The hermit in the forest

My taste in books took shape pretty early in my life. The Oz books were probably the first complete series I owned, followed by the Chronicles of Narnia. I first tackled The Lord of the Rings when I was around ten, and began reading books about Star Trek around the same time–books about the show, and novelizations of the animated series, as this was after the show originally aired and before its first movie came to the big screen.

Then there were the books influenced by Welsh mythology: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a wonderful series of children’s books that should be more widely known; and the Mabinogion Quartet of Evangeline Walton and the Deryni Chronicles of Katherine Kurtz, which were not children’s books but that never stopped me. And with them, perhaps before I read LOTR, even, the stories of King Arthur.

There were always versions of the Matter of Britain in print and available. I believe I had a copy of Sidney Lanier’s retelling that had belonged to my sister, eleven years older than me. I read several but not all of Howard Pyle’s retellings, owned by my neighborhood library; I was more influenced by Pyle’s Robin Hood than by his Round Table. (Pyle introduced words like “marry!” as an oath and “victuals” into many a young reader’s vocabulary.) I read The Sword in the Stone as a separate book but got nowhere with the rest of The Once and Future King. And I was in my early teens when The Mists of Avalon dropped into my life, as an anvil drops on the head of a wiley coyote.

Morgaine and the priestesses of Avalon swirled together with The Spiral Dance and other books about paganism and Goddess religion made an intoxicating brew that I quaffed for many years. (I think I learned the word “quaff” from Howard Pyle, too.) And I continued to sample various retellings of the Arthurian legends, though I wasn’t enthralled by many of them; Lawhead’s Pendragon books, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, and T.A. Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin all left me unenthused.

Then I came across some nonfiction books about the Mabinogion and the early Arthurian legends by a couple of British writers named John and Caitlin Matthews. Their work unfolded magical and spiritual meanings out of the Welsh myths and legends, as others had done for the myths of Greece and Rome, and they have continued to do so for over thirty years. Their books drew me as strongly and steadily as the stories themselves had, and they led me to Ross Nichols and The Book of Druidry.

I confess that I never read all the way through Nichols’ book. It’s an intimidating melange of archaeology, poetry, speculation, what we now call UPG couched in 19th-century language. It is perhaps more akin to the work of Sir James Fraser and Margaret Murray or to Gerald Gardner writing about the witchcraft he was discovering and inventing than to what is now taught and practiced by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids that Nichols founded and his protege, Philip Carr-Gomm, revived.

Carr-Gomm was a stringy teenager when he met Ross Nichols and began to learn druidry from him. He was in his thirties when he became the Chosen Chief of OBOD and began, with the help of the Matthewses and other contributors, to put together a correspondence course that would soon be used by people around the world. Today OBOD is the largest druid organization in the world and Carr-Gomm is stepping down as Chosen Chief, handing the office over to a woman.

I remember that back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I was just discovering that there were people who called themselves druids (not witches or pagans) and that they found meaning in stories that had possessed me for most of my reading life (which was most of my total life), I wanted to join OBOD and take their correpondence course. My ex, or husband or fiance as he may have been at the time, was also interested (he was always interested in my spiritual pursuits… but that’s another post). The course just wasn’t affordable, even for one of us; we were pretty broke for much of our marriage, as it happens. I let it go and for a couple of years we experimented with a DIY version of pagan practice that was something of a fusion of witchcraft and druidry (and that, too, is another post).

Thirty years later, I am single, solitary, and not in terrible shape, financially, although I’ll never be rich or win any prizes for money management. More importantly, other than my bird, I have no one to please but myself–and my gods. And the god with whom I have been most deeply involved for the past year, the antlered one whom I know only as the Forest God, has led me back to the forest, to druidry.

I joined OBOD earlier this year by signing up for the correspondence course. I’ve received two installments so far. I am slowly reshaping my shrine, my altar, and my daily practice into something I can call “druidic”. And it’s not easy–not because the OBOD material is difficult, not because I don’t want this, but because I have wanted it for so long, and now I have to let go of so many things that were once good in order to move forward and welcome this new thing. I love so many things about Anglican Christianity, and the Christian tradition has wisdom I think pagan traditions desperately need, but I cannot go back to just being a Christian. I have loved Antinous dearly and the initiation he gave me moved down to the deepest levels of my being, but my relationship with the god has changed; it feels like he himself wishes me well but is telling me to move on.

What strikes me most when I think about my early reading, and especially about the Arthurian legends, was that as a child, I didn’t want to be a queen or a damsel or even an enchantress. I wanted to be a knight, with a sword and shield, or one of Robin Hood’s band, dressed in green and armed with a bow. Or, even more than that, I wanted to be the wise old hermit in the forest, the one who always had provisions and wisdom to offer the knight errant or the lost damsel, along with a safe place to sleep. Druidry is my path, I think, I hope, to becoming that wise hermit, a sort of pagan Julian of Norwich, my cell open to nature, the gods, and wandering travellers.

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Image by silviarita from Pixabay