Herne the Hunter & the Great North Wood

Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

I shall be reviewing this wonderful novel in full for Shiny New Books very soon. But I loved it so much, and it got me thinking so much about it’s themes, locations and references that I needed to write more about it. Let me briefly fill you in on the novel first though.

Like Gilbert’s first novel, the lovely Folk which I reviewed here, Mischief Acts is a story cycle. Folk told the stories of many of the inhabitants of an island, blending their lives and lore into a whole portrait in which a leading character of one story might pop up in another in support or in passing.

Mischief Acts does it differently – Gilbert starts her cycle in 1392 and moves up the timeline through sixteen stories into the near future – the last three stories are linked more closely in the characters. But the underlying subject matter of the folkloric legends of ‘Herne the Hunter’ and the ‘Wild Hunt’ take on different incarnations for different ages. The setting is another constant, but one which offers plenty of scope. A large swathe of South London from Deptford down to the northern edges of Croydon used to be covered by woodland – the Great North Wood. Each tale is set within that original area and incorporates local folklore and legends of the time. Each tale is prefaced by a poetic ‘chant’ and a ‘charm’ and then each is told in a different style. We begin with Richard II (Dickie) and his courtiers hunting, and the others being jealous of head hunter Herne and what happened to him. Told as a prose poem, it sets the scene for all the rest of the stories. We get a Shakespearean romp, we meet the highwaymen of Thornton Heath, we experience the night the Crystal Palace burned down and more – as the forest changes its size and character over the years – until we reach the near future and the three final linked tales.

Please do read my full review over at Shiny New Books HERE.

Now, I’m going to digress onto talking about the two main characters in the novel – Herne himself, and The Great North Wood – which lives and breathes still!

The Great North Wood

The Great North Wood – Wikipedia

I’ll begin with the location. You may know, but I love books set in wild South London (I wrote a piece for Shiny about some of my favourites, to which I can now add Mischief Acts here). The map to your left shows the original extent of The Great North Wood which carries on towards London north of the Surrey downs. Ironically, Penge, which means ‘edge of wood’ was well inside its borders. Parts of it still exist – and you can read about them at the London Wildlife Trust’s page here.

Although I’m originally from Purley which is just south of the Greater London Croydon borders in Surrey, at the bottom of the map, I do consider myself South London-formed as I’ve spent a lot of time in the lower reaches of that green space on the map. Working at the Norbury library (more about that here), catching the old 109 bus all the way from Purley into London Blackfriars via Streatham, visiting my dad when he lived in Norwood, countless forays to various shops, restaurants, venues – and last but not least – going to see Crystal Palace play at Selhurst Park (but only as a child!) and a childhood visit to see the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. When I lived north of London, we used to drive straight through to visit my folks who still live on that southern edge rather than M25 it, through Dulwich, up and down Gypsy Hill, past the TV transmitter at Beulah Hill. NB: I’ve still not managed to stop off at Dulwich’s renowned Picture Gallery, Village Books or Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace (and doubtless other excellent bookshops in the area).

All the places within the wood’s bounds have historical resonance in this novel. One that particularly struck me was in the 1691 story, ‘Gallows Green’. This was around the time of Dick Turpin and there was a cottage at Thornton Heath, just north of Croydon on the green edge of the map, where he is said to have lived. Thornton Heath was also notable for its colliers – begrimed charcoal burners who supplied London, but even more so for the giant gallows erected by the pond (now turned into a garden and surrounded by a huge roundabout) which was used to hang highwaymen. The story begins with colliers discussing the latest highwayman…

‘Saw him again. Last week,’ he said, and shook his head.
‘Her.’ it was Canter, a young collier, spry and not too wizened by the elements, who spoke. ‘Saw her again,’ he repeated. […]
‘No man would don a costume like that’ said Canter, and smirked.
‘No man has a pair of horns. Nor woman, neither.’

‘No,’ said Pullet. ‘That’s him heading out.’ He brush the wood shavings from his lap. ‘Told me she’s called Oberon.’
‘He,’ said Canter. ‘He’s called Oberon.’
‘Oberon,’ Old Graves echoed. ‘There’s something.’ He began to pack his pipe. ‘Pretty, though,’ he said.

They can’t decide whether Oberon is male or female, it’s a great beginning to the story which carries on to follow the exploits of Carolina Pye who is obsessed with being caught by Oberon. This story following on from a Shakespearean era one, the choice of Oberon as the mystery-person is apt and I loved the ambiguity of Oberon’s sexuality and how Gilbert has subverted the highwayman tales to fit her mischievous narrative, with the colliers as the chorus. There are countless tales of female highway robbers, but few worked on their own – there was one who was tried in 1744, Ann Hecks (see an interesting piece on this subject over at The History Girls).

All of the stories use documented history of the area: the hermit that lived in the woods around 1800, the Crystal Palace fire on November 30, 1936, the Great Storm of 15-16 October, 1987 which particularly hit Greater London’s trees are more examples. Gilbert cleverly weaves these events and facts into her evocations of Herne the Hunter and his (or her) antics in the area, which brings me to look at that myth now.

Herne the Hunter

David Troughton as Falstaff in the hilarious 2018 RSC production with Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford.

My primary reference for Herne the Hunter (excluding Robin of Sherwood‘s shamanic import) is Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. I saw a great production starring Denis Quilley as Falstaff at the NT back in 1995 with Geraldine McEwan as one of the Mistresses. However, I can heartily recommend the more recent one by the RSC with David Troughton which was streamed in 2018 if you’re able to find it – which is both traditional and given a TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex) feel – it really worked!

The link to Herne occurs In the fourth act, when Mistresses Ford and Page connive a plan to lure Falstaff to Herne’s Oak in the forest where a good time awaits him, if he dresses as Herne … only to be pranked.

Mistress Page:
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.

Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV, scene 4

This also plays a major part in Verdi’s much later opera, Falstaff, which takes the bones from The Merry Wives, and makes it something Italian instead!

Gilbert’s Shakespearean story, also takes the its idea of Herne from The Merry Wives, and then cleverly goes all Twelfth Night with it, setting the tale in Dulwich at Christmas 1606. Dulwich was the manor of Edward Alleyn, a theatrical actor and entrepreneur, who later bought the estate in 1616, founding the school still there (alumni include Shackleton, Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler).

We follow the antics of the village dwellers at the manor house over the twelve days of Christmas when a ‘Stranger, one Master Herne‘ turns up and persuades them that he should be their ‘Lord of Misrule’, leading them in a bawdy and debauched party to end all parties. Gilbert chooses, however, to have all this narrated by a very straight-laced ‘True protestant’, called Robert Burrman (more on that name below) who is totally disapproving of everything Herne leads the others in. It’s very funny and invokes many other Shakespearean references.

But I should take you back to the first story though – told in prose poem form – that of the first (in Gilbert’s book) evocation of Herne the Hunter, and how his legend was created. As I said back at the top, we start in 1392, with King Richard II, here known as ‘Dickie’ hunting in the Great North Wood with his courtiers who are all keen to be his head hunter, a role which befalls to Herne. The others are all jealous and want his downfall. But Herne gets gored by a stag protecting the king.

We heard the shouts, in the wood,
And we heard the hoot, the shriek.
He’s ours, they called.
We’d missed it. The chance of victory.
The chance to take Herne’s place, that was.
For we saw how he was fading.
His fingers all mired in the purple-brown that spilled,
And the king’s open mouth.
That was when Bearman came.
Bearman, whose magic sours the wood.

Bearman cuts off the stag’s antlers and binds them to Herne’s head, pours a potion into his mouth, and Herne is reborn, but he’s not the man he was and hangs himself from the Great Oak in the wood. Thereafter becoming the spirit leading the Wild Hunt of ghostly hunters, oft associated with Odin/Wotan.

Bearman crops up in several guises throughout the tales, as a spoilsport as we saw above as well as the untrusted magician. Each time, as with many of the characters, his name changes.

Herne changes his monicker too, Gilbert appropriates other names from myth and legend to illustrate his different personae when needed, cf ‘Oberon’ above, including the ultimate woodland spirit, The Green Man – which becomes the name of a pub in the 2011 tale, and the Erl-King.

I could have carried on analysing and referencing this wonderful story cycle – as you can tell, it really resonated with me. In terms of getting me thinking so much – it’s this year’s Piranesi! Like Susanna Clarke’s wonderful multi-layered, and intertextual novel, Gilbert’s has similar depth – sustained over seven hundred years of storytelling, and it’s certainly my book of the year so far.

15 thoughts on “Herne the Hunter & the Great North Wood

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’d love to read that book – I love psychogeography these days whether in fiction like Mischief Acts or the book you mention (NF). Mischief Acts should be nominated for next year’s Ondatje prizes for sense of place.

  1. Lory says:

    What richness, it must be so much more meaningful if you know the locations. But it’s also a way to visit them through the pages of a book.

    Herne will always make me think of The Dark Is Rising, as my first encounter with that mysterious figure. As with many aspects of British and Welsh folklore, the books were full of them and created an atmosphere I can never forget. Always glad to see more new variations on those old themes though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Books about South London like this don’t come along very often. But this historical look at the people and places in this particular area was a wonderful piece of psychogeography that would give anyone a good view of the area whether they knew it or not.
      I have an admission. I’ve never read The Dark is Rising. I really should, I think.

      • Lory says:

        Well I think so! TDIR itself is set in Buckinghamshire I believe. Steeped in English lore. I loved it a kid and I still find it worth reading.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Fascinating! I was a South London girl for most of my time in London (coming from West Kent, that seemed somehow to fit me) – Peckham, Brockley then New Cross Gate.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I hadn’t realised! I had friends in Peckham, but didn’t know that side quite so well.

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