscience problematizes Wolfe because there
> is no longer understandable narrator bias. We don’t get an account of
> Paul’s death first hand, we get it through a report of Mark. Of the
> charcoal burner accomplice to Wat named Gil: “He killed Cope. He
> killed Paul the Sexton too. … I remember seeing Paul’s wound, just the
> same. Gil went to the meeting in the taproom that same night, sire,
> and he had his ax with him, but of course no one thought anything of
> it. So the next time the soldiers let me get close to him I asked,
> and he told me he’d done it. … [Paul] could make a word hurt.” (249).
> However, Mark’s credibility is immediately (slightly) brought into
> question because he then lies to the authority figure when asked if he
> ever saw Wat steal anything (they took Philip’s buried coffer
> together). Ostensibly this is to return it to the perhaps soon to be
> widow of Philip, but previously when Mark lights a fire for others on
> his own initiative, it is described as “an unaccustomed burst of
> virtue” (208). Paul’s primary trait in the few seconds we see him is
> an acerbic attitude that provokes.
> Philip the Cobbler: the most fickle of all. He first joins the abbe,
> then joins Wat, then later believes that the abbe has betrayed them to
> the soldiers, tries to bully Mark, and they fight. He is the only
> character Mark does not bargain for with the Boar at the end in
> exchange for Wat. Wat and Mark steal the gold buried under his workspace.
> Gloin the Weaver: he has a bad reputation in the household the
> traveling merchant visits in the introduction. He drinks a great deal
> and sends Mark to work even though Mark's presence has been requested
> at the inn by the abbe. Mark doesn't bother actually doing any work,
> instead using the opportunity to get food from the inn. He first
> joins the abbe in putting down Wat, then switches sides to rob the
> merchant, then agrees to rob Phillip instead. He finally runs from
> the soldiers who occupy the town and is shot by Wat’s arrow. He will
> probably be put to death at the end as Wat’s accomplice, even though
> Mark tried to get his freedom by leading the soldiers occupying the
> town to Wat.
> Mother Cloot: her name means a cloven hoof, or as Clootie, the devil.
> Also, as a name, Cloot comes from the ancient Daliadan clans of
> Scottland’s west coast and Hebrides, from the personal name Leoid. It
> is a form of MacLeoid (son of Leod, son of Olaf the Black, King of Man
> and the Northern Isles. Olaf was from the dynasty of Norse Kings who
> held the isles for centuries, and there is some legend about his
> lineage to Freya, which is interesting in light of the syncretism
> between Freya and The Virgin Mary in this book). Also, her hut is
> clearly meant to evoke the chicken legged hut of Baba Yaga. If Baba
> is taken literally as grandmother, then perhaps her name is a
> derivation of Baba Yaga. Interestingly, her particularly Slavic
> character also emphasizes her ambiguity:
> a supernatural being (or one of a trio of sisters of the same name)
> who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking woman. Baba Yaga
> flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the
> forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs. Baba
> Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter or seek her out and may
> play a maternal role and has associations with forest wildlife.
> According to Vladimir Propp's folktale morphology, Baba Yaga commonly
> appears as either a donor, villain, or may be altogether ambiguous.
> Andreas Johns identifies Baba Yaga as "one of the most memorable and
> distinctive figures in eastern European folklore," and observes that
> she is "enigmatic" and often exhibits "striking ambiguity." Johns
> summarizes Baba Yaga as a "a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring
> researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird,
> Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female
> initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image".
> This holds true for her characterization in the book, sometimes
> seeming kind and others cruel. There is little indication that she is
> three, save that the fire is lit on the mountain top at the same time
> as she disappears from the common room of the Broom and Barrel – did
> she fly there and do it? This is the abbe’s first fear, but it is
> later surmised that the fire was from the approaching soldiers, come
> to hunt down Wat and bully the population. Cloot is described as
> snake and wolf like – a description that Wat shares at least once.
> The abbe visits her, and at the end it does say that he was stricken
> blind by “witches” in the plural.
> Cope the Smith: Big and strong, he is sullen. He pays for the abbe at
> the inn. His name implies a cape and is an occupational name
> associated with the bishopric. Thus, his close association with the
> abbe is understandable. He paralyzes and kills Josellen’s father and
> is in turn killed by Gil. He never wavers in his devotion to the
> abbe. He is killed by Gil in the finale
> Gil: the charcoal burner who works for Wat – his murder of Paul the
> Sexton is related second hand by Mark, but many see his murder of
> Cope, and it is for this that he will be tried at the end, along with
> Wat, Gloin, and Phillip.
> Wat/Ganelon: the black clad Wat was trained in the seminary after the
> forest people helped fund his education. He left and moonlights as
> Sieur Ganelon with the money he steals. There is something strange
> about his relationship with Mother Cloot, as they alternate between
> kindness and cruelty. He seems the more duplicitous of the two.
> Barrow Man: Mark steps on his tumulus and since
> Josellen gets on top of the mysterious Miles Cross she is said to be
> promised to him. He walks in Mark’s night vision when he lays next to
> Gil after everyone has switched from the abbe to Wat. That is the
> night the leaves turn red. There is a rustling of wind when Mark
> looks outside that might perhaps be related to the Barrow Man. He is
> supposedly burned by the soldiers in the final battle, as is the
> painting of Mary/Freya.
> SHIFTING AFFILIATIONS: The book shows how little trust these folks
> have in each other. First the abbe gets all the people except
> Josellen’s father to agree to hunt Wat, since their revenue is
> hurting. At this point Phillip, the appointed leader, tells Gil to
> let Wat know he can rob the inn with impunity. Later, when Mark is
> with Wat, Gil says that Wat wants Mark to attack him with the weapon.
> Wat later asks what Gil said, and Mark’s connotation is a bit of a
> lie. Wat doesn’t trust Gil, either. Then Mark and Josellen help
> Mother Cloot, who lets them stay the night with Wat in her hut. The
> next day Cloot turns against Mark and helps to plant the seeds of
> suspicion for the murder of Paul the Sexton on Mark’s head. Wat even
> leads Mark to believe that the abbe thinks that Mark is guilty.
> Wat gets everybody except the abbe, Cope, and Josellen’s father to
> agree to help him rob a rich merchant, then that night tells everyone
> but Phillip that he lied and that they are just going to rob Philip.
> When the soldiers turn up Wat turns on Mark, who escapes after being
> stabbed. Then Mark comes upon all the townspeople in the forest, led
> by the abbe. The abbe goes to deal with the soldiers, but Philip
> believes he has betrayed them. Paul’s widow Old Sue at first accuses
> Mark of killing her husband then repents, and later dies in the
> basement when they are taken by the soldiers. Then Mark comes to a
> kind of agreement with the Boar, the head soldier. It turns out Wat
> is actually their absentee forester leader, Sieur Ganelon, but that
> doesn’t stop the Boar from arresting him when given the chance. Cope
> kills Josellen’s father because he fears betrayal, though in reality
> Josellen’s father only wanted treatment for Gloin, and finally, the
> Boar breaks his word and Gloin is going to be treated as an outlaw
> like Philip and Wat at the conclusion by the city authorities.
> What is most disturbing is how little these individuals care for one
> another in the small community: they live off the religious sentiment
> of those who come to the shrine, and now their livelihood is
> threatened because no pilgrims are coming. They all turn on each
> other at the drop of a hat. Even the abbe is not above suspicion, as
> he frequents Mother Cloot’s house – she claims that her rune bones are
> the left thigh bones of children (men) killed by her and the mothers,
> and that things which are not men visit her at night.
> OTHER INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS:
> According to Josh Geller in a 2002 Urth post:
> There's a hamlet in the woods, the woodcutters who are relics of a
> previous stage of civilization, a bandit who is a woodcutter
> aristocrat, a witch who knows the technology of the old civilization,
> megalithic ruins that are 'not a town' etc.
> This is one of the most valuable books for people trying to understand
> the old civilization of Europe.
> There's a story about King Olaf the Holy of Norway. See, it was
> generally known that he was a reincarnation of Olaf Geirstadtalf, who
> was buried in the mound at Geirstadt. There had been a prophecy to the
> effect, he had Olaf G.'s sword that came out of the mound etc. The
> problem was that St.
> Olaf was occupied with the forcible Christianization of Norway, and it
> sort of looked bad that a Christian king should be an incarnate elf.
> So they did a little stage play, where the King and some of his
> companions (who would also have been out of the mound, by the old way)
> went to Olaf G's mound on horseback and one of the companions asked
> the King if he didn't remember when they had been there before, and
> St. Olaf answered that it was not possible for a person to live more
> than once, because you lived once, died once and were resurrected once
> on the Last Day. Then he was overcome with emotion and rode away,
> because (in my view) what he was saying was so much at conflict with
> the reality.
> Wolfe wiki takes the evil and failed Robin Hood approach, which I
> don't actually favor:
> “This may be a moral fable showing the corruption inherent in the idea
> of a "Robin Hood" who robs from the rich to give to the poor.
> In this version, Wat is completely out for himself. He steals from
> "rich" prosperous tradesmen and bribes the poor charcoal burners for
> shelter. He tricks the village into helping him and for a short time
> they end up living in the woods like the Merry Men.
> Wat -- Robin Hood
> Sieur Ganelon -- Sheriff of Nottingham (also Robin in disguise, and
> wearing green).
> Cope -- Little John
> Phillip -- possibly Will Scarlet (wealthy background)
> Abbot -- Friar Tuck
> Josellen -- Maid Marion
> Mark -- Midge the Miller's Son (youngest of the band) and Allan-a-Dale
> (romantic sub-plot, and lives to tell the tale).
> Mother Cloot -- the evil abbess that kills Robin in the legends. “
> Everyone in the village is preying on the travelers who are ostensibly
> coming with real religious fervor, and the disappearance of that
> fervor has affected them. They blame Wat, a forest boy who went to be
> a priest and became a brigand instead who moonlights as a sieur. The
> soldiers prey on the town’s people, the town people prey on the
> travelers, Wat preys on everyone – it’s a nasty place.
> Things to Consider: The syncretic attitude of the text in which The
> Virgin exists in both Pagan and Christian analogs, whether Mother
> Cloot is one or three (a pretty theological question in any case), and
> the identity of the Barrow Man – discernible or not? Tolkienesque or
> something else? Of Slavic origin or Norse? Is this the early 11^th
> century or after the 13^th ? I tend to think the fellow who gives
> Mark the gold coin is in fact probably Duke Wenceslas, though that
> would make identifying the abbe as St. Gunther impossible.
> Resonance with other Wolfe works: The resonance with the more
> sophisticated Latro books is evident – old religions treated with some
> respect. One of the Wolfean tendencies to talk about mysteries is
> evident here in full force, though in this one work I am left with the
> inescapable conclusion that we actually have most of the solutions,
> despite Mark’s lie to the man who interrogates him at the end and
> gives him the gold coin - no matter how it galls to just take Mark’s
> word at the end. There is also something of The Wizard Knight in
> these books in the juvenile character thrust into an adult situation,
> and the vague medieval pagan/Norse subtext, though the supernatural in
> this one is far less overt.
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