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.
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.