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Wild Things

Iain Biggs


Songs and images act as common currency – debased or otherwise - the medium of exchange of collective emotional intelligence. Songs can, for example, act as important points of reference for a ‘testimonial imagination’ at odds with the consumer culture’s obsession with novelty, particularly those that belong to or acknowledge old, obscure “folk” traditions. For many people in our archly knowing, ‘highly sophisticated’, yet at root rigidly dualistic (‘monotheistic’) culture, they may be the only place where an ‘archetypal’, even ‘pagan’ imagination - shared by various forms of imaginal art, magic, and folk traditions at odds with both the Judaeo-Christian understanding of self and that of the Enlightenment rationalism that both superseded it - is openly articulated.

Dancing to other tunes: an ethnographic note – 1969/2004.
1969 - Mesmerised by a rendering of a traditional folk song. The combination of voice and instrumentation was Fairport Convention’s Reynardine. What was so compelling about this strange song, apparently concerned with the unlikely wooing of a beautiful young woman by a man with fox-like characteristics named Reynardine? 2004 - The same song performed by the West Country band Show of Hands.

In the final verse of Fairport Convention’s version, Sandy Denny sings:

For if by chance you look for me
Perhaps you’ll not me find
For I’ll be in my castle
Enquire for Reynardine,

While Steve Knightley sings:

If by chance you look for me
By chance you’ll not me find
For I’ll be in my green castle
Enquire for Reynardine.

The addition of green to qualify the nature of Reynardine’s castle is the catalyst transforming the entire song, returning to it a significance lost in Fairport Convention’s version. (The sexual significance of ‘green’ is an important and neglected topic in our understanding of British folk traditions, as is the censorship - both ‘internal’ and imposed - that has resulted in the loss of so much deemed ‘bawdy’ in those traditions). A ‘green castle’ is synonymous with the ‘green hill’ in Tam Lin and other traditional ballads, probably a barrow or similar mound and certainly a ‘fairy hill’. This adjective at once gives a context to the young woman’s fear when she accuses Reynardine of being ‘some rake’, an accusation which he understands as signalling that that he is a pagan, ‘brought up in Venus’ train’. ‘Venus’ (or Aphrodite), although ‘Venus’ is a poor gloss here, a nod to the classicism of one section of the dominant culture. We might do better to think of the lady in question here as the Queen of Elphane (in modern terms the Queen of the Fairies), who traditionally lives in a ‘green hill’ into which she lures beautiful young men who, if Tam Lin is typical, may gain from her more-than-human powers, including possibly that of shape-changing that was one of the defining qualities of her mythic ancestors, the Celtic Divinities and, in particular, her own imaginal ‘fore-dame’, Epona. Is Reynardine another trace-memory of the old seven-year ‘king’ on whom the fecundity of his queen/land/society depended, who for a period had licence to woo and take any maiden but, at the end of that time, would himself become a ritual sacrifice to the Queen/Goddess who was also the land? And, we have to ask, does it really matter one way or another?

There is a very long tradition in British popular culture, with echoes that may well finally reach back to the beginning of the Bronze Age or earlier, that has acknowledged and even celebrated a liminal ‘becoming animal’ articulated through old songs and stories of ‘fairy capture’. Certainly that tradition is not easily accessible and is constantly in danger of slipping into incoherence – as Fairport Convention’s gloss of Reynardine aptly demonstrates - yet, to those who hear and respond to it, it might remain one source of provocation to forms of speculative thought that go against the grain of our dominant culture, a seeding ground for the testimonial imagination.

An old ‘game’ played in all seriousness

O I shall go into a crow
With sorrow and fear my way to go,
And fly from you in his good name
Yes, till I be fetched home.

Crow, take heed of hawk so bright
Will tear you from air’s sweet light
For here come I in Our Lady’s name
All but for to fetch you home.

Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back.
Yet I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care

And I shall go in his good name
Yes, till I be fetched home.
Hare, take heed for a bitch greyhound
Will harry thee all these fells around,

For here come I in Our Lady’s name
All but for to fetch you home.
Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back.

Yet I shall go into a trout
With sorrow and sighing and mickle doubt,
And show you many a merry game
Before I am fetched home.

Trout, take heed of an otter lank
Will harry thee close from bank to bank
For here come I in Our Lady’s name
All but for to fetch you home.

Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back.
Yet I shall go into a bee
With mickle horror and dread of thee

And flit to hive in his good name
Until I be fetched home.
Bee, take heed of a swallow hen
Will harry thee close, both butt and ben,

For here come I in Our Lady’s name
All but for to fetch you home.
Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back.

Yet I shall go into a roe
With sorrow and fear my way to go,
And flee the forest in his good name
Ere that I be fetched home.

Roe, take heed a grey she-wolf
Will harry thee close, claw and tooth,
For here come I in Our Lady’s name
All but for to fetch you home.

Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back.
Yet I shall go into a mouse
And haste me unto the miller’s house,

There in his corn to have good game
Until I be fetched home.
Mouse, take heed of a white tib-cat
That never was baulked of mouse or rat,

For I’ll crack they bones in Our Lady’s name
Thus will you be fetched home.
Cunning and art he did not lack
But always her whistle fetched him back

Five voices: a conversation concerning animals
(A. David Napier, Marie-Louise von Franz, Marina Warner,
Alan Bleakley and Sigmund Freud)

‘Masks are, without a doubt, heresy to any sort of positivistic psychology, because they suggest a sensibility for multiplicity and for salutatory change. They also challenge our perceptions of what is ethical. How do we attribute intentions and responsibility to personages whose images of themselves literally shift from plane to plane, in and out of focus’/ ‘The Self is often symbolised as an animal, representing our instinctive nature and its connectedness with one’s surroundings. (That is why there are so many helpful animals in myths and fairy tales).’ / ‘… metamorphosis is the principle of organic vitality as well as the pulse in the body of art. This concept lies at the heart of classical and other myths, and governs the practice and scope of magic; it also, not coincidentally, runs counter to notions of unique, individual integrity of identity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition’. / ‘The animal is … used as a metaphor for a reflexive understanding of a principle supposedly operating throughout the natural world. What is unholy, unclean and to be tabooed (which also means to be feared and avoided) is what crosses borders, is hybrid or does not easily fit a categorical system. This would allow us to read the taboos in a variety of ways – for example, animals which are seen as lacking something or are incomplete (fish without fins or scales), transform (chameleon), or inhabit two environments (cormorants) are to be tabooed, for they cross boundaries, or offer mixed messages, upsetting an imposed order of ‘purity’. The classification reveals a hidden principle: intolerance of ambiguity’. / ‘Children have no scruples over allowing animals to rank as their equals’.


At play

The grubby, wild-haired girl, perhaps eight or nine, is wholly engaged in her part in the game that has transformed the placid suburban garden into a hunting ground. She runs in under the big willow and stops to listen to the sounds that filter in with the sunlight, oblivious of the man dozing sprawled in the low chair at the edge of the canopy. He has been left “on watch” while other parents retreat to rest, drink and gossip, the emblematic adult intended to signify an authority which will prevent over-exuberance and, if the worst comes to the worst, be the first line of reassurance in case of cuts, bruises and tears. Flushed from her dash from the hunters, the girl leans against the rough, cool trunk, catching its unfamiliar, dusty scent. She wipes her face with the back of her hand, leaving a long grey-green streak running from her right cheekbone almost to her chin. Her back against the tree, she stands on one leg to rub vigorously at the long scratch below her knee before glancing in the direction of the distant house. Momentarily her face, previously so open, scrunches up with concentration. With a tiny shake of her head she squats, pulls up her grass stained party dress, pulls down her pants, and pisses vigorously into the dry dirt. Almost before the dozing man has registered her action she has sprinted away, leaving nothing but a dark stain on the dry earth and the faint, sweetish odour of child’s urine hanging with the motes of dust in the heavy late afternoon air.

Jolted out of lethargic reverie by the sudden eruption of the child, it dawns on him moments later that the departed girl was his youngest niece, his sister’s normally subdued and immaculately dressed third child, a child so shy that he cannot remember her ever uttering more than a monosyllabic answer in response to a direct question from anyone but her immediate family. Her profound metamorphosis shakes him to the core and, recognising that he has been granted a glimpse of another world from which he is now forever excluded, he feels his chest tighten and his eyes well with tears. Sitting up, he notices the heat has already all but dried the darkened earth.

As a child of northern Europe born in 1950, he was brought up on the uncertain rural edge of an increasingly urban culture, one in which the twin emotions of fear and sentimentality were increasingly overtaking earlier, less sentimental attitudes towards animals. (His own orientation was to a degree atypical in so far as his early life was coloured by his father’s involvement in culling deer for the Forestry Commission and a period spent living on a Scottish hill farm). Today’s children, he feels sure, are subjected to the dominant forms of a ‘global’ Euro-American culture that has trivialised, sentimentalised and otherwise stereotyped animals to a degree unimaginable even forty years ago, the ecology movement notwithstanding.

As a child who had far more to do with wild animals in their natural habitat than any of his largely urban peers, he none the less had absolutely no idea that it might be possible to have a sense of the sacredness manifest in animals, something that has been the norm in a great many human cultures. He had, for example, no inkling of a figure like the Potnia theron, the Mistress of the Animals, also associated with the great, originating Mother of the Gods. (A double association that, as in Rilke’s first Duino Eligy, suggests a bracketing of the human state between the powers of the ‘noticing beasts’ on the one hand and of the Angels or Divinities on the other). How today is anyone, living in a hyper-urbanised culture even less able to collectively imagine such figures, to respond – if any response is possible - to the observation that, in Classical Greece: ‘The girls who were dressed to take in the cult of Artemis, the representatives of the age group of which we are speaking were called arktoi, “female bears”; their service, the celebration of their stage of life, was called “bearhood”, and the reason given was: “Because they act like female bears’. As if this were not sufficiently problematic, he remembered that this refers to what is already a ‘late’ stage in the history of the pre-Christian European account of the nature of the relationship between animals and humans. Yet there was some unnameable resonance here that would not go away.

In the spring of 2005 a friend had sent him a post card, its image Wendy McMurdo’s Girl with Bears (Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1999). The image, clearly manipulated digitally, showed a young blond girl dressed in red, perhaps seven or eight years old, kneeling attentively to the right of a floor to ceiling museum case containing four stuffed bears. (He cannot help but see, in this colouration, an oblique reference to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood). The placing of the animals and the (two) reflections of the child – neither of which match her current pose – establish this as an imaginal place, with the girl-child located, imaginatively speaking, both within the sterile museum space as an observer and, empathetically, in the same space as the bears. In one reflection she makes eye contact with one of the bears, in another looks sadly out from their space into that of the museum. This is not an image about fear, although fear is present. The two bears in the foreground with whom the child is most immediately linked appear intensely attentive rather than in any way aggressive. The position of the tongue of the bear with which she shares eye contact suggests it is ready to lick rather than bite her. While there is no indication of this bear’s gender, it is not difficult to imagine a mother/daughter relationship between them.

What questions does this image raise? And what could be meant by the identification of girls between nine and marriageable age with the ‘hunt and ecstasy, dance and sacrifice’ and with bears?

Miranda Green makes clear that the overlaying of Romano-Greek mythology over the earlier Celtic traditions means that we cannot now know whether the Celtic Goddess Epona was an anthropomorphic goddess of horses or a horse who sometimes appeared in human form? Indeed, we cannot know whether that distinction would have been a valid one for her worshipers. Perhaps in this distinction we are siding with Classical traditions, based on the belief in the supremacy of the human form, to impose on an understanding that perceived no rigid boundary between humans and animals? If this is the case, then within the Celtic mythological world we would once have found an understanding in which the presence of the ‘spiritual’ was not an attribute that separated humanity from the beasts but which, rather, conjoined them. Are such images a prefiguring of emotional truths necessary to our post-secular age?

At the border

A faint scent is carried on an eddying wind that cools as the light fades, richly compound even to a human nose. It combines the sharp, sour trace of a long day’s sweat, slightly muffled by the earthy fragrance of damp dust and the lingering smell of fatty food from an earlier meal, and edged with the acrid tang of cigarette smoke and a hint of peppermint from gum chewed intermittently by angular, lean jaws. A tall, wiry angular body that betrays almost nothing of its sex is clothed in jeans smooth from much washing, scared and ribbed with mending and, lately, cut off clumsily a little below the knees. Among the tall ochre grasses her tanned calves show themselves furred with a soft golden-brown hair which, like that on her upper lip, trembles in the erratic, shifting eddies of cooler air that rise from the slick of murky water in the ditch below the bank at her back. Her firm, luxurious eyebrows and head of hair are darker, thick, almost lupine - a chestnut-brown pelt streaked and dusted by days travelling in the sun. The face is hawkish but touched at the corners of the mouth by something not so much softer as more lustrous.

If she spoke her voice would be pleasantly harsh, with a warm growl in its lower register. Large bare feet, probably grimy, have been stuffed heedlessly into battered trainers, the multicoloured laces left undone, suggesting somehow that she was happier barefoot. Her breathing is calm, regular and slow. She holds herself upright, without concern for the eyes of others, real or imagined. She wears a cheap checked man’s shirt slightly too big for her, faded and slightly felted, sleeves rolled to the forearms, the fabric thin enough to mould to the ridges of her ribs where a sudden gust of wind presses it to her. All of which might suggest the tomboy were there not something regal, weighted with a sense beyond her years, in this lean frame erect against the evening sun. Perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age, just under six foot tall, she stands some way into a field beside a rural back road.

Some twenty yards away, half pulled onto the dirt verge, a old car noisily cools in the evening air, the only sound other than the distant call of birds and the wind in the weeds that frame the field. In the front passenger seat a young man sprawls, half asleep, his round, slightly wistful face almost lost in the long shadows of weeds and grass cast by the evening sun that still catches the bank where she stands. The freshening wind now tugs at her shirt and hair and she shivers very slightly, although not from cold. Her hooded grey green eyes slide back and forth between the small farmstead in the middle distance and the long grey snake of road that winds away into hills, now no longer embered by the evening light.

Against the empty plane she sees a sepia-toned image of a young woman slightly older than herself and dressed in an old-fashioned cotton dress, her hair coiled up tightly behind her head. A girl child is balanced on one broad hip. For the briefest of moments the shadow of a circling buzzard crosses them before she turns, lifts the child towards the house as if in greeting, and starts back on the path that will lead her to climb its wooden steps. From within its luxurious darkness the opening cords of an old, sensual song begin to form.

Her stomach tightens.

She stands very still, her weight evenly placed and feet firmly planted. As if in response to this shift of stance, a old black dog rises from the shadows under the porch steps, shakes itself slowly from nose to tail, and walks on stiff legs out into the centre of the yard. After a long pause to test the evening wind it turns towards her. She cannot see its eyes but knows with absolute certainty that she is observed. They face each other across the space of the vision. The small hairs on the back of her neck rise and her palms register a primordial fear that, with an effort, she chooses to ignore. As the light around her continues to fade a shadow forest of silhouetted tress grows up behind the dog. The cooling air fills with the rough, familiar calls of rooks preparing to roost. The dog is now almost invisible against the darkness but its eyes catch some unseen light and for a moment flicker with a green fire. The phrase “between the dog and the wolf” repeats itself in her head. Dry thunder heralding long-awaited rain coughs in the distance and the phrase rolls around her body like the reverberations of a gong. Almost an inner shudder. She wonders about the downpour to come. The image in her mind’s eye dissolves back into the roadside landscape and the familiar evening colouring returns, bruised clouds gathering over the now sullen landscape. A solitary light shines from the window of the distant farm. The rooks have fallen silent.

The short summer night has welled up from the valley, flooding the fields of the plateau lands with darkness. She turns with what seems an infinite slowness and then strides towards the old car and its hidden passenger.

This image came in answer to his questions about the arktoi. He had been listened to Lucinda William’s Side of the Road and the song provided a portal into ‘childhood wildness’, into an unspoken, animal knowledge or anticipation, and to reveries about the forming of adult identity. He was touched by the mixture of desire and understanding at the heart of the song. The desire to return, if only momentarily, to ‘a place where the wild things grow’ - he heard in this phrase the title of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are - and the knowledge that such a return can only ever be temporary, is hedged about with possibilities and limitations that flow from the fact that we are and, simultaneously, are not animals.

Notes on a song

The song begins with the narrator telling her lover to stay in the car at the side of the road while she walks out into the landscape. She makes it clear to him that she wants both to know that he is there and to be alone, without him, if only for a minute or two. In the second verse the narration shifts from the present to the past tense, supporting the sense of reflection. The uncertainty of the ‘when’ of the song establishes the sense of fluid, liminal space of “bodily reverie” into which the narrator moves by walking away from the parked vehicle, a space signalled by her stated desire to know the touch of sun and wind and awareness of the brushing of grass against her skin. She looks ‘out at the open space’ and at a farm ‘out a ways’, speculating about the happiness of the people who she imagines lives there, particularly the wife. She appears to be considering one possible future for herself, a possibility touched by the sensuality of the letting down of hair at night. The narrator shifts back to the first person, reassuring her lover of her commitment to him while simultaneously stating her need for space and time ‘to follow that unbroken line’ which takes her to the ‘place where the wild things grow’; a place to which she ‘used always to go’. This is the sense of place he assumes to be located in the ‘childhood’ body of her “bearhood”, her former Artemisian self. The song’s coda, which repeats three lines from the first verse, reinforces this sense of a body that is made conscious of itself, not just as a female ‘sexual’ body known through the touch of a male lover, but rather as a prior ‘natural’ body known primarily to itself through the interface of skin with sun and wind and all that they are to her.


In Alasdair Roberts’ 2005 version of the old folk ballad The Cruel Mother (which combines lyrics drawn from that song and another called Carlisle Wall as sung by Shirely Collins), the generally Christian tenor of the song is broken by verses that suggest the older, pagan, worldview of the late seventh century Celtic kingdom of Cumbria or ‘Greater Wales’ that ran up the west coast of Britain. (As late as 1388, a Scots chronicler could still refer to a rendezvous at Southdean, a parish mid-way between the North and Irish seas on the English/Scottish border, as “on the frontiers of Gales – ‘Wales’, or rather ‘Cumberland’”). Here a mother who has committed infanticide asks her murdered child “the sort of death I shall have to die”. It tells her that she will spend:

Seven years a fish, fish in the flood,
Seven years a bird in the wood …
Seven years a tongue to the warning bell,
Seven years in the flames of hell;

a fate she welcomes in the first three cases, while asking that God keep her from the last. This exchange clearly carries a memory of pagan, rather than Christian, values. Stripped of its Christian gloss and reference to hell, we catch a glimpse of a worldview in which the Celtic dead remain present as part of the consciousness defused through the animal and vegetable world around us. That worldview had already was already rapidly fading by the middle of the thirteenth century, yet we can still find traces of it in old songs.

Seven years a fish, fish in the flood,
Seven years a bird in the wood …

Iain Biggs
Bristol, July 2005