In his latest book, former BBC radio presenter and author of several books on horror and occult films, soundtrack composers and Gothic literature David Huckvale digs deep into the origins of British media obsessed with pagan rituals and ancient cults.
Before magic or pagan fantasies informed movies there, it was in part present in the national literature and folklore for centuries. Witchcraft, sacrificial worship, the theme of Pan and ancient practices have inspired many folk tales and local history. Those themes with their original atmosphere of threat, violence and pagan horror are strongly related to primitive and natural religions, being connection to “woodland rituals” and all kids of sacrifices directed to pagan gods, manifestation or priest, demanding for a community of (mostly uneducated) worshipers. This background made many horror movies shot in England very successful, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970.
However, not only cults or pagan characters are explored here: “… much of this book concerns the power of landscapes as a means of evoking the various themes I will be exploring.” After all, certain familiar regions suggest safety and a feeling of togetherness. “Landscape therefore represents an idea.”
For example, Tree-worship (especially tall and old oaks) was common among archaic Celtic and Germanic tribes, who would turn a place with particularly large or isolated trees into a sanctuary, says Huckvale. He explains much of the fascination with heathen and pagan (originally meaning “of the village” – in contrast to “from the city”) lore in Britain with a strong love for woods, strange and ancient landscapes, remote locations and impressive places of worship like the various sets of the movie The Wicker Man (1973). Even though much action there is shot within domestic settings, the most powerful scenes are presented through landscape (and music).
Furthermore, in Britain (and Germany alike) the large woods were signifiers of national identity, vitality, endurance, fertility and, in the dark and inaccessible parts, places of magic. Besides, German composer Richard Wagner, who emphasized the power of nature in sound and appearance, was very popular England before WWI.
Many British tales saw the woodlands as the place where watching fairies was possible. (There are also strange and dangerous woods in the writings of Tolkien and J.K. Rowling who were both influenced by George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis and so forth.) Landscape, preferably old and untouched, seemingly became a cornerstone of the pagan revival fantasy of the various decades, for example, of the 1930s and then again, in the mid-1960s. Nature and its power have been cited in English popular literature at least since the early 19th century in connection with Gothic tales.
Huckvale addresses other furtive longings in the British character, so to speak, such as the wish for a strong and unifying national force (King Arthur) or the massive number of newly built churches in Victorian times, or imaginings of the Holy Grail in literature and music, a character called The Green Man who represents the powerful pagan (but not demonic) forces of nature, and warns mankind not to live outside the regulations of the native world.
“King Arthur having led the way, late-Victorian Britain found itself in the midst of Scotch mists, Welsh wizards, and Irish legends. Ironically, this was partly due to the fact that Arthur’s Christian mission had failed. Despite appearances to the contrary, Christianity itself was failing. No matter how many pre-Raphaelite churches the Victorians built, God was increasingly absent. How to fill the void? …. For the Victorians, occultism was another solution……”
Many poetic renderings of the Arthurian legend in the late 19th century in England then were based on a blend of Celtic, pagan and deeply religious models; furthermore, inspired by Wagnerian epics, other European composers of the time also wrote their own musical ideas of the legend. Huckvale stresses the strong influence of Wagner’s music and stage decoration – representing the rare power of landscape and nature itself – all through the book.
Pan, another character who receives an entire chapter, or rather, romantic ideas of the god and remains of his Celtic equivalents, were extremely popular in 19th-century England until WWI. His most celebrated reincarnation, in a way, is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Again, that Pan originally was not very friendly, as he, a baby himself, set out to steal other babies from their perambulators. (In Kensington Gardens, a place where once a wild boy captured in a German wood, was playced by King George, I. The boy’s name was Peter). Peter Pan not only played the pipes, he also rode a goat, an animal much associated with pagan or demonic environments.
Additionally, some emphasis is given to more British TV dramas and movies such as The Owl Service (1969-70), Children of the Stones (1977), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Excalibur (1981), Clash of the Titans (1981), Night of the Eagle (1962), Robin Redbreast (1970) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Not only modern-day films are listed here, but moreover, media and literature dating back many decades, as Huckvale also introduces poetry, literature, folklore, plays and orchestra performances devoted to the topics at hand.
He eloquently reconstructs a very British way of coping with mythical longings, Celtic Revival, post-Romantic, Gothic and occultist traditions in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Many protagonists and influences such as the poetry of Yeats, Irish folklore, Arcadian fantasies, spiritualism and heathen traditions are introduced and their long-lasting influences uncovered step by step. Furthermore, external influences such as Wagnerism and literary impulses from Europe or the US are blended in. At the center of this book, however, there is the landscape, the woods and any natural opening or hillside that would allow imagination to have once been assembly place or worship grounds for pagan rituals; just as they appear in many horror movies.
As persuasive as this huge amount of data is, the author can convince mostly with topics immediately linked to music, scores, movies and performed sound or acting. The many connections that go back to the middle-ages, ancient folklore and tales, however, are a bit obscure and often appear partially unrelated. This may leave the reader somewhat puzzled.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019
David Huckvale. A Green and Pagan Land. Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television. McFarland, 2018, 227 p.