(urth) Novel 3: Devil in a Forest

Sergei SOLOVIEV 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 -


Sergei Soloviev

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 
> of.” 
> 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 
> body).
> 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.
> 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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