The Dartmoor area of Devon is where Brian and Wendy Froud make their home. This beautiful, misty and mythic land has richly inspired their art as well as the work of other mythic artists including Alan Lee (co-creator of Brian Froud's book Faeries), Terri Windling (co-creator of Wendy Froud's book A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale), Robert Gould, Marja Kruijt, Virginia Lee and numerous others in the Dartmoor countryside. The following article, which will tell you more about the unique folklore of the area, was first published in "Folkroots," Terri's regular column on mythology for Realms of Fantasy magazine.
Devon, for those unfamiliar with England, is a country of farmland, woodland and moor on the far southwestern tip of the island, just south of Wales, bordered by Somerset, Cornwall, and the roaring sea. Devonshire is part of the West Country, a region of Britain with its own legends, folkways, songs and dialects. Cornwall, the westernmost part of the region, has an entire language of its own not as well preserved as that of Wales, and yet not entirely extinguished. From the rugged coast comes stories of mermaids , smuggler's ghosts and sunken cities. From the woods comes tales of faeries, goblins, greenmen and enchanted deer. The empty expanses of Exmoor and Dartmoor are beautiful, bleak and mysterious vast hills where sheep and wild ponies graze among standing stones.
Small villages sit on the cliffs of the coast or are tucked into farmland surrounding the moors. The greenman, a symbol of pagan tree worship, is carved into country churches of stone, as are "tinner rabbits": a circular symbol of three hares joined together at the ears. This was the alchemical symbol for tin, which was mined on the moors for centuries but it is also the symbol of the Triple Goddess whose power (like the Cornish language) has never entired died out here. The West Country is a place where old ways and beliefs coexist with modern life: where people hook up to the Internet from 400-year-old cottages, and drive SUVs to country pubs where their great-great-grandfathers once drank, and lace on Gortex hiking books to walk among Bronze Age ruins. Strolling into the Devon landscape is like stepping into the sepia-tinted fields of an Arthur Rackham painting -- the trees, the stones, the salmon-filled streams are all filled with an ancient enchantment.
Dartmoor, at the center of Devon, is an archaeological treasure trove. Although less visibly spectacular than Stonehenge or Avesbury (and thus lesser known), the moor contains one of the largest concerntrations of prehistoric monuments to be found in England. The standing stones on Stall Moor alone extend in a row over two miles long; elsewhere on the moor are double and triple rows, stone circles, menhirs, burial kists and Bronze Age village ruins. The Nine Maidens circle of stones stands on an isolated hill above the village of Belstone. As in many circles, the weather-worn stones are considered to be feminine by nature--they take the shape of maidens and dance in a ring at every Hunter's Moon. The Scorhill and Grey Wethers circles are the largest to be found on Dartmoor. They say that these stones get up, stretch, and take a stroll with the rise of the sun, shifting their places slightly each time they return again. Even older than the stone circles is Spinster's Rock, a neolithic dolmen made up of four huge granite slabs. According to legend, the dolmen was built by three women in a single day another reference to the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. (The three "spinsters" were spinners of wool, not unmarried ladies.)
All these ancient stones were set up for purposes we can only guess at now. In addition to those placed by human hands, the natural forces of wind, rain and frost (and, some say, the whims of the faeries) have carved the granite boulders of the region (called tors) into fantastical shapes. Vixen Tor and Lynx Tor are both stone formations with supernatural reputations, and legends advise against lingering in either site when the sun goes down. Great Hound Tor is a beautiful rock formation with several legends attached to it. In one, a witch (in the shape of a hare) was chased by a local farmer and his dogs, until she tired of the sport and turned them all into stones where they stood. Other tales associate the hounds with the Wild Hunt of Celtic lore.
The dogs are called Whist (meaning "eerie") Hounds in the old Devon dialect. The pack is led by Dewar the Huntsman called the Horned Man in the oldest accounts. When storms rage across the moors, folks say that the Wild Huntsman is riding again. In some tales, it's faeries and piskies he hunts; in others, he hungers for human blood or for the souls of unbaptized babes. To catch sight of his terrible hounds is to sicken and die within the year. The hounds are white, enormous, and have eyes and ears the color of flame. A farmer riding home from the Warren Inn, an ale house high on the moor, once saw a hunter with a strange pack of dogs, glowing eerily in the mist. Drawing on his courage, he asked the man if he'd had good sport that day. The hunter laughed and threw the farmer a bundle, making a gift of the kill. The farmer shuddered and hurried home, the stranger's gift under his arm. When he reached his door he unwrapped the bundle, and found his own child, dead.
Wistman's Wood is an ancient, gnarled oak copse on the banks of the West River Dart. This is the traditional home of the spectral hounds, a wood also haunted by the faeries. Above the wood is the old Lych Way, known locally as the Path of the Dead, down which corpses of Dartmoor tin miners were carried for burial in a village nearby. This overgrown track is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in all of Britain. Ghosts of miners and monks have been seen on the path, and spectral funerals, and the baying of the Whist Hound pack is still reported by unnerved travelers. Related to the hounds is the Black Dog of Dartmoor, who haunts the road by the Warren Innówhere he frightens tourists and has a strong partiality to beer. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle clearly knew these tales when he used a house on the moor as the setting of his famous story "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
Not far from Hound Tor is a simple stone set beside the road, known as Jay's Grave. Kitty Jay was a young orphan of the 18th century, sent to work on an isolated farm in Manaton. The girl, seduced by a farm hand, found herself pregnant and abandoned, and took her own life. Suicides were not allowed a proper church burial and so Kitty Jay was laid to rest at a crossroad between three parishes. To this day ,there are always fresh flowers laid upon the sad little grave. No one is ever seen putting them there and the mystery has never been solved.
A more cheerful legend concerns the rock-capped hills close by my own small village. One of these hills rises steeply above the village Commons, a green swath of land where wild mares come down from the moor to give birth in the spring, rabbits congregate at dawn, and neighbors walk their dogs at dusk. The hill was said to be bare of stone until King Arthur stood upon it and challenged the Devil to a hurling match. The Devil stood on a second hill, and quoits where hurtled back and forth. King Arthur won and the Devil, enraged, turned those great quoits into stone. The stone tors crown the hills today, watching over the houses below.
My friend and neighbor Brian Froud has spent many years studying the myths and and folklore of Dartmoor while painting extraordinary "faery portraits" of the local spirits of the land. "In the faery realm," says Brian, "the spirits of the dead ancestors co-exist with various faery races that are the inner guardians of the landscape. Our local pixies are said to be the diminishing souls of the prehistoric inhabitants. Wherever there is an ancient site, you are sure to find the faeries. Being the guardians of the land, they have to be treated with great respect. Long ago at Fernworthy, for instance, a farm was built that disturbed the dwelling place of some earth faeries, and they retaliated by stealing the farmer's newborn baby. There are many tales of poltergeist-type activity in houses built on faery paths. However, sometimes faeries can be helpful. The Queen of Faery herself is credited with the construction of the old South Down Bridge near Tavistock. She crystallized drops of water from a rainbow over the stream, and then transformed them into the huge boulders that form the bridge. Bridges are often haunted by faeries. When we stand on a bridge, we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."
The woods of Devon are deep and green with moss and ivy, holly and briars. In spring, bluebells make carpets of purple; in autumn, rowan berries hang bright as jewels. These woods are full of faery lore: tree faeries, earth faeries, and the watery spirits who haunt every river, spring and coombe. "Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year thou claim'st a heart," goes one local saying about the malevolent water spirit who lurks in the swift River Dart. Another old saying among Devonshire folk is: "Ellum do grieve, oak he do hate, willow do walk if you travel late." According to this tradition, the elm tree mourns if a neighboring elm is cut down, eventually dying of its grief. An oak copse springs from the roots of a cut oak but the copse is then hostile to humankind. Willow trees are believed to have the habit of walking late at night, following after travelers and muttering behind them.
Tolkien drew upon this tradition when he created Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings. Alan Lee, another neighbor here, is the artist who illustrated the recent anniversary edition of Tolkien's masterwork, and many of our fine old Devon trees can be found in his paintings of Middle Earth. Much of Alan's art (in Faeries, co-created with Brian Froud, and other books) reflects his love of trees and their magical lore. Certain groves, he points out, were once the holy places of this land. Oak trees in particular were sacred to Druids and other ancient peoples--and some old country folk still believe it is wise to ask permission to enter an oak wood. "To be wood in medieval terms," says Alan, "meant to be afflicted by a particular form of madness in which the body sprouted a covering of thick hair or feathers and the individual lived as an animal in the forest eating nuts and berries and shunning all human contact. Many of the heroes of myth and Romance entered this state at some point, often prompted by a crisis in their love lives. It is likely, however, that these stories are memories of ancient shamanistic rituals in which the physical body suffered privation while a spiritual journey in the company of totem animals was undertaken. Merlin, the great wizard of Arthurian legend, spent years of madness in the woodsóand emerged with magical abilities and the gift of prophesy."
Although belief in such magical lore has dwindled over the centuries, the land itself still holds the stories, whispering them to each new generation through the works of artists, writers, storytellers and musicians. Music is a vibrant way for West Country myth to remain a part of modern lifeófor harpers still play "The Faery Love Song," fiddlers still play "The Faery Reel," and singers still sing the old ballads of elfin lovers and midnight ghosts, of women seduced and men bewitched.
"Folklore from the Devon countryside is full of faery music and dance," notes Brian Froud," and of humans lured out into the dark of night by tunes both strange and compelling. In fact, the faeries could be so troublesome with their dancing that local farmwives took to marking little crosses on top of their cakes to prevent the dancing shoes of faery creatures from puncturing the dough. According to legend, moral musicians would sometimes overhear beautiful faery music while sitting close to a faery hill or while secretly watching the faeries dance. Faery tunes then entered into our folk music heritage and became so intermingled with our own that only a few tunes still bear names like The Faery's Waltz or The Faery Reel to indicate their true lineage."
The moor is elemental," writes Val Doone in her book We See Devon. "The thin veneer of civilization has never been spread over it. Its landscape and weather alike go back to the simple uncompounded elements of the world, stark, natural and lovely." West Country lore, like the land itself, is stark, natural, and lovely indeed, haunted, and rich with story. It is no wonder that this land has inspired so many artists over the centuries. The faery muse still beckons from the green shadows of the Devon woodsóand in each generation there are those of us who cannot resist answering her call.