I really should have written this yesterday, but Comic Con and family time took precedence, as they should. WordPress wished me Happy Anniversary, with a notification that my blog is now 5 years old. How did that happen?!? I started writing as part of my preparations for my first visit to Canada, with this post. I couldn’t have foreseen at that point how much Canada would come to mean to me, or how I would make some very good friends through my subsequent visits. The blog’s name, The Victorian Librarian, has become my preferred pseudonym, if not my alter ego (which still needs some fleshing out). I even have my own crest now (below), featuring two of my favourite flowers, the iris and the bluebell, in addition to my absolute favourite thing, a book.
How should I celebrate my 5th anniversary? I think that the best thing to do would be to write more regularly here, to stop neglecting my blog. Working full time for the first time in four years, in addition to other real life commitments, has taken priority, as it must, but I don’t want to get out of the habit of writing. Will this be the year I sign up to NaNoWriMo just to keep me writing?
According to the plate (an official source of information in the annals of my family) in the above photo, 5 years – of marriage, to be precise, but why shouldn’t other milestones of the same duration be celebrated too? – are represented by wood. Apparently, Emily Post was the first to create a list of the traditional symbols, in 1922, and chose wood as the fifth anniversary symbol because trees symbolise strength and wisdom (so says this Telegraph article). Presumably, then, I should hope that after five years, my blog and I have similarly developed a strong relationship, and have put down roots that will endure. Certainly it’s become the first place I go to in order to write. I just don’t write enough, here or anywhere else. This would probably be the point at which I should attempt to come up with some awkward imagery about nurturing the entwined trees that are myself and my blog. But wouldn’t that be really, really awful? Entertainingly awful, perhaps, but still awful.
I’ll end with some of my favourite writing and art about trees:
Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees):
The willows and quicken trees
Came late to the army.
Plum-trees, that are scarce,
Unlonged for of men
The elaborate medlar-trees
Tue objects of contention.
The prickly rose-bushes,
Against a host, of giants,
The raspberry brake did
What is better failed
For the security of life.
Privet and woodbine
And ivy on its front,
Like furze to the combat
The cherry-tree was provoked.
Above there’s an excerpt from Mary Jones’ translation; my knowledge of medieval Welsh is not enough to do my own translation (at least not before the day ends), but I hope this is a good alternative. Star Wars fans will know that a Sanskrit translation of a small section of the poem was used by John Williams to great effect in the final Jedi-Sith confrontation in The Phantom Menace. The piece is called Duel of the Fates, and you can see and hear it at this link.
I first visited the mythical forest of Brocéliande in May 2014, as I meandered through Brittany and Normandy for a couple of weeks. I even managed to find the Fountain of Eternal Youth, and a strange old man whom I’m half-convinced was Merlin. It’s a wonderful place, and I could have spent a day, if not days, wondering through the trees. Brocéliande is the forest in which many Arthurian adventures, such as those recounted in Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, ou le Chevalier de Lion, occurred, and it is now known as Paimpont. The remains of Merlin’s tomb lies in a far clearing; it has been almost entirely destroyed, in the search for treasure in Victorian times. When I do return, I intend to visit the Château de Comper, home to the Centre de l’Imaginaire Arthurien, which unfortunately I had to miss last time.
To continue the Arthurian theme, I recommend that you read the Mythago Wood Cycle, by Robert Holdstock. I’ve only read the first two of the six volumes, but highly recommend them. It’s rather difficult to explain the books, but there is a whole other world within the wood, where time runs differently, and the rules of that world are very different to those which govern our lives. It’s dangerous, sinister, and fascinating. I don’t want to read any critical literature on the series until I have finished the primary texts, but I’ve already got some ideas I’d love to put on paper. In the meantime, my spoiler-free review of volume 1, Mythago Wood, is available here.
Since reading Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954), I have been fascinated by the hawthorn tree, and particularly disappointed that no hawthorn grows inside my house (something to remedy if I ever own my own home). It appears in medieval legends and in the Cad Goddeu, mentioned earlier, and is rich in mythological significance:
Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the faery folk to places where time passes differently are common in Celtic mythology, and the hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so-called ‘lone bushes’, found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut down or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. The Faery Queen by her hawthorn can also be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship, practised by priestesses in sacred groves of hawthorn, planted in the round. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees there.
Hawthorn is at its most prominent in the landscape when it blossoms during the month of May, and probably the most popular of its many vernacular names is the May-tree. As such, it is the only British plant which is named after the month in which it blooms. As ‘Thorn’ it is also the most common tree found in English place names, and the tree most frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters. It has many associations with May Day festivities. Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
The blossoms were used for garlands, and large leafy branches were cut, set in the ground outside houses as so-called May bushes and decorated with local wildflowers. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. In the early 1980s the Folklore Society’s survey of ‘unlucky’ plants revealed that 23% of the items referred to hawthorn, more than twice as many instances as the second most unlucky plant. Across Britain there was the belief that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and there were many instances of hapless children being scolded by adults for innocently decorating the home. Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.
It has also been suggested that some of the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) folklore may have originated for the related woodland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which may well have been commoner during the early Middle Ages, when a lot of plant folklore was evolving. Woodland hawthorn blossom gives off much more of an unpleasant scent of death soon after it is cut, and it also blooms slightly earlier than hawthorn, so that its blossoms would have been more reliably available for May Day celebrations.
Notwithstanding the above taboo, the leaves were eaten and were commonly referred to as bread and cheese, the blossom and berries were made into wines and jellies, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves were used to stabilise blood pressure. The strong, close-grained wood was used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items. Probably its greatest practical use to people has been as hedging.
Britain’s most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. Legend tells of how Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary, arrived at a hill overlooking Glastonbury Tor with a few disciples and two sacred vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus. Where he thrust his staff into the ground it sprouted and grew into a thorn tree. Though the original is obviously not there any more, one of its supposed descendants does still stand on the hill, and other offspring grown from cuttings and perpetuated over the centuries can be found around Glastonbury and indeed further afield in England. This particular hawthorn blooms twice a year, once in May and again around Christmas. A sprig of one of these Glastonbury thorns from outside St Johns Church is traditionally sent to the Queen, who is said to decorate her breakfast table with it on Christmas morning.
Paul Kendall (source: Trees for Life)
Having mentioned hawthorn, and having focused almost exclusively on trees in Arthurian legends and variations thereupon, I must end this anniversary post with an image – an Arthurian scene featuring a hawthorn tree. It’s also appropriate because I choose the Victorian Librarian as my blog title in partial testament to my research, five years ago, into the library habits of the Pre-Raphaelites. Of that group, Edward Burne-Jones is my favourite.