Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A GHOULISH STORY FOR HALLOWEEN...

Herne the Hunter, from a print by George Cruikshank

Once, quite some years ago, when the VV was wondering about in a Windsor art gallery, she turned and suddenly gasped in shock when she saw a life-­sized bronze figurine of a man with the branching antlers of a stag upon his head. That towering, powerful sculpture represented Herne the Hunter, the spirit of whom – to this very day ‐ is said to haunt Windsor Great Park and forest and who, from time to time, is said to appear on the castle’s walls. 

Such a story may well have evolved from pagan tales of horned deities. The very first written record we have is that in William Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor – 

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
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.


Later, in Victorian times, William Ainsworth wrote Windsor Castle, a popular serialised romance in which he also alluded to Herne, creating the fearful figure whose tale is now thought of as legendary – and that myth the VV has also used in the plot of her latest novel, The Goddess and The Thief, in which Herne plays a small but vital part as explained in the following extract –


Herne on the walls of Windsor Castle, from a Giclee print by George Cruikshank


    "...a silhouette could clearly be seen, theatrically lit by the low full moon then shining down through a gap in the clouds...and it wasn’t just the freezing air that came rushing in through the open doors that chilled me to the very bone. Below that luminous disc of moon, the creature’s naked arms were raised, and I could see more clearly then that, although his body was that of a man, from the straggling hair at his forehead there extended a pair of antlers, like those that branched from the stuffed stags’ heads seen mounted in the corridor. One of his hands was holding a chain. Such a clanking rattling it made. The other grasped a hunting bow, and when he opened up his mouth, the terrible screech that issued forth might well be the song of a banshee.
  When it stopped, through the silence, Victoria moaned, ‘Oh dear God! It cannot...it cannot be him.’ 
    ‘No, do not say it, Ma’am.’ Her gentleman swiftly responded, ‘Such tales...they are but legend.’ 
   ‘Well then, you must explain to me how it is that we all see him there. What else could it be but the spirit of Herne? And does Herne not come when the sovereign is threatened... threatened by treachery or death?’
    Mistress and servant stared at each other, locked in what seemed a moment of dread. And meanwhile, more voices rang outside as guardsmen emerged holding fiery torches, running this way and that along battlement walls while attempting to capture the ghoulish intruder. Gunshots were fired as he fled away, though none with hope of finding aim, not with the lash of a rising wind, and the veils of sleet then spiralling, through which the creature vanished as if wrapped in invisible magic.
    A terrible stillness fell in that room, through which I could not prevent myself from suddenly asking, ‘Who is Herne?’ 
  While still staring out through the window, the Queen spoke with little emotion at all, ‘He is a spirit...half man, half stag. The story says that, centuries past, he was once the chief huntsman at the court. One day, while out hunting he saved the king from being attacked by a stag at bay. But in doing so Herne was fatally wounded, and then his own life was saved in turn when a mysterious man appeared. A magician, he was said to be. He stepped from the bowl of a blasted oak and proceeded to cut off the dead stag’s head. That head he then placed on the hunter...after which he disappeared, leaving Herne miraculously cured... not so much as a scratch upon his flesh. 
   ‘But that gift of new life proved to be a curse, for Herne was never trusted again, reviled as being touched by black magic. In the end, they say the man went mad, and he died after having hanged himself from the very oak where his saviour appeared. They say that ever since that day his spirit has haunted the castle grounds. Always in the guise of a hunter. Always with the horns of a stag on his head. And, when he comes it is to warn of treason...or else the regent’s death.’ "





In reality, in the 1860’s, when Herne's oak in Windsor Forest (which had always been said to be the one spoken of in the gruesome tale) was uprooted and fell to the ground, Queen Victoria ordered that a new tree be planted in the very same position. Wood from the fallen oak was then used to make several small pieces of furniture, among them a cabinet for the Queen, and this bust of William Shakespeare which is currently in the possession of the Windsor Museum.

Whether Queen Victoria really believed in the spirit of Herne, in recent times others have sworn that they have seen the Hunter's form. There are stories from the 1960's when some farm boys claimed to have found a hunting horn on the forest floor. When one of them then blew it it made the most horrible blaring sound, after which they heard howling and hoofbeats as if hunters were galloping round them. And again, in 1976, a castle guardsman insisted that he saw a statue of Herne come to life and then walk away between the trees.

So, if you happen to be out and about in Windsor forest this Halloween, make sure to keep an eye open for Herne, and an ear for his terrible hunting horn. 

3 comments:

  1. Great Halloween story! Thanks for sharing. I've been posting once a day, writing a series called 31 Days of Halloween. It's my favorite holiday!

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  2. How wonderful - one a day! Must come over and have a look...

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