Delving into the Rich Cultural Heritage of Sussex

Doing research for a historical non-fiction article about England in 1215-1217 led me to the medieval Weald and one of England’s great heroes: William Cassingham, better known as Willikin of the Weald. Further exploration revealed a Weald culture with firm roots in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon mythology and customs and the possibility that Cassingham may have harnessed expressions of that culture as a weapon. One day, I decided –typing frantically towards a magazine deadline at the time- I would return to this Weald and unleash some fiction on it.

When the first inklings of what would become Lord of the Wyrde Woods came to me in Kent and Somerset in the summer of ’14 I had no hesitation about the setting: I wanted Sussex for Cassingham’s culture was to feature in my novel and I liked having a contemporary counter to Hardy’s Wessex – where fiction and non-fiction is interwoven by the hands of a Wordmaster I admire.

I originally intended to use only existing locations but quickly discovered I would have to go to extraordinary  lengths to explain why two penniless kids were able to afford travel from one end of Sussex to the other and back again. I was still puzzling over this during a visit to Herstmonceux in Sussex, and there, sitting on top of a field overlooking the castle, I realised the answer was right in front of me. Malheur Hall was born and then shifted to the northeast corner of a microcosm of Sussex: The Wyrde Woods.

Having released myself from the obligation to stick to actual places I was then able to transports bits and pieces of Sussex locations, legends and folktales to this microcosm. In this process I borrowed on a wider front; stealing from Cornwall the legend of the Owl Man (Mawnan) and from Ireland a suitable habitat for Ufmanna (Ango-Saxon for ‘owl man’). I took the legend of the Fairy Banner from Skye in Scotland and bits and pieces of woodlands from Kent, Somerset, Devon, Dorset and the Veluwe National Park in the Netherlands.

Regardless of these wider acquisitions I still see the Wyrde Woods as a celebration of  Sussex.  I’ve had a number of people correct me by telling me that Sussex is actually East Sussex and West Sussex but the ‘timelessness’ of my setting is achieved by a partial restitution of a far older political entity: The Kingdom of Sussex, or Suth Seaxna Lond. The characters who inhabit my Wyrde Woods all live in the here-and-now, but some hail from times long past. The critters who inhabit the Wyrde Woods have been there forever and longer and this is the reason I wanted my characters to visit different locations before I decided fiction would allow me to bring the locations together instead.

There is a trick Stephen King uses very cleverly. His supernatural horror is often outshone by the horrors of the everyday – people struck down mentally or physically by modern life. By rooting the fiction in the fact there is a sense of realism. I wanted to know if this could be done in a ‘fantasy,’ or Dream-time Tale as I have come to call it. Intertwine fiction with fact and hope to let them fuse at times. And ground the supernatural as well; not the cutified Victorian critters, not the marvellous Grimms imports and certainly nothing resembling disneyfication. Instead use what Sussex offered and this was plentiful.

Paranormal phenomena to fill books with, for starters. Many of the ones I’ve used are genuine native spirits which have been transplanted to the Wyrde Woods. Nowhere does Malheur Hall resemble Herstmonceux Castle as much as in the sightings they share. When the locals speak of them there is not a shred of doubt with regard to the existence of the spirit world, to the discomfort of some of the visitors. Some I have invented and appear – in a ghostly kind of way – to be secondary characters with their own sub-plots.

Knuckers (dragon-worms), as the main dish, served with a stew of the lesser Faere Folk. Knuckers aplenty and much of the material I used is authentic, though I changed one of the Dragon Slayer’s roles from a farm hand to a child and fictionalised the other, using the little known local Saint Lewinna and making her part of the Wyrde Woods. The names Heolstor and Drefan are fictional; respectively Anglo-Saxon for ‘dark’ and  ‘trouble’.

As a dessert, of course, the Tall Ones, those of the Faere Folk who in outward appearance resemble Tolkien’s Elves; but who were shunned by the locals if possible. For the Tall Ones are dangerous, fickle in their intention and totally unconcerned about the side affects their trickery may have on human beings. Humans are fair game as far as most Faere Folk are concerned, with the exception of their own kin who have been placed in the human world as changelings. These are native English Faeries, such as the ones found in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; King Oberon and Queen Titania causing great havoc and stress in the world around them as they spread the joy of their marital crisis around a bit. Faeries with a cruel streak. I made them afraid of bees , my own invention to link Pook Hall (the generic Sussex name for the otherworldly Faery Realms) with a local rural custom. For one must always tell the bees.  But Oberon and Titania appear as themselves; I sincerely hope Shakespeare will be flattered and not turn in his grave.

All these beings and critters are there, but not quite there in the two Lord of the Wyrde Woods books. There is a sense that they are lurking around the corner and could appear any minute – then again they could not. The Anglo-Saxons had a remedy for this, they would enact the part of mythical tales themselves; dressing up and acting out the roles. On May Day they would often go Robin Hooding. I believe they were not averse to playing out Herne’s Hunt either. Morris Dancing is likely to have its roots here too. The Green Man and the Red Queen would wed at special ceremonies, the fires would burn brightly at Beltane and Samhain. All this is in-cooperated into Escape from Neverland and Dance into the Wyrd. Some in more detail than others and not always with explanations. The wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen, for example, is not explained, it just happens without the background information being supplied; I rely on the archetypes to do their work for me here. Sometimes the cultural context is referenced only, a tell-tale sign that they have their own slots in the other planned novels.

Each part of the chronicle is to focus on something specific. Secrets of the Wyrde Woods will reveal more about Ufmanna and also revisit one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon tales ever. Shims of the Wyrde Woods will –as the title suggests – focus on the spirit world. Children of the Wyrde Woods will take us straight into Pook Hall itself. Much of that story will take place in realms which are in the Wyrde Woods while at the same time not quite being there, at least not in our version of reality. All this is possible because the Kingdom of Sussex  has a cultural heritage which is as rich as those of the nations of the Celtic Fringe. Something which has been recognised by many storytellers before me, I am just the latest in line. All-along-o’ dat culture, dis be something to be middlin’ proud of , surelye.

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