As promised, here is a more in-depth review of the anthology Weird Woods: Tales from the haunted forests of Britain. Below I briefly discuss each story in this collection, and seeing how the forests are portrayed in each, and whether or not I think they were portrayed well.
The first story, “The Whisper in the Wood” by Anonymous, is really one of the only stories in this collection that gives the atmosphere of a haunted forest. Essentially, a man goes into the woods where he hears strange voices on the wind, and a gnarly tree that holds him there in the forest long enough to find the corpse which the disembodied voice belonged to. I think one reason this is very much more of the haunted woods genre than the others is because it was written in the 19th century, when the sublime and the preternatural took up the minds of such authors.
“Man-Size in Marble” by Edith Nesbit is indeed somewhat of a ghost story, but really has nothing to do with the woods, except maybe to establish where the story takes place. However, the antagonizing powers in this story have nothing to do with woods or trees, rather they are involved with statues and graves, the opposite of trees.
To be honest, I am not sure why this story has been included in this anthology all about the woods.
“The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton is not about a haunted forest, but it is about the dangers that the woods can possess. Here the danger is a stream in Strid Wood (Yorkshire Dale), which can be treacherous to cross. In this story our protagonist envisions horrors that have taken place in this wood, the deaths caused by the stream. Whether these visions are of his imagination or are real omens are not specified.
I am happy this was included in the collection, as stories about dangerous parts of nature are often what end up as a major part of folklore.
E.F. Benson takes a more mythological approach to the forest in his story “The Man Who Went Too Far.” In this story, the central character has decided to become one with nature, taking his desire so far as to come close to meeting the god of nature himself, Pan. However, he realizes that meeting and communing with Pan could mean death.
There are so many woodland folktales about goat men, and Benson takes us right to its mythological source. Not so much a haunting of the woods, but a going back to a more primeval version of nature, which is why this story is so apt for this collection.
Have you ever walked in the woods and come upon a tree so unusual and captivating that you must know all about it – every root and twig? W.H. Hudson’s “An Old Thorn” focuses on such a tree that captures the interest, and perhaps the lives, of several different people. It stands in its place forever as a godlike being.
While a tree is the main focus, the descriptions of said tree were a bit lost on me – I could not really picture it, though perhaps that adds more to the mystery.
“The White Lady” by Elliot O’Donnell is indeed a ghost story, but the portrayal of the woods and trees is not really the main focus. A young man sneaks out in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of a ghost called “the white lady.” In order to see her, he must hide in a hollow tree, which is really the extent that we see any appearance of a forest or a tree.
It’s a fun story, but not really one that I would’ve picked for this collection, simply because the woods are not a focal point.
“Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood is the one story of this collection that feels the most folkloric. In this story, a man on his way to a large house gets lost in the forest on the edge of the property. The thing is, though, this is not a forest one would expect to get lost in: it’s small, and at first glance you can see the house beyond it. But there are powers in the forest, powers of the trees and perhaps of the wee folk, that are determined to turn the man this way and that, making him completely lose his way.
Besides tales of the goat man, fairy stories are at the pinnacle of woodland folklore, and I am sad that more of those were not included in this collection.
Mary Webb’s “The Name Tree” doesn’t focus on a forest, but it does focus on a tree, specifically what she calls a “name tree”, which the main character is drawn to. This tree is also a representation of her life, and when a man desires to have this young woman sexually (and indeed beneath her own name tree!), she refuses, as she nor the tree could belong to anyone. But dire circumstances force her hand, and she submits to this man under her tree. During their sexual encounter, he breaks the tree, thus also ending her life.
This is a piece of folklore I would very much like to know more about, and if there is such a tradition in history. That a tree could be the vital force of an individual, it is almost a fairy story, but somehow seems to go much deeper than that.
Just like “An Old Thorn,” “The Tree” by Walter De La Mare focuses on a single tree that captures the minds of the main characters. This tree seems to bring its own climate, its own ecology, though it all seems alien, even unalive to the protagonist. And yet, he cannot get the tree and its creatures out of his mind.
I think this story would have been more interesting to me if I had understood the philosophy behind it. I like the premise of a sort of alien tree that is its own world, but I need to understand its effects on the characters better.
“He Made A Woman” by Marjorie Bowen is a retelling of a Welsh folktale from the Mabinogion, in which the woman Blodeuwedd is created to be the wife of the Welsh hero Llew Llaw Gyffes. In this retelling, a young man stays at the home of a scholar, who has there also a young woman named Blodeuwedd. The young man falls in love with her, how she connects to the forest, and seems to come from it, like a fairy creature. However, in the end as he tries to embrace her, Blodeuwedd vanishes and all that is left is an oak flower, a twig of broom, and a cluster of meadowsweet, the ingredients used to create her.
I am glad this tale was included in Weird Woods as so much of Welsh mythology has to do with and takes place in the woods. I am reminded of when king Pwyll meets Arawn, the god of death, in the woods, and I am tempted to do a retelling of this myself.
“A Neighbor’s Landmark” by M.R. James is indeed about a haunted forest, though the story tells of it more than tells of an experience within it. Betton Wood is a forest that no one will enter, that carries shrieks and cries on the wind. Even at the end of this story, the woods are still a mystery.
I think with more of an experienced telling this would have been a better story. However, its themes did remind me of stories like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
And the last story, “N” by Arthur Machen, explores the liminality that trees provide in so many folktales. It is reminiscent of a sort of NeverNeverLand, exploring the way forests and trees can represent an eternal childhood.
I really only have one comment for this story: needs more trees.
As I said in my initial review of Weird Woods, I was expecting much more folklore than was given. However, as I discussed above, there are individual stories that do exude folklore and the darker aspects of mythology. I don’t know that I would recommend this to anyone for folklore purposes, but to get a sense of how authors, and really everyday people, view nature in Britain.
If, however, you want something more folkloric, check out English Folktales, or any of those that revolve around the wee folk, and Welsh folklore. These are guaranteed to have woodland folklore.