Wild Thing, you make my heart sing …
An Urisk. Illustration by Kevan Manwaring 2017
I must confess a fondness for fauns. And for their shaggier cousins, especially the Urisk – described as a ‘rough hairy spirit’ it is thought to prefer the solitude of wild, mountainous places. Folklorists were careful to differentiate these from the more domestic Brownie. One cannot imagine an Urisk performing any household chores – they are as to Brownies as the Lynx is the domesticated cat. They are believed to gather once in a blue moon at the ‘Corrie of the Urisks’ in the Trossachs, as evoked in this poem by Sir Walter Scott:
By many a bard, in Celtic tongue,
Has Coire-nan-Uriskin been sung;
A softer name the Saxons gave,
And call’d the grot the Goblin-cave,
Gray Superstition’s whisper dread
Debarr’d the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said, did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court.
Coire-nan-Uriskin, from JP MacLean, 1900
Yet apart from this one mad Highland fling, when presumably vigorous moonlit capering and rutting takes place (the crack of horns, tang of musk, and primal howls thick in the air), they are solitary by nature, and perhaps even a mickle melancholic.
It is tempting to draw comparisons with the wild men of myth and legend who, driven mad by massacres, war and other madnesses of humankind, retreat to the wild. Merlin himself was said to have experienced such a dark night of the soul – fleeing to the woods of Caledon and becoming for a while, Myrddin Wyllt, ‘Merlin the Wild’. There he conversed with a pig, as recorded in gnomic verse (a resonant choice, as swine were thought to be creatures from the Underworld, being a gift from Arawn, Lord of Annwn, according to Y Mabinogi). It was not until Gawain came to find him that he was ‘talked back’ into his wits and back to Camelot. When Llew Llaw Gyffes was turned into an eagle by the betrayal of Blodeuwedd it took his wily uncle Gwydion to track him down (again, a swine guides – this time to foot of an oak tree where putrefying flesh reveals the location of the bedraggled eagle-man) and to sing his soul back home, via bardic utterances. In the Irish legend of ‘Mad Sweeney’, Buile Shuibhne, already a loose cannon, is driven mad by the Battle of Mag Rath, and flees in the form of a bird – cursed by Bishop Ronan for his disrespect – wandering Erin and beyond for many many years, before finding sanctuary in the House of Moling (another saint-in-waiting). Here he receives the milk of human kindness and the Word of the Lord, having paid for his crimes with his dilated suffering. In all these cases the ‘wild man’ seems to be suffering a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Interestingly, Robert Macfarlane describes a real life example in The Wild Places – the Leopard Man of Lewis, who roams the heath and peat naked, except for a body covered in the tattooed markings of his totem. His identity remains a mystery but there is some speculation that he is an ex-soldier acting out his PTSD.
Of course ‘green men’ have haunted the folk consciousness for centuries, if not longer. Their wild eyes and foliating mouths and nostrils convey a feeling of being overwhelmed – the irruption of chthonic longings, the inside turned out. The sheer boskiness of such fellows (and they are commonly adult males, although green women and children do crop up) is best expressed in Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Wodwo’:
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?
Yet the Green Man is also brilliantly evoked in other masterful poems, especially ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament’ by John Heath-Stubbs, and ‘Lob’ by Edward Thomas – based upon a character Thomas met on his restless peregrinations, ‘Lob’ evokes the genius loci of the Chalk Downs:
At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man’s face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, – rough, brown, sweet as any nut,
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, – hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.
Extract from ‘Lob’, Edward Thomas
It is interesting to note how ‘wild men’ seem to haunt the wilder fringes of the world – both in poetry (Grendel in Beowulf) and folklore (the Wendigo, Sasquatch, Big Foot and Yeti…). It is as though we must give wilderness a ‘human’ face – personify it to make it vaguely relatable. There is little scarier than the nameless unknown, the disinterested void that shakes our anthropocentric solipsism. We want to turn it into something cosy – a bescarfed and pleasant Mr Tumnus in Narnia; or hauntingly beautiful, such as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows. And yet it is good to remember that the ‘pan-ic’ we can feel in nature – that frisson of fear at the prospect of being benighted or lost – is thanks to Pan, and that satyrs are little more than priapic rapists, lusting after an passing nymph.
And yet these creatures of the wild – perhaps uncomfortably like us except for the ‘grace of God’, the ultimate hobo fallen on hard times – can sometimes bestow an adrenalin shot of wildness into tame lives, bestow wild gifts – though at a price (as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Musical Instrument’), and drive us into maenaedic raptures with their devilish music (listen to The Waterboy’s ‘Return of Pan’ and see what I mean).
I speak from experience, having had an Urisk jump into my latest novel, The Knowing. He certainly livened things up! I enjoyed spending time in his feral company, as did, I think, the Reverend Robert Kirk – author of the monograph, ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ – a respectable Episcopalian minister in his parish of Aberfoyle (in the Uriskish Trossachs) until his field-work got out of hand…
The Knowing – A Fantasy by Kevan Manwaring is released for preview as an ebook on 20th March.
Watch ‘The Return of Pan’:
Read ‘A Musical Instrument’:
Read ‘Wodwo’ in full:
Read ‘Lob’ in full:
A great blog on Urisks: