It is the Middle Ages; the exact year and location is not specified, both geography and history being far from the interests of most of the characters in our tale; there’s signs that we’re probably somewhere near Prague, but there’s enough blending of the setting that the story could plausibly take place anywhere in the Christian portions of Western Europe. Our locale is a village by a deep forest which clusters around the lower reaches of a mountain; nearby, the legendary fountain of St. Agnes is a popular pilgrimage site, which enriches the local village both spiritually in terms of being a sacred site and financially thanks to the business opportunities which arise from providing shelter and supplies to travelling pilgrims.
Or at least, that’s how things used to be. Of late the infamous outlaw, Wat, has lurked in the forest and waylaid travellers, and that means custom has dried right up. The murder of a travelling peddler is the last straw – and the local priest (who the narrative only refers to as “the abbé”) has a plan. The last time the local lord’s soldiers came to try and root out Wat, it came to nothing and they were nothing but a burden on the village – but the locals know the area better. Why not form a little militia and deal with Wat themselves?
The orphan Mark lives a simple life; he’s two years off the end of his apprenticeship to Gloin, the village weaver. Mark and Gloin are part of the new militia by the abbé’s invitation – but Mark isn’t wholly sure of this. The local charcoal burners seem to have much nice to say about Wat, the eccentric, witchy Mother Cloot has her own perspective, and besides, Mark’s more interested in his mutual flirtation with Josellen, the daughter of the local innkeeper. When Mark and Josellen creep out for a nighttime tryst, they end up unexpectedly encountering Wat – and Mark finds his loyalties tested under the influence of the charismatic outlaw.
But Wat is not the only danger. Mother Cloot has her own agenda, and Wat and his charcoal burner allies are part of that; what’s more, a troop of vicious soldiers have been sent on a sweep to seek Wat, and frustrated in their goals and suspecting the villagers of working with Wat (a guess which isn’t wholly untrue) are throwing their weight about. Who has the right of it, and who doesn’t? Mark had better figure it out quick – for the Barrow Man, the ancient pagan king buried in the nearby tumulus, is stirring, and the conflict in the forest may give him fresh tools to work with…
Published in 1976, The Devil In a Forest was the last novel Gene Wolfe wrote before he started on his magnum opus, The Book of the New Sun (and its sequels). It’s also the first book of his which, if it came out in the modern market, would probably be framed as a YA novel, what with Mark being 14 and the page count (a shade over 200 in my edition) generally being the sort of size you worked with in that market in those pre-Rowling times when page counts were enforced a bit more rigidly. Compared to, say, his two preceding works (The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace), it’s much more straight forward, at least in the sense that most of its mysteries get resolved by the end. (There’s still some bits for the reader to infer, mind, like Mark’s family history.)
It’s largely been marketed as a fantasy, but personally I would class it as folk horror. Most of the stuff in here which could be interpreted as supernatural consists of supernatural malice arising from ancient, forgotten pagan stuff in the woods, and the climactic sequences reveals that something absolutely horrific and borderline Midsommar-esque has been going on in the village whilst Mark has shot off to get help. It’s the cruelty of people to others which is as much the source of horror as anything clearly supernatural, and whether or not you believe a literal devil was at work in the story, there’s no doubt that decidedly human malice is at work, and malice of a sort which is dangerously compelling at making its case (which is what makes it so effective at doing evil).
Specifically, it’s a folk horror reinterpretation of the Robin Hood legend. Sure, Wat robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but when you consider the consequences of this you realise that’s not the unalloyed good it sounds like. We might like the romantic image of Robin Hood taking away undeserved wealth from the aristocracy and using it to help the genuinely deprived get by, but that’s not what Wat is doing here. Instead, by predating on merchants and pilgrims, he’s not just making things economically harder for the village – not one person in town isn’t poorer as a result of passing trade drying up – but he’s also isolating it. The village depended on that foot traffic for its connection to the outside world; the less people come by on peaceful visits, the more isolated they are, and the more the Barrow Man’s grip can take hold.
Similarly, on the “giving to the poor” side of the equation, Wat hasn’t (so far as can be ascertained) given a single shiny penny to the abbé’s charitable causes – for it was local churches and monastic houses who often saw to the welfare of the poor at this time. Nor has he tried to be equitable and fair about how he passes it out. Instead, he distributes his money in a nakedly partisan manner, bribing the likes of the local charcoal burners in order to get their loyalty; far from revolting against an unfair system, he’s concentrating power in his own hands and undermining the existing social order in favour of an order where he calls the shots.
Or is it him calling the shots? The influence of the Barrow Man is one of the more ambiguous aspects of the novel, as is the magic (or trickery) of Mother Cloot, another interesting figure in the story. Unflinching historical accuracy is not Wolfe’s top priority, but he does seem aware that hardcore, violent witch-hunting was more of an early modern phenomenon than a feature of the medieval era (where the Inquisition, once it came into existence, was more concerned with Christian heresy). Thus, Mother Cloot is mistrusted, but not actively persecuted – but is quick to take the opportunity to harass others when she sees an opportunity to get power over them.
The book’s discussion of witchcraft is an interesting one; the analogy given is that if someone genuinely wanted to work magic for purely positive and altruistic goals, they wouldn’t be a witch – they’d be a saint, and what they did would be called miracles. Mother Cloot is bad not because she does magic, but because she wants to do magic for malefic or selfish reasons, and magic is perilous precisely because it tempts us to be self-indulgent and narcissistic with it. From this perspective, if Mother Cloot were interested in enacting positive change, she’d engage more constructively with others – but it’s hinted in the text that she was once actually quite well-off, but destroyed her own standing in the process of wrecking things for others.
Obviously, all this is in part compatible with Wolfe’s stated Catholic convictions – but it’s also a nuanced view far from the attitude expressed by, say, the Malleus Maleficarum, and also aligns with a lot of modern occultist and pagan views on magic. It’s also a perspective which helpfully means that the reality or otherwise of Mother Cloot’s magic is besides the point: what’s important is what she wants to do with it, and what she wants to do with it is generally destructive. Even then, there’s scope for sympathy for her – she’s not doing it because she’s just evil and that’s it, it’s just that for whatever reason she’s ended up in a place where she’d rather tear everyone down than see anyone built up. Even then, she can’t wholly stick to the act – she does have moments of kindness and social connection despite herself, and indeed it seems that once one of her last major social connections dies, her destructive tendencies truly begin to spiral, because she lost the thing which was anchoring her.
Another interesting depiction along these lines is the faith of the charcoal burners, who venerate a figure they call the Virgin but seems to be a painted-over idol of an older figure. Of all the depictions you could do of the hoary old “secret pagan cults surviving centuries after Christianisation was done and dusted” schtick, this is the most plausible – where the old beliefs have been given a Christian guise for so long that many of the practitioners would not think of themselves as anything other than good Christians, albeit following some practices which the official Church is suspicious of.
One of the reasons Wolfe’s religious convictions are less of an issue for me, as a reader who doesn’t necessarily share them, than they would be in the case of other writers is that he seems to very much take the position that whilst God may be perfect, humans definitely are not, and that means human institutions (both secular and otherwise) are often not placed to condemn each other. The abbé explicitly states this at one point: “Leave justice to God, Mark. We have no right to sit in his seat. Men have only the right to protect themselves from a brother man whom they have good reason to think dangerous. And the divine privilege of being merciful.” Although like most of the characters the abbé seems to have his imperfections, the epilogue implies that he became a great saint after the end of the story, and so perhaps we should put all the more weight on his lines.
(There is one bit which gave me pause: the fact that Mother Cloot helps women procure abortions is used to make her seem more suspect at one point, but regardless of your feelings on abortion, it’s undeniable that it would have been seen as dubious in this era – and there’s ample scope to interpret this as another example of Cloot, like Wat, using acts of kindness to foster loyalty which she then abuses, something she would not be able to do if abortion were available through legitimate, regulated avenues.)
The Devil In a Forest is a little overlooked in Wolfe’s bibliography, in part because he didn’t really go back to the YA well that much; the only other novel of his which I’d consider to be aimed at a broadly similar age demographic is the much more enigmatic Pandora By Holly Hollander. Nonetheless, I think it’s very much worth the read, particularly because it shows that Wolfe’s strengths as an author did not solely rest on being mysterious.
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