Wood Magic

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John Buchan is best known as the writer of The Thirty Nine Steps, a very well regarded spy novel, but he was, among other things, a historian, a high-ranking civil servant, a soldier and, for a time, the Governor-General of Canada. There is a picture on the internet of him wearing full native American headgear, with a very earnest expression on his face. He was, as they say, a ‘son of the manse’, that is the son of a minister of the Church of Scotland, but he obviously had a great love for other cultures that went beyond a mere interest in the exotic or unusual.

He was, also, a poet, and though poetry wasn’t perhaps the greatest of his many talents, his poetry is very readable and quite interesting.

I recently read his novel, Witch Wood. Admittedly, that’s a terrible title. Perhaps ‘Witch Wood’ didn’t sound so trite back in the early 20th century, when there weren’t so very many mediocre fantasy franchises around. The title might have put me off, but recently I have been determined to read some novels set in during the English Civil War – or rather the ‘Wars of the Three Kingdoms’, since ‘Witch Wood’ is set in The lowlands of Scotland and the events south of the border barely intrude on the action – though the battles between the factions in Scotland certainly do. I found it on a website which said ‘Unfortunately, there are no great novels set during the Civil War, but here are some which might not be too terrible’.

It follows a year in the life of the minister of the Scottish Kirk, David Sempill, as he settles into his role in the (I think) fictional parish of Woodilee in the Scottish Lowlands. The year is 1644, and Scotland is at war, with the Great Montrose leading a pro-Royalist rebellion from the far north, disrupting the Covenanters who thought they had secured victory for the purified Kirk in Scotland. This has repercussions in David’s parish, but his main struggle is with his own congregation, many of whom are backsliding, not towards the old faith of Catholicism, but to ancient demonic rituals that take place in the woods around that time. To add to his troubles, his own Kirk hierarchy are hypocritical and unsympathetic to the new minister, and his faith is troubled too by a beautiful, pure-hearted noble girl who wanders the local woods dreamily and has very little regard for the strictures of the church, nor for local superstition – and whom David falls in love with. It is a very good book, if you can stomach all of the – very well rendered- 17th century Scottish dialect, which, in the cheaper editions, comes without translations.

Central to the plot of Witch Wood are those devilish goings on in the woods, but it is never quite explained how a 17th century Scottish village can be home to people with detailed knowledge of ancient pagan ceremonies. The reader is left to surmise that Woodilee has since time immemorial carried on ancient pre-Christian traditions in secret.

Buchan explores this idea in a more positive light in the poem Wood Magic.
Wood Magic


I will walk warily in the wise woods on the fringes of eventide,
For the covert is full of noises and the stir of nameless things.
I have seen in the dusk of the beeches the shapes of the lords that ride,
And down in the marish hollow I have heard the lady who sings.
And once in an April gleaming I met a maid on the sward,
All marble-white and gleaming and tender and wild of eye;—
I, Jehan the hunter, who speak am a grown man, middling hard,
But I dreamt a month of the maid, and wept I knew not why.

Down by the edge of the firs, in a coppice of heath and vine,
Is an old moss-grown altar, shaded by briar and bloom,
Denys, the priest, hath told me ’twas the lord Apollo’s shrine
In the days ere Christ came down from God to the Virgin’s womb.
I never go past but I doff my cap and avert my eyes-

(Were Denys to catch me I trow I’d do penance for half a year)—
For once I saw a flame there and the smoke of a sacrifice,
And a voice spake out of the thicket that froze my soul with fear.

Wherefore to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
Mary the Blessed Mother, and the kindly Saints as well,
I will give glory and praise, and them I cherish the most,
For they have the keys of Heaven, and save the soul from Hell.
But likewise I will spare for the Lord Apollo a grace,
And a bow for the lady Venus-as a friend but not as a thrall.
‘Tis true they are out of Heaven, but some day they may win the place;
For gods are kittle cattle, and a wise man honours them all.

The poem seems to be set in late Roman or early medieval France (‘Jehan’ is an older form of ‘Jean’ – John), in a time when the remains of the old pagan world are still visible through the triumphant Catholic present – Shrines to the Roman gods stand in the woods, and even the priest’s name recalls the pagan past. Jehan’s faith is not in doubt – he cherishes God, Mary and the saints, but he has time and friendship even for the old gods too. The poem is probably closer in spirit Buchan’s feelings about paganism, than are the devilish goings on in the woods of Witch Wood.

When Buchan wrote Witch Wood and Wood Magic, and indeed for much of the twentieth century, many scholars believed that witchcraft was the survival of a pre-Christian religion. This theory has long been debunked, though, like many discredited theories, it has persisted in popular culture. In fact, most beliefs associated with witchcraft, either of its practitioners or those who made accusations, were what Keith Thomas (in Religion and the Decline of Magic) calls parasitic beliefs, that is they were based on the tenets of Christianity, albeit in a corrupted form. I suppose this doesn’t substantially change what Buchan implies about witchcraft and paganism and their relationship to Christianity, however, which is that they fulfil essential human needs that Christianity, in its stricter forms, cannot satisfy, not least that sense of the mysterious beauty of nature that Buchan captures in the poem. Like so many other early 20th century writers and poets, the classically educated, well-travelled Buchan was fascinated by pagan antiquity, as well as other pagan belief systems he came in contact with (hence the head-dress).

All that aside, Wood Magic is a good poem for this time of year, when the days are getting hotter, and the woods serves as a refuge from the heat of day, and the pressures of civilisation.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Wood Magic

  1. I like this poem. Had to look up “kittle cattle”—a great new word for my lexicon. I am reminded of my Catholic grandmother who had no problem reconciling the Doctrine of Transubstantiation with a scrupulous avoidance of stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. Superstition is superstition, after all. I recall it’s being defined in the catechism as “a perverse excess of religion.”
    The thought of that Scot in American Indian feathers makes me smile. In some sense, pre-“enlightenment” people may have actually been calmer and wiser about life’s mysteries, yins ,and yangs, than we are now.

  2. I think pre-enlightenment people were more ready to accept mystery than we are, or that some things are just too grand for humans to understand. I’m a little puzzled by the catechism, though – I think of superstition and religion as quite distint – don’t people call the Chinese the least religious people in the world, and the most superstitious?

  3. Poor Chinese…..people call them a lot of things, including “inscrutable”…. 🙂 I guess it depends what one means by “religion”. Is it the institution/church or something more ethereal, less worldly and yet natural, spiritual? The Chinese, for example, have a split tradition between the Confucian and the Taoist tendencies—the one more concerned with telling how to get along well in this world and the other treating of more mysterious ways that do not lend themselves to discursive reasoning… I guess I see superstition as dealing with mystery in irrational ways and organized religion as trying to bring reason into it (and often failing) mostly with the purpose of keeping social order. Meanwhile, God is probably getting a kick out of the whole thing.

  4. I didn’t mean to pick on the Chinese – I only brought up that old saw because it demonstrates that many people make a sharp distinction between superstition and religion… but you’ve outdone me there by defining quite nicely what separates the two.
    I guess when we westerners say ‘religion’ we unconsciously think of Christianity. I read somewhere about a Hindu who tried to read the Bible, but was perplexed – he could find very little in it that was, to his mind, ‘religious’. I’ve found the same whenever I’ve tried to read about Buddhism – where is the stuff about right and wrong, sin and salvation? It all seems, from a Western (Christian or post-christian) point of view, so amoral and unemotional – ‘unreligious’ from our point of view.

  5. I think you are quite right that we of Western civilization, especially Christian, do associate religion with right and wrong, and the Buddhists don’t. My own reading and thinking about Catholicism, Buddhism, etc.. has taken me along a path of rejecting all human “authorities” who define ultimates like God, Truth, Sin, etc…though I don’t deny that those “things” exist—as an atheist would. I am not a Buddhist, mind; that would be to join yet another institution of authorities. I plod along trying not to define it once and for all, trying to deal with impermanence, even as I dearly wish for eternity. I know there are good and bad seeds in myself, acquired from previous generations and my own experience, and try to water only the good ones so they will grow and choke out the bad ones. No one tells me which are which, but I instinctively seem to know, if I watch and listen very carefully, most of the time. Many of the rights and wrongs of institutions are good ideas, to solve the obvious problems of life in society. But they really are the expedient rules of a game, in the end, I think…not the answers to any big questions. You got me going, here. Sorry for the long wind!

  6. Don’t apologise for the long wind. It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on religion, that impolitest and most fascinating of subjects. If it’s not obvious in the slant of some of my posts, I have a strong affection for Christianity – especially Catholicism, though I couldn’t sincerely call myself a Christian (except on censuses, to help boost their numbers). I’d like to be like Jehan, I think, comfortable in his faith, but able to appreciate the truth and beauty in other beliefs… but, alas, we live in a faithless age.
    But I like your take on institutional religion having been a genuine attempt to solve the big problems of society. That is a lot more sympathetic than you hear from some professed atheists and agnostics who talk as if religion is a conspiracy against the freedom of the human spirit.

  7. Thanks, Andy, I’ve enjoyed this. Believe it or not, “affection” for Catholicism is what I share with you. It’s in my blood. Affection is a good word for it.

  8. I’ve come back to your post after a few busy days and find myself reading your exchanges with Cynthia with great interest. This largely forgotten and unfashionable poem is still relevant isn’t it?
    My own thought about the poem is on a different tack: how it bounces along at a spanking pace with direct communication — it’s easy to picture someone declaiming it in a drawing room after dinner. Perhaps someone did; if so, maybe it prompted a conversation of the kind that you and Cynthia have just enjoyed. In which case someone like me might have been sitting quietly wondering whether or not to pitch in!

    • I like to imagine Buchan reading this over the dinner table, perhaps causing some consternation at the manse, or quiet disapproval at some cultured Edinburgh gathering… You’re eminently welcome to pitch in, of course.

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