We have not come far since Gilgamesh. 4,700 years ago, Gilgamesh may have been a mortal king in the Sumerian world. Or, he may have been “a demigod of superhuman strength who built the city walls of Uruk”. Never mind which.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the earliest great work of literature. Gilgamesh may have been a mighty builder; he was also a mighty destroyer. His Epic records him destroying cedar forests and other woods for no apparent reason, across Mesopotamia.
In my story set on Shillingstone Hill around 1667, a teenage boy, Will, sits with his uncle, a shepherd, near several fairy-rings (natural rings of mushrooms). “Do fairies really dance around a fairy-ring,” Will asks his uncle? The shepherd tells Will that he will have to come up the hill on a moonlit night to watch the fairies.
So Will comes up the hill by night and lies beneath a gorse bush to await events. What comes next, Reader, does so as a mystical experience, a dream, or perhaps a vision. This clip comes from ‘Fairy-rings’, one of 20 stories in my ‘Wessex Tales, Volume 2’ :
An excerpt from ‘Fairy-rings’
¶ “The boy held back a few days until the scimitar of the moon filled out her waist and delivered an evening that promised a cloudless night. When the time was right, Will was off up the hill with a bite of old cheese and a raw new potato tucked into his smock. He closed in on the fairy-ring from the rear-side of a stand of furze, finding the low tunnel he had marked out before, where small animals kept under cover as they moved through the spiny bushes right to the edge of the fairy-ring.
As Will began to crawl along his thorn-lined tunnel the musky smell of animals increased. The odour started like that of ramsoms (wild onions), increasing as he reached the circle of moonlight at the end near the ring. At this end, the whiff was pure dog-fox. A fox had recently lain here hidden in furze, hoping to run down a rabbit.
The moon was nigh on full and close as could be to the vertical, so that shadows beneath the mushrooms in the fairy-rings formed perfect circles. The fungi seemed to stand out, their bleached caps rising from dark roundels of shadow.
For the longest time nothing happened. Will heard a badger enter the far end of the tunnel behind him and hoped it wouldn’t nip his foot, but he couldn’t turn around. He felt the badger sniff his boots. No friendly nip tonight.
It was something that badgers did, Will knew. Uncle Alfred had told him. Born and brought up in a burrow, badgers took little nips to identify each other in the dark—then did the same in the greater world above. But not tonight. Behind him, Will heard the badger snuffle away.
The tunnel of furze became a den for the sleepy boy, enclosing, embracing, wind-proof and still as a tomb, though stinking of fox.
Will closed his eyes, then fought to stay awake. The night was too still. Owls might pass, but they did so on silence-feathered wings. No sign of fairies here. Not so much as a dung beetle steered itself by the moon. Will’s eyes closed again.
When he forced himself awake again it seemed as if one of the mushrooms in the near-side of the fairy-ring had grown a bit. Behind his heavy lids Will’s eyes tried to focus. The mushroom and the circle of shadow beneath it seemed larger. The shadow had grown to the size of a saucer. And still the shadow grew outwards. Was the moon falling? The boy was so focused on the mushroom’s shadow-disc that he failed to notice the mushroom itself had grown up and its cap had grown out.
A new noise drew Will’s attention. The still air was suddenly rich with the sound one sets up walking through a stand of beech trees, crackling the beech-mast underfoot.
But there was no beech-mast. Not here. And nothing was moving. Maybe the sound was… Had this been later in the year it could have been the sound of a gorse-lined path: a tiny rattle strikes the air when seed-pods—dried, or shower-damped—split open and pop, like tiny grape-shot, mile after mile. That was the sound Will heard now, but it was much too early in the year.
A ripping joined the cadence. Before him, Will watched the mushroom split, cracking, groaning and growing into an oak tree of enormous size—such a creation as folk hereabouts would call a ‘girt woak tree’. The thing continued to lift, eerie in the moonlight, first pushing out branches, then twigs and at last full leaf. Full leaf, mind, not the early crop of leaf in spring that insects eat!
Suddenly it seemed that a hailstorm started, but the falling pellets were neither freezing, nor were they ice. Minutes before, the cap of the mushroom had been filled with a mushroom’s tiny spores. These were working their own transformation, transmogrifying spores into acorns and raining them in torrents hard as little conkers, painful in intensity. The boy stood up and ran to the birthing tree for shelter. Climbing onto a low branch, he forced himself against the trunk.
It was as if stars were falling, for acorns plunged through bushes and bracken, exciting fireflies and glow-worms into blinking lights.
Seeking fairies in their fairy-rings
‘You, boy!’ came a gruff voice from all around. ‘You are seeking fairies!’ The words sounded like an accusation. Were the fairy-rings speaking? The voice projected vibrations, but if it possessed material form as well as sound, the form remained concealed in the canopy.
Will found his own voice. ‘I mean no harm, sir.’
‘Mortals! That is always what they say!’ The voice paused before returning. ‘They despoil and ravage in our world. Look about you. Look around: forests felled; rivers damned and ditched; the earth grubbed up for bread. Nature’s plantings buggered. Our earth-home is beyond itself, nor has it seen itself in health since Gilgamesh.’
‘Gilgamesh!’ the voice came again, spitting the name as epithet. ‘The first among humans to take his axe to trees and lay them low with wild, senseless desecration.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Will called, hoping to make himself heard through the torrent of falling acorns.
The legacy of Gilgamesh
‘Sorry? A tree and a tree, a tree and another, then wood after wood and whole forests, to boot! Gone, and you are sorry.’ The oak seemed to sigh. What is a moment of human sorrow when set against the aged sadness of a tree? The voice was not coming from the fairy-rings. It must be from the tree. Otherwise the air was still.
A span of several heartbeats passed before the voice uttered again: ‘Razed, boy. Razed! Here stood our precious, long-gone world. A world of green, of forests, trees.’
In twig and trunk the oak began emitting groans and synergetic buzzing while a glowing aura formed around it. Leaves and branches snapped and cracked as violet light picked out the tree but not a thing beyond. If the moon still stood high in a clear starry sky, its light seemed spent.
A medusoid hiss of snakes emerged as candle flames in white and blue took shape and shot out proud from twig-ends on each branch: St. Elmo’s fire.
‘Gilgamesh!’ the voice in the oak mused, ‘Nature’s troubles spilled upon this world when mortal men replaced the ancient gods with kings. Shamans fell, and spirits with them, the whole world over, like Prometheus.’
Will stared into the canopy, certain that the voice was emanating from a being set above him in the tree. Its tenor-bass emerged from all about and nowhere in particular. Large branches shook to its cadence.
At last the oak tree voiced a codicil: ‘Wars and troubles in that ancient time made Man to think himself the one and only self-imagined god. The world of spirits fled. Before this world of cities grew, corrupting humankind, the wild man, Enkidu, had known well how to leave the wilderness alone.’ The voice paused. Then, ‘Humans took the wrong side in this fight. This is one they cannot win without they perish, too.’ The voice changed the pronoun, its threat becoming personal: ‘You breathe our air!’
Will had been curiously calm. Now he began to feel fear. Within living memory Parliament’s army had cut down Okeford’s men protesting on Hambledon Hill; next, the men in armour—Haselrig’s Lobsters—had lopped King Charles’s head like a chicken’s. Trouble roiled the kingdom. The Dutch navy had triumphed in the Thames. Fears pressed upon the fairy-rings, with a fair night turning foul.” … ¶
© Robert Fripp. This is a clip from ‘Fairy-rings’, one of the 40 stories in my two books of ‘Wessex Tales‘. This story, ‘Fairy-rings’ is in Volume 2’.
Another clip will follow soon.