Last month I went to Devon for a couple of weeks, spending most of that time wandering the fastnesses of Dartmoor. The photo above was taken at Lydford Gorge, a beautiful wooded valley traversed by the river Lyd. The river’s course through the gorge includes a dramatic whirlpool known as the Devil’s Cauldron – see here for more on the gorge and its flora and fauna. And ‘fauna’ is an apposite word for the satyr-like simulacrum above, which immediately brought to mind Arthur Machen, the mystical Welsh author of The Great God Pan.
Although Machen’s name was very familiar to me, being regularly bandied about by writers I read and people I know, at the time of discovering the face of Pan in the bole of a Devonian tree I had not actually read any of his work. I have rectified that now, reading The Great God Pan and another, slightly later, novella, A Fragment Of Life. It is not my intention to summarise these stories here, but they share some common elements: the idea of a mysterious realm existing beneath the surface of, or at some odd angle to, everyday reality, and a thinly-veiled eroticism based around the eerie, magical qualities of natural places, particularly woodlands. At the risk of upsetting his admirers (a category that probably includes most of my regular readers) I did not think The Great God Pan was well written – I especially disliked the dialogue: the (barely developed and virtually interchangeable) characters do not so much engage in conversation as inflict ponderous, plot-explicating soliloquies on each other. A Fragment of Life impressed me far more and I highly recommend it. But however uneven some of the writing may be, both stories successfully conjure a heady, charged, paganistic atmosphere that stays with the reader long after.
But before all that, before settling down to read, I took (inevitably) to the internet to learn more about Machen, and came across the Friends of Arthur Machen website, which includes a number of illustrative quotes from Machen’s writings. I was struck by this one, taken from The Hill Of Dreams..
On this summit oaks had grown, queer stunted-looking trees with twisted and contorted trunks, and writhing branches; and these now stood out black against the lighted sky.
.. because it sounded exactly like another place I had visited on Dartmoor: Wistman’s Wood.
Wistman’s Wood is a curious, otherworldly place: a collection of dwarf oaks, situated at high altitude (by the standards of southern England) in the heart of the moor, and accessible only by footpath. The dwarf oaks do indeed have twisted and contorted trunks, and writhing branches…
A great deal of sinister folklore clings to Wistman’s Wood: even its name alludes to these associations, being derived from a local dialect word, wisht, meaning ‘eerie’ or ‘haunted’. Among other things, the wood is said to be infested with poisonous adders, to be haunted by a range of spooks and spirits, and to have been a Druids’ grove, depending on which particular legend you favour. Perhaps the most striking tale is that of the Wild Hunt, a procession of ghostly horses and demonic riders accompanied by a terrifying pack of hellhounds. The Hunt is said to set out from Wistman’s Wood and ride across the moor by night, seizing unwary travellers and carrying them off to the infernal realms. Legends of the Wild Hunt persist, with local variants, in many European countries – see here for more.
Another Wistman’s Wood story is that when darkness falls, the dwarf oaks come alive as malevolent anthropoid figures. If you are there at twilight, as I was, it is easy to see how such legends have developed – as the light fades, some of the trees do indeed take on an oddly humanoid appearance:
All in all, Wistman’s Wood is a decidedly Machen-esque place – you can read more about its myths and legends here – and it seemed a perfect match for the queer stunted oaks quote above. And after some Googling, I discovered that in his story A Fragment Of Life, Machen even mentions a place called Wistman’s Wood. The story’s protagonist, Edward Darnell, works as a city clerk, but finds himself drawn inexorably towards a kind of hallucinatory nature mysticism. He delves into old family documents, trying to understand what is happening to him:
Here, then, he read of the Holy Well, hidden in the Wistman’s Wood — Sylva Sapientum — a fountain of abundant water, which no heats of summer can ever dry, which no flood can ever defile, which is as a water of life, to them that thirst for life
This wood, mentioned only once in the story, is located in Wales, from where the fictional Darnell (like the real-life Machen) originates. But I wonder- did Machen take the name Wistman’s Wood from the actual wood on Dartmoor? I would be intrigued to know whether anyone has made this connection before, and I hope that readers more familiar with Machen’s work may be able to enlighten me on this point.
So my sojourn in Devon had repeatedly brought me into contact with Machen, and the kinds of entities and atmospheres that pervade his writing. The great god Pan is earthy, animal, an avatar of mischief, lust, and rising sap. And I was soon to discover, on returning home to East Sussex, that the Shoreline had something to say about all that. But that’s another story, for another day.