Lurking Beneath the Skin: British Pagan Landscapes in Popular Cinema

Tanya Krzywinska

This paper was printed originally in Robert Fish (ed)Cinematic Countrysides. MUP, 2004.


JWF Turner Stonehenge 1825

Jagged monoliths, eroded earthworks, stone circles, hillside chalk figures: the enigmatic remnants of pre-historical landscapes in the British countryside have fired the imagination of artists, writers, historians, archaeologists and filmmakers. From folklore to feature films, the ‘pagan’ landscape has inspired mystery, horror and romance. Escaping the confines of contemporary written documentary sources, diverse fictions are easily projected into the historical void. However, the retrospective and apparently fanciful fictions that circulate around the existing features of ancient landscapes are frequently grounded in real cultural conflicts and tensions. Many of these contentions coalesce around competing narratives and accounts of what ‘Britain’ means. The argument of this essay is that the existing features of ancient landscapes and their presentation in film and other popular media are often used to explore and create histories and identities that extend beyond, or challenge, those offered by conventional ‘national’ and historically grounded narratives. I explore the ways that British pagan monuments that are strewn across the countryside have acquired certain conventionalised and often subversive meanings. An ‘archaeology’ of such meanings reveals that these are not entirely grounded in contemporary culture, but stretch back to the rhetorical modes used by Roman writers, rhetoric that has come to serve the generic forms of horror and fantasy as well as the predilection for sensationalist spectacle inherent within audio-visual media. As such I cite representations of the British pagan countryside in popular culture within a matrix of cultural, formal and historical contexts.

An amalgam of theoretical perspectives provide tools for analysing these relationships, some explicit, others implicit. These are commandeered as a means of understanding the way that the distant whisperings of the ancient past have been amplified and distorted to serve contemporary, if divergent, agendas. Theoretical perspectives on formal, generic and industrial features contribute to understanding the meanings of the pagan countryside in a specifically cinematic context.[i]  Reader reception theory provides models for understanding interpretative differences (in particular the notion of ‘interpretative communities’[ii]). A cultural studies perspective facilitates an analysis of the way that certain conventionalised themes and narrative forms, which range across various popular media, relate to a broader social-cultural context in ideological terms, demonstrating that cinema does not operate in isolation. The selective combination of these approaches provides a framework for understanding the way that representations of British pagan countrysides have become meaningful for viewers and readers in the light of broader social-cultural contentions around ideology and identity.

‘The Devil’s Own’: Monumental Pagan Troubles

During the Summer Solstice of 1985, the area around Stonehenge became a ravaged battlefield: a standoff ensued between the ‘keepers of culture’ and what were considered officially to be anarchic violators of British heritage. Makeshift raggletaggle encampments, barbed wire, news cameras, and police in riot gear are not perhaps the accoutrements that might be associated with the bucolic idyll promised by English Heritage marketeers. Assorted interested people clashed with the police in a standoff between very different notions of the meaning and use of an ancient ‘pagan’ monument. The Battle of the Beanfield, as it has become known, demonstrates the way in which the meaning of Stonehenge, as an icon of the British pagan landscape, has often been situated at the confluence of a variety of cultural contestations. What the Battle of the Beanfield exemplifies is that the remnants of an ancient British landscape offer themselves as emblems through which people have challenged dominant narratives of British history and identity. The fact that the terms ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ have no meaning in a prehistorical context plays a significant role in its post 1960s attraction. This enigmatic ancient past appeals to neo-pagans and some counter-cultures as a means of rejecting and challenging the implications of what is often considered to be the repressive nature of Christian-based authority.

Part of the subversive appeal, which also operates in a more populist sense, is derived from the way that monuments of British prehistory have been presented within horror and fantasy genres.  Many of these are informed directly or indirectly by older fictions, however. The miscellany of ancient monuments that stand in mute testimony to an occulted past are laced with mythic explanations of their origin and use. Medieval mytho-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth suggests that Stonehenge was built by giants and that it was transported from Ireland to Britain by the magician Merlin (1982: 196). The notion that stone circles are the petrified remains of people punished by god for dancing on the Sabbath seems to have originated during the English Civil War (Ashe. 2002: 40; Hutton, 1997: 74).  Many 17th and 18th century interpretations compete between supernatural, folkoric, explanations of stone circles – witches or fairy circles for example (Hutton, 1997: 74) – and more scientifically grounded ones, provided by proto-archaeologists such as John Aubrey and William Stukeley. Meanings assigned to inscrutable features of the British landscape have also been strongly informed by the sensationalist accounts of so-called ‘celtic’ religion, outlined by Roman writers such as Caesar and Tacitus, in particular the alleged druidic practice of human sacrifice. In the 18th century Stukeley consolidated this link by publishing his engravings of stone circles as druidic temples (although later he changed his view to a more Christian orientation). (See Hutton, 2001, for an extended account of the treatment of pagan landscapes in British letters and literature.)

Poets John Keats, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Robert Graves and proto-anthropologist JG Frazer, author of The Golden Bough[iii], also romanced with the alleged bardic-philosophical tradition of the Druids, which, Caesar had written, originated in Britain. Even Byron asked of Stonehenge what the ‘devil is it’ in his poem Don Juan (1821). In the main, poetic imagery of the Romantics is used to evoke the sublime majesty of the stone circles and often represents a lost Arcadian age when the poetry had religious status. Even here conflicts between the material presence of ancient monuments, which were taken as representing an apparently sophisticated prehistorical culture, and classical Roman accounts of their barbarous use are apparent. Matthew Schneider (1997) mounts a convincing argument that Wordsworth and Keats struggled in their poetry to square the druidic practice of sacrifice reported in Caesar with what they viewed as the noble aspects of druidism. The romance with druidism, and the landscape that speaks ostensibly of them, continues (even if archaeological evidence places most monuments as preceding the late Iron Age by millennia in some cases). But it is the sinister spectre of human sacrifice that lends such monuments their particular bloodcurdling resonance and it is this that has fuelled the sensationalism of many subsequent occult-based fictions. Rev. J. Ogilvie commented in 1787 in The Fane of the Druids that with regards to druidic human sacrifice ‘some ancient writers seem to dwell on this subject with a satisfaction’ (cited in Schneider, 1997: 5). Many modern texts follow in similar vein, including some that do not fall within the category of generic horror fiction.

Within the context of the horror genre, prehistoric ‘pagan’ monuments are connected often with the presence of primal, supernatural evil. The use of Stonehenge in the opening credits of Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) (1957, UK) provides an indicative example. A montage of canted shots of the stones, backlit and windswept in brooding black and white, appear accompanied by a sonorous voice-over that intones ‘It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And, it is also said, that using the magic power of ancient runic symbols man can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell’. Accompanied by dramatic music, and schlocky B movie graphics for the titles, the scene utilises all the lurid generic accoutrements of the horror film to jar the spectator’s equilibrium. The film’s story hinges on a common trope in the horror film: a sceptical hero comes to understand the full force of the occult, when he investigates the mysterious death of an academic. The chief suspect in the case is the leader of a cult, Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), whose manuscript was turned down for publication by the dead man. Hot on the trail of Karswell, our hero is given surreptitiously a note inscribed with runes that will invoke an ancient demon to kill him. Moral balance is restored when the note is returned to Karswell resulting in his death. The story arc has little to do with Stonehenge, however, but the powerful image of Stonehenge is used metaphorically to encapsulate the film’s theme of vengeful desire and demonic magic that lurks beneath the civilised skin of middle England.

Iconic monuments of prehistory in horror-based cinema are also often linked to human sacrifice within the context of a barbarous paganism. Blood on Satan’s Claw (aka Satan’s Skin, 1970), The Witches (1966) and The Wicker Man (1970) are British-made horror films that place ‘pagan’ sacrifice centrally as the source of horror: each are set in the British countryside and emphasise in different ways the links between the landscape and pagan practice. These films follow on from the commercial success of Dennis Wheatley’s sensationalist and tendentious occult novels written between 1933 and 1974, which linked pagan practice with black magic. The Devil Rides Out (1934) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953) are structured morally and formally on Manichean lines, where Christian forces representing light and good do battle with evil in the form of black magic and ‘lustful’ pagan-derived practice. In one section of the former novel, a woodland glade, reproduced in the Hammer film of the same name, provides the stage for a bacchanalian orgy complete with a composite image of Pan, the devil and Baphomet, the alleged god of the Knights Templar, appearing at the height of the ceremony (see Krzywinska for an analysis of the figure). Later in the novel a child is to be sacrificed in a deconsecrated chapel in a manor house.[iv] Here, however, Stonehenge escapes the brooding menace of its representation in Night of the Demon. One character asks why Stonehenge is a good place to find sanctuary against evil, given that it is associated with druidic sacrifice, the response from the occult-moral authority, De Richleau, is that even though druids practised human sacrifice at the site it is nonetheless ‘one of most hallowed spots in all Europe because countless thousands of long-dead men and women have worshipped here – calling on the power of light to protect them from evil things that go in darkness’ (1971: 141). Like Wordsworth and Stukeley, Wheatley seeks to square the apparent contradiction between sacrifice and spirituality, thereby rescuing the monument for British moral heritage. Within this novel, as with other occult fictions, the landscape itself is a source of power, imbued with a moral-metaphysical dimension that accords neatly with the common horror Manichean-based convention of a universal battle between good and evil, which, in this case, precedes Christianity. Tom Holland’s horror novel Deliver Us From Evil (1996) is partly set in Wiltshire and continues the tradition of associating remnants of a pagan landscape with the intrusion of hitherto repressed dark forces that are both supernatural and articulations of the collective unconscious. The novel blends together seductive villains with a Wheatley-esque take on black magic, weaving a tale around historical figures such as John Dee, John Milton and the British antiquarian John Aubrey, who surveyed Stonehenge and Avebury in the 17th century.

Deliver Us From Evil alongside each of the films and novels mentioned above invokes the British countryside as a place where pagan practices continue to abide in the Christian era. This trope provides the rationale for sensationalist stories of human sacrifice and orgiastic sexuality freed from repressive civilising agents. Most of these texts regard pagan sacrifice as inherently evil, and particularly in Wheatley and some of the horror films, the return to the ‘old religion’[v] and antique magical practice represents moral decay, a factor indicated by the presence of abandoned Christian churches in The Witches and The Wicker Man. In Cry of the Banshee (1970), a ruined church that lies deep in secluded woods provides a place for pagan-based nature worship, but here is the stage for the brutal massacre of the hippie-esque celebrants by those alleging to do their brutal work in the names of God and the King, resulting in a plot-driving curse on the house of their leader. Many British occult films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Eye of the Devil  (1967), Cry of the Banshee The Witches, and The Wicker Man, make use of the League of Gentlemen[vi] model. The locals may look ordinary, but they are in fact members of barbaric pagan cults that practise human sacrifice. While in Blood on Satan’s Claw, the locals are god-fearing and their daily life is disrupted when a sub-human skull, complete with a set of rudimentary horns, is found in a field near their village. Through some strange magic this drives the local youth to a frenzy or murder and self-mutilation. While the muted tones of an autumn rural landscape lend a bucolic tone, the flesh-rending Bacchae-like events that take place are very far from being quietly picturesque. Such generically grounded othering of rural communities sits in sharp and delicious contrast to the saccharine ‘Miss Marple’ view of the English country village in which murder has no magical or supernatural cast. The type of myth-making found in occult-horror fictions draws some of its power from tacit references to antique religious practices outlined in the Roman ‘colonialist’ texts mentioned above. But their particular horrors are also rooted in the cultural context in which they were produced.

Counter/Cultural Issues

As Leon Hunt has noted ‘the conflict between “old” and “new” faiths was a way of talking about the relationship between the upheavals of the late 1960s – the emergence of youth and “counter” cultures, permissiveness, the possibility of revolution – and the backlash of the 1970s represented, in particular, by the “law and order” agenda of the new Heath government’ (2002: 93). Blood on Satan’s Claw and Cry of the Banshee and are set respectively in the early 17th century and interregnum period, times that are associated with Puritanism and its goal to place piety and religious observance at the heart of the culture and government (Witchfinder General [1968] is also located in this period). Made during the early 1970s, the particular historical setting of these films is well-suited to articulating modern cultural conflicts around the increasing ‘permissiveness’ of British culture. Manifestations of supernatural entities that destroy the order of things can be regarded as symptomatic of perceived repression (as well as having dramatic and sensationalist potential), the landscape serving as a metaphor for the stratified layers of the collective unconscious.  While it is easy and attractive to glean a message about the danger of stultifying the free expression of sexuality in such films, the portrayal of pagan practice is often ambiguous, serving, as it were, with two hands. As with Wheatley’s conservative Christian-bias, these films yoke the return of the repressed with ritual sacrifice and black magic. The return of occulted atavistic supernatural forces expresses a warning about the effects of repression, yet they are frequently regarded as evil and overcome by the forces of ‘Right’ and ‘Light’ –  terms of no liberal/relativist compromise that are closely associated with Mary Whitehouse’s anti-permissive organisation, The Festival of Light. Blood on Satan’s Claw is by far from a simple celebration of ‘pagan’ sex and magic, its sensation-driven narrative carries a health warning about the dangers that cults represent to youth (especially when considered in the light of the high profile ritual murder of the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate by Manson’s ‘Children of God’ in 1969). Yet the anarchic outbreak of barbarous behaviour in the film has a transgressive appeal that would not be lost on the well-developed counter-culture, which found many of the values and attitudes of conservative middle-England abhorrent, particularly as these tended to demonise aspects of youth culture as well as unfettered expressions of sexuality. However, not all horror-based fictions that use the British pagan landscape for their setting speak so directly of unregulated sexuality. The children’s TV series Children of the Stones (1977, Harlech Television), set within the partially stone-encircled village of Avebury, is one such case, yet nonetheless the stones harbour dark forces of an extra-terrestrial nature that possess the local inhabitants and prevent them from leaving.

In terms of an ‘archaeology’ of the meanings assigned to the pagan landscapes in each of these horror-based texts, each draws quite strongly on the image of ‘celtic’ paganism outlined in the writings of Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny. These Roman writers viewed North European paganism as deeply barbaric, using human sacrifice as a means of demonstrating their claim. Yet, it should be noted that they had reasons to construct and maintain a difference between their own culture and that of the ‘othered’ barbarians. As with more recent fictions, they too projected lurid fantasies onto the strange landscape of ‘celtic’ paganism. The conflation of ‘barbarianism’ and ‘primitivism’ inscribed in such work functioned as a means of justifying the colonial management of North European people, deployed according to various political and moral agendas. When their ‘histories’ are adopted in later fictions, it is the colonist gaze that prevails and it is the studied sensationalism of this viewing position that lends itself so well to the horror genre. This becomes extremely apparent when we examine the aforementioned horror fictions in relation to these ‘classical’ works. Tacitus, for example, comments that the Germans ‘count it as no sin, on certain feast days, to include human victims in the sacrifice’ (Tacitus, 1970: 108), and Caesar writes that the Gauls are much given to human sacrifice and employ druids to do it, he goes on to say  ‘Some of them use huge images of the gods, and fill their limbs, which are woven from wicker, with living people […] They believe that the gods are more pleased by such punishment when it is inflicted upon those who are caught engaged in theft or robbery or other crime’ (Caesar, 1996:127-8/6.17). There is a clear, if tacit, superior self-promotion in the deployment of the binary opposition civilisation/barbarism here. This binary is also played out obsessively in the horror genre, and is frequently allied to the psychoanalytic notion of the return of the repressed.  British occult-based films and novels that look back to the ‘old religion’ consistently mobilise human sacrifice as the indicator of barbarity and moral bankruptcy, as was also the case in Tacitus and Caesar. This model also threads its way through Christian discourse and many clerics used such rhetoric as a means of outlawing and demonising paganism: old gods become new devils. The legacy of such demonisation plays a crucial in the meanings that popular culture, and particularly the horror genre, assigns to the British pagan landscape. In a neat redeployment, the othering of ‘celtic’ paganism within Roman and Christian discourse, has provided recent popular culture with a powerful counter-discourse with which to ‘other’ Britain, as well as deploying sensationalist images to attract horrified fascination.


Caesar’s powerful evocation of the wicker man as a tool for human sacrifice in celtic culture is resurrected directly in The Wicker Man, a film that is often hailed as the most significant British horror film. Set in a fictitious Scottish island, Summerisle, the local inhabitants practice a version of paganism that they believe ensures the fruitfulness of their harvests, re-introduced to them by their Laird in the 19th century. For the first time their crops have failed and they entice a carefully chosen ‘virgin’ policeman, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), to the island to investigate the death of a child. He witnesses pagan practices that affront his fundamentalist Christian sensibilities, and ends up being a substitute sacrifice for the current Laird, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the aim of which is to restore fertility to the land. As a policeman and as a hard-line Christian who believes strongly in sex only within the sanctity of marriage, and lets everyone know that they are sinners, Howie is multiply-determined as a representative of outmoded puritanism and authoritarianism. This character coding is pointedly directed to the libertarian counter-culture as a figure of ridicule and contempt, however. Nothing could be more timely and fitting than the sacrifice of an agent of ‘repression’; a man who is horrified by the sight of young woman jumping naked over a fire placed at the centre of a circle of standing stones, and who does not yield to his sexual urges (despite the best efforts of a witchy-seductress played by Britt Ekland). Like Blood on Satan’s Claw, the film is riven with contradictory meanings. These can be viewed within the context of contemporary counter-cultural investments, and exhibit themselves in disagreements about the meaning of the film between the screenwriter and the director, as well as in the film’s ambiguous dealing with sacrifice as both horrific and thrilling, rational and irrational. Are we meant to commend the pagans for killing the policeman? If so, then the death of an arrogant and self-righteous cop wasn’t working to gain my sympathy. Robin Hardy, the director, claims his aim was to communicate the dangers of paganism (see Krzywinska 2000 for an extended analysis), whereas Anthony Shaeffer, the film’s screenwriter, claims that the impetus for the film lay in the need for ‘someone to go right back to the beginning and explore…what lay behind religion as we know it.’ (cited Brown, 2000: 24)  For many fans of the horror genre and those with contemporary pagan leanings, it is Summerisle’s paganism that offers up an alternative to repressive laws and puritan-style moral frameworks. Throughout most of the film paganism is presented as vital, generally life-affirming and appeals to the senses through the connections it makes between sexuality and seasonal cycles. Thereby the film addresses itself most directly to those viewers inclined to baulk against the repressions of conservative, authoritarian, parent culture (even if Summerisle has its own brand of authority).

Paganism in British films of the 1960s and 1970s is frequently coupled with the full expression of ‘natural’ sexuality, a factor that has informed various interpretations of standing stones as fertility, phallic or vaginal symbols. The link between stone circles and fertility rites is evoked in the image from The Wicker Man (see below), yet other rites are rather less benign. In Deliver Us From Evil the central male character is impregnated by the Devil within the inner circle of Stonehenge. Rather than a site associated with the invocation of forces of light as in The Devil Rides Out, here it is presented as a dark and blood-soaked monument, the ‘natural’ home of a corrupting evil that makes a mockery of the gendered order. The paganism paraded in the British horror genre articulates in its cultish way, for some at least, an anarchic atavistic spark that re-invokes a rhythm that has been lost under urban tarmac and clock (on) time. Yet within the context of horror and sexploitation, witch-power and magic are rendered perverse, amoral and connected to violent death (which in itself provided for some viewers a welcome transgressive fantasy thrill that put two vicarious fingers up to the moral order). By deploying familiar prehistorical monuments as settings for such narratives, and drawing on pseudo-historical sources, the British pagan countryside becomes infused with subversive resonance.

These few examples show how the sacred landscapes of ancient Britain have become entrenched in the popular imagination under the seductive sign of ‘transgression’.  Prehistory, with its connection to the primitive, acts as literal and metaphoric terrain for conjuring up buried histories, identities and narratives that have been are, or imagined to be, suppressed by ‘civilisation’ and the dominant order.

Recent Departures

In the more benign context of recent fantasy fiction, the pagan past becomes a place for evoking a time when the land and people worked in harmony, to which magic was instrumental. Here a rather different register operates to that which colours the ‘demonic’ vision of paganism in the horror film. Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) carries a strong authorial signature, and is perhaps best described as having an art cinema aesthetic.  With mainstream cinema embracing strongly the notion of the ‘auteur’ at that time, as a means of branding products that evaded generic affiliation, the context was right for Boorman to explore the Arthurian myth from a personal perspective, one that dovetailed with the considerable counter-cultural interest in myth and magic. As he is quoted as saying ‘When you recount a legend you find yourself speaking more about your own period than you think […] What is essential, then, is not to refute the myth but to refresh it’ (cited Frayling, 1995: 23). What is new in Boorman’s rendering of the myth is its insistence on old paganism (at least old paganism filtered through 19th and 20th century mediations). Merlin and Morgana (both practitioners of ancient magics) belong to the old pagan world and act outside the newly established Christian/democratic/patriarchal order. The film presents the pagan countryside through iconic representations such as stone circles, but paganism also plays a structural role. Despite Arthur’s Christianity, the seasonal rhythms of nature are also at some deep level tied into the trajectory of Arthur’s life. When Arthur is young, perpetual spring reigns, when he marries it is full summer and when he grows ill, a hard winter sets in; on drinking from the grail the land becomes bright and lush again and cherry blossom petals fill the air. This romantic synergy is derived in part from JG Frazer’s contention in The Golden Bough that many pre-Christian myths coalesce around the notion that the king and the land are one. This takes on a symbolic and allegorical resonance in the film that is informed by Jung’s work on archetypes. Frazer also presents this king/land synergy as the basis for human sacrifice: if the land falls sick the king, or his substitute, must be ritually sacrificed. This myth-based trope provides both structure and horror-based spectacle in The Wicker Man, Eye of the Devil, a horror film set in Northern France and, in an art movie context, Pasolini’s Medea (1969, Italy) [see Krzywinska for more detailed analysis of sacrifice in these films].

For Boorman’s purposes, Arthur is of less interest than Merlin. Merlin crops up in various guises in many of Boorman’s films, representing in archetypal terms a lost world of magic. Not wholly absorbed by the traditional chivalric focus of the myth, Boorman makes use of novelist Mary Stewart’s strategy of locating the Arthurian myth within the context of the transition between paganism and Christianity; and it could be said that the shift itself is ‘mythologised’ by the film. Boorman states ‘…[Merlin] says to Morgana “The days of our kind our numbered”. There are also echoes of the coming of Christianity and I couldn’t resist putting my own feelings into this. I feel that the imposition of Christianity – a desert religion – on northern Celtic people, was a very alien thing…They destroyed the magic of those people and we are still suffering from that today’ (cited Film Directions: 1984). This sense of spiritual loss distilled a more general trend at work in the mystically inclined hippie counter culture. The ascendance of Arthur does not herald a golden age, as traditionally couched, but a fall that entails the loss of a rich and meaningful relationship with the landscape and nature. Boorman uses Merlin and powerful images of the living, changing landscape as means of evoking that missing connection, thereby providing an implicit criticism of some of key tenets of traditional British culture and identity. In so doing the film mediates a burgeoning dissatisfaction with the more traditional celebration of British culture and identity that is embedded in many versions of the Arthurian golden age. Whether the film’s nostalgia is considered conservative, with a small c, or subversive depends on the interpretive framework that viewers bring to the film. For those aligning themselves with the hippie-oriented counter-culture the film expresses through the appropriate rhetoric of myth-based fantasy the latter.

There is also a notable gender dimension to the film’s representation of paganism that warrants consideration because it has a bearing on the burgeoning counter-cultural investments in the ‘old religion’ at the time the film was made. The 1970s saw a growing interest in the development (or rediscovery as it was sometimes couched) in feminist/feminine modes of spirituality and expressions of power. This has a bearing on the representation of the figure of Morgana in Excalibur. As a witch of the old religion Morgana is intent on overthrowing Arthur’s glorious age of men, which makes her available to be read as a threat to both patriarchal and Christian values. Her representation resonates within the feminist appropriation of witchcraft as a discourse of gender dissidence, as is evident in Hélène Cixous’ reappropriation of witchcraft as an anarchic discourse of female empowerment with capacity to subvert patriarchal power (1986). Within this context pagan witchcraft, and its related myths of powerful female deities, constitutes a challenge to the status quo, speaking, at least to some receptive viewers, of a lost and othered ‘herstory’ that melds together imagination and historical fact.   With recent re-witching of popular culture, evidenced across various media with the Harry Potter franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and the presence of playable shamanic magic casters in role-playing games such as EverQuest and SpellForce, the links between paganism and witchcraft are often consolidated through quite wide-spread cultural investments in ‘girl power’. The figure of Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) in made-for TV film Merlin (1998, Hallmark/NBC) utilises this resonant link. Dressed in gothic black and purples, with powerful magics at her fingertips, she has the requisite bad girl kudos through her attempts to destroy Arthur, lure Merlin to the ‘dark side’ and rescue the old gods, of which she is one, from oblivion. She first appears as a standing stone made flesh, stepping out of the stone which establishes her connection with the prehistorical landscape. Open to a variety of interpretations, this association might be read by those with an interest in witchcraft, and perhaps seeking new ways of figuring a female-based spirituality, as a way of aligning the female body to the rhythms of the earth, rhythms masked by industrial clock-time. For some feminists, however, this association might be construed as supporting essentialist ideas about the definition of femininity. In either case Queen Mab is a very contemporary figure, who is made entirely in the light of recent popular interest in paganism and witchcraft (or Wicca).

Both Excalibur’s Merlin and Merlin’s Queen Mab are intrinsically linked to the pagan landscape: Arthur can only speak to the imprisoned Merlin through the conduit of Stonehenge. Unlike Excalibur, Merlin is far more in keeping with the more traditional Arthurian narrative (Queen Mab excepted). The figuration of Merlin (Sam Neill) is clearly built around his being an active and morally upright agent of change, rather than a darkly ambiguous and playfully arch representation of the old order of shamans, as he is in Excalibur (‘I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to know which, and when.’). In Merlin, Queen Mab, is defeated by Merlin and Arthur’s court, composed predominantly of men, by a simple act of forgetting. They turn their backs on her and the old world that she presents. Given that she is presented in such deliciously mischievous ways, presenting an affront to the patriarchal and Christian order, I for one did not want to forget her so easily. The film may evoke the attraction of the pagan-witch but her disruptive purpose is overcome with no deigetic sense of loss. It then takes a recuperative interpretational act to remember the magical counter-world that she stands for. By contrast, in Excalibur, the audience is actively invited to reconnect with an imagined pagan past that has been lost in the smog of industrial time. As such the landscape itself is re-enchanted and anthropomorphised, rescued from being more than simply a dumb, exploitable commodity. This is set to speak to those with an interest in ecology, magic and pantheistic religions.  While both films are clothed in the special effects of the type typical of the fantasy genre, they seem to look in different directions. Merlin looks to the bright, rational, future, celebrating the loss of the old magic and its wickedness. Excalibur looks back with melancholy to an unrecoverable, mythic, past to show the hubristic folly of the ‘time of men’. As Merlin says from his tomb of crystal:  ‘the earth is being torn apart, its metals stolen, and the balance is broken and the lines of power no longer converge’.

A Conclusion

All the narratives addressed in this article deploy elements of transgression in their depictions of the pagan countryside, although the type of transgression differs from text to text, interpretation to interpretation. The screen of prehistory provides a context through which to evoke an imagined lost world that resonates in accord with the socio-geographic fault-lines of contemporary culture, whether this is a lost spiritual vitalism or something repressed by the machinations of civilisation/industrialisation/patriarchal institutions. Pagan prehistory as rendered by these popular texts is often set against the loaded authority of traditional history; as well as helping to diversify the very concept of ‘Britain’. The competing narratives that invoke British prehistory demonstrate that what constitutes Britishness is far from fixed or settled. As Barbara Bender has suggested, the pagan landscape provides contemporary British culture with a means of what she calls ‘differential empowerment’ (1999: 5). The presence of pagan landscapes in popular fiction is, at least in part, based on the spectacular attraction of magic, myth, sex, and sacrifice, which are well-suited to audio-visual media. The rhetorical alignment of transgression to the pagan landscape provides for some a vehicle by which to challenge and reconfigure the meaning of Britain and identity. And, perhaps the recent enthusiasm for British prehistory reflects a desire to reinvest the landscape with a sacred dimension, as well as distaste for a very dirty and repressive British history.

I am grateful to Prof. Julian Petley and Leon Hunt for reading versions of this paper.


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Krzywinska, A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film. (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000).

of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982). Trans. Lewis Thorpe.

Schneider, Matthew ‘”Wrung by sweet enforcements”: Druid Stones and the Problem of Sacrifice in British Romanticism. Anthropoetics II, no. 2 (January, 1997)

Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970). Trans. Harold Mattingley.

Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out (London: Arrow Books, 1971).

Wheatley, To the Devil – A Daughter. (London: Arrow Books, 1972).

‘John Boorman Talks About Excalibur’ and The Dynamic Principle of Fantasy’ Film Directions V4 no.1 Autumn 1984.

[i] For more on such approaches to the study of cinema, see: Rick Altman (1999) Film/Genre. London: BFI publishing; John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds) (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press; Robert Kolker (1999) Film, Form and Culture (McGraw Hill); David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw Hill, 2001, sixth edition).

[ii] See Stanley Fish (1980) Is there a text in this Class?: The authority of interpretative communities  Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.

[iii] The Golden Bough was first published in twelve volumes between 1906 and 1915 and abridged in 1922. It is a study in comparative myth, magic and folklore, often described as a work of classical anthropology.

[iv]  Large old houses are often used in British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s as the fitting domicile of decadent aristocrats, an articulation of what Carol Clover terms, in Men, Women and Chainsaws (1993), the ‘terrible place’, a staple location used in various guises in many horror films.

[v]  Pagan-witchcraft is in fact a new religion, which according to Hutton (2001) is the only religion to have developed in the historical era in Britain. Many writers, including anthropologists such as Margaret Murray (The God of the Witches, 1970), have claimed erroneously that there is a continuity of practice between prehistory and contemporary ‘Wicca’. This notion has informed many occult fictions including Eye of the Devil, however.

[vi]  The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, BBC) has made explicit references to The Wicker Man as well as parodying horror movie conventions and plot formulas. 

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