Wicker Men, Wicker Trees and Visionary Britain

I’ve been intrigued by this clip of Robin Hardy’s long-awaited and long-delayed new film, ‘The Wicker Tree’. Part sequel and part remake of the cult classic, ‘The Wicker Man’, Hardy’s new film is an adaptation of his novel ‘Cowboys for Christ’, which came out a few years ago from Luath Press. I remember talking to a Luath rep about the novel at a book launch hosted in the branch of Waterstone’s where I was working at the time; he described it as an ‘enjoyable romp’, which is as exact a description as you could hope for. Wildly uneven, creaky, bordering on the ridiculous, the book still mines a considerable seam of horror and dread, and if the film is faithful to its source then it could be a worthy successor to the original ‘Wicker Man’. Certainly, it should help expunge the memories of Neil La Bute’s hysterically poor remake.

If that first film was about competing religions and the social uses to which they can be put, with the brutalities of the older religion proving more suited to harsher circumstances, then the new film will be about the arrogance of the proselytising spirit and the tenacity of native belief, and the way both can be harnessed by the unscrupulous (I always thought the original Wicker Man was an allegory for political dictatorship more than anything). Both stories use the themes and imagery of Britain’s ancient pagan beliefs, and I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because of another book I’ve been reading – ‘Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’ by Rob Young (which unexpectedly turned up in the post last week, a present from my dad). This excellent exporation of the British folk music tradition as it survives in the 20th century makes frequent reference to the durability of pagan or Celtic belief in these islands, and the way the more esoteric fringes of the folk tradition refer back to visionary artists and writers like William Blake. ‘The Wicker Man’ gets a lengthy mention too, not just because it is steeped in paganism, but because it links these themes of paganism and folk music so extensively, to the point where the film can almost be seen as a bastardised form of musical. Young points out how strong the tradition is of ‘visionary’ artists pointing their gaze inwards, tunnelling towards an idyllic and pastoral dreamworld, an edenic version of Britain in its ancient guise. This resonates with what I was writing about in an earlier post, about British writers in the 20th century pursuing more idiosyncratic paths in their work compared to their American counterparts, who very much took on the social and moral mantle of the 19th century English novelists, and saw it as their duty to critique the structure of the society they had found growing up around them, whether through traditional realism or using the theoretical approaches of existentialism and postmodernism.

I think the strength of this visionary tradition in English/Scottish literature seems to have lessened in the last decade or so. In a strictly urban sense, I think Iain Sinclair can be seen as part of it, definitely Alan Warner, and even, in his own peculiar way, Will Self. Anyway, I’m sure there are others, and I’m going to think about this some more and perhaps blog about it later. Any suggestions or comments are always welcome.

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