Thursday, July 23, 2020

StorySpotting: Sometimes the forest eats people (Cursed)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

So, this new Netflix fantasy series is out, and it's pretty bad. The whole thing is (very loosely) based on King Arthur legends (obviously), so I'm not going to bother with those. But it also contains some smaller details in the mix that are interesting enough to blog about.

Where was the story spotted?

Cursed, Season 1 (all the way through)

What happens?

The main hero of the series, a Fey girl named Nimue (a.k.a. future Lady of the Lake), has magic powers that allow her to call on the spirits of nature (?) to help her when she is in danger. Despite the fact that they refer to her people as "Sky Folk", her powers are mainly connected to plant life; she makes roots and vines attack and kill people, and even seems to have some kind of a floral healing ability. In one scene she lures a small army into the woods, and then makes the trees murder them. The forest fills up with screams and no one returns.

What's the story?

The most obvious reference to the forest-murder scene is the historical event of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In 9CE, German tribes lured three Roman legions, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, into the wilderness of modern day Lower Saxony, and pretty much made them all disappear like a very bloody magic trick. It was one of the most humiliating defeats of Roman military history, in no small part because of the outrageous incompetence of Varus (Suetonius, who likes juicy gossip, claims that when Augustus heard the news he banged his head on a wall yelling "Varus, give me back my legions!"). Legend sprang up about bloody pagan rituals and human sacrifices in the deep woods, and the remains of the legions were not found until about six years later. Some claim that the battle left its mark on the legends of the Niebelungs.

Image from here

Apart from the bloody forests of Germania, there are other stories around the world that deal with carnivorous and martial plant life:

The Wonderful Wood is a ballad-folktale from Warwickshire, in which a girl flees into the forest from a murderous king who likes to hunt people. She treats the trees with respect and reverence and they let her through, but when the hunting party busts in after her, the oak trees close in... and the king is never seen again.

The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) is one of my favorite Welsh legends. In it, the magician Gwydion calls the forest into battle against an underworld army of monsters. Each tree has its own personality, and role in the fight. (Talking about pop culture: This is the story Tolkien based the Ents on.). A linguist named Mark Williams wrote a "fake" version of this legend in Welsh a few year back, tricking the internet into believing he had found a lost manuscript. He owned up to the joke, but the story he wrote is still damn good, and I enjoy telling it.

In the Oroqen folktale of Lunjishan and Ayijilun, the plants of the forest come to the hero's aid when he goes out to rescue his bride, a huntress kidnapped by a demon. A birch leaf flies him to his destination, and the vines of a morning glory entwine and choke the demon to death.

In the Hungarian folktale The Dream of the Fairy Queen, a mortal man wonders into the forest and gets trapped in an enchanted clearing. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the Forest Spirit in single combat. His lover, the Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, ends up taking his place in the fight, and she soundly beats up the Forest Spirit, breaking the curse.

The Demon in the Tree is a Jewish legend from Germany, reminiscent of The Corpse Bride story. A young man puts a wedding ring on a branch (as a joke), and thus accidentally engages himself to a tree spirit. The spirit keeps killing his brides, until one clever bride takes the effort to talk to her and come to an understanding to share their husband.

For similar stories, see also the British tale of the Elder Tree Witch, and the Solomon Islands legend of the Boongurunguru. Read about man-eating trees here.


Sometimes the forest eats people.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Csenge, fascinating links to follow. In doing so for "The Demon in the Tree" I came across this blog ( which you probably know, which connects it to Tim Burton's animated film "Corpse Bride". I watched the first few episodes of Cursed, but have got a bit tired especially of so-called "Arthur". My favorite so far are the secret direction signs in the forest made from curved twigs.