A Green and Pagan Land is an ambitious, highly readable and comprehensive book on how a British pagan consciousness, through time and place, secured a dwelling in cultural artefacts. I use the word artefacts as shorthand for constructs of the imagination. Art and its objects re-claimed pagan imagery for a counter culture to seduce those disillusioned by orthodox Christianity, and disturbed by the modernism and materialism following two World Wars, to reclaim an older ‘natural’ world as an aesthetic force for spiritual sustenance.
The journey through the wood or forest promised more Holy Grail goodness than the most radical and revolutionary political change. Whether this was a regressive or progressive aim depends on your spiritual compass – is it a dark prolonged reverie in the wood that you desire or the discovery of a clearing in the forest that brings you out to the sea and freedom? Of course I am talking metaphorically. Yet conjure up the name of Carl Jung (as Huckvale pertinently does) and you begin to supply a psychological language and foundation for ‘pagan thought’ and ‘pagan’ inspired artists.
Donald Huckvale, who lives in Rural Bedfordshire, occasionally intersperses his Celtic landscape argument with a personal account of walks in the countryside.
“Already as I walk through my British woodland landscape, I am aware of the power of its symbolism. There is no one else here at this hour, but it takes only one consciousness to politicize this place. Cultural connotations contaminate it, for what was merely a habitat for squirrels, becomes, with the presence of just one human mind, mythic and meaningful.”
Our human need not to see the real forest (Tudor, Arthurian or later) but an imaginary one, that alternatively heals and threatens, is to use a very 21st century term, the 'psychogeography' theme of this book: searching for a mental landscape where magic may or may not occur. A Green and Pagan Land is a book that mediates between a real apprehension of the environment and an imagined and mythologized place. Into this construct come its creators – the painters, poets, novelists, composers and film-makers, drawn by genuine mystical tendencies. Some artists went over the top but others mined a profound core of belief / disbelief. This book draws on the many people who undertook this artistic journey.
In Pagan Land’s 10 chapters (it’s a short book of 220 pages) we discover who attempts to “politicize this place”. Huckvale’s erudition is impressive without ever being intimidating. From chapter titles like 'The Return of Arthur' to 'Who is the Grail?' and 'The Green Man Cometh', etc many astute connections are made.
Wagner’s Ring cycle casting its shadow on Rutland Broughton’s forgotten opera King Arthur: filtered through Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, that latterly influenced such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or John Boorman’s Excalibur.
Or tracing the influence of the Green Man from the medieval poem through the stories of Algernon Blackwood, the novels of E.F.Benson and composer Arnold Bax having a direct or tangential influence on Lawrence’s Women in Love and The Day of the Triffids.
Whilst the notion of a Celtic twilight is explored through Yeat’s Isle of Innisfree poem, M.R.James and Arthur Machen’s stories to the psychogeography of Ian Sinclair, via Frazer’s The Golden Bough to arrive at the cult classic film The Wicker Man.
Without wanting to list all the contents of every chapter, you’ve probably realised that A Green and Pagan Land presents a very extensive canvas of cultural reference and inference. Huckvale’s sense of exploration both stimulated and, allowing for my only important caveat, sometimes frustrated me. The problem is that for a book that surveys “Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television” there isn’t enough discussion of the actual film and TV work. The percentage is more like 75% on the other arts compared to 25% devoted to the visual media. Eventually, in the last two chapters, Huckvale makes all his roads lead you to undoubtedly the most important films (Witchfinder General, Night of the Demon, The Wickerman and Penda’s Fen) but I would have preferred a bit less of the multi-artistic influences on them and a longer analysis of these films with the potent landscapes that they still reveal to us.
For me A Green and Pleasant Land lacks a strong summing up of Huckvale’s findings and marvellous research. It demands a postscript or epilogue placed after its final chapter, 'The Road to Penda’s Fen'. Was one written and then cut from the book? I felt it really needed to synthesise its ideas with a more satisfying conclusion.
But I won’t carp on what isn’t in the book but praise it for what is. This is a fine and stimulating exploration of the most influential and neglected artworks of a very British pagan culture. – Alan Price