Winter Tales : On When The Trees Were Enchanted

by Masimba Musodza

Several elements make up my story, spanning my childhood to the present day, and two countries.

As a middle-class boy growing up in Zimbabwe, I was first exposed to British pre-Christian culture through the TV series Robin of Sherwood. I had already heard of Robin Hood, but this TV adaptation featured a magical character, Herne the Hunter. Since then, I have remained fascinated with these islands’ most ancient lore.

The fear of winter and darkness appears to have persisted through the generations, even to this age where every British home has central heating. I don’t think a lot of people from Zimbabwe would associate winter with fear. In our part of the world, it is a delay in the onset of the rainy season that is to be dreaded. It leads to hunger, which leads to death. Hunger leads to the breakup of families as people go off in different directions in search of a means to earn an alternative living. It takes people away from the land in ways that do not, on the surface, appear anywhere near as brutal as the Slave Trade but have the same effect of eventually detaching them from their culture and heritage.

There is a connection between this ancient lore and modern literature that many people may not always immediately recognise, especially in the speculative, fantasy and horror genres. In The Persistence of Darkness- Shadows Behind the Life of the Story, Michael R. Collings draws attention to how the plot summary of the Germanic epic Beowulf could as easily apply to Stephen King’s The Mist:

A handful of people have gathered in a building in the centre
of a small town. Inside, they have found safety….or at least
the illusion of safety. Outside, there are only darkness, and fear,
and death. Daylight is dying. With the night will come the
monster. The people huddle close for warmth, for comfort. They
know that by the time the sun dawns again, some, or most-or
all-of them may be dead.

Yet, the two cultures- the one I was brought up in and the one I have found myself in- had this much in common: a belief that invisible yet omnipresent forces can intervene to change natural phenomena such as prolonged heat or cold for the benefit of humanity. Another belief, which the British seem to have lost but still holds sway among Zimbabweans, is that some parts of the land are sacred to various gods. Out of respect to those various gods, such sacred spaces are never touched by the work of man, not even as much as litter. When The Trees Were Enchanted speculates on resorting to the ancient powers of those gods to protect their sacred spaces when modernity- environmental protection laws etc- has failed.

Middlesbrough, North-East England, has seen many open spaces built over. On the one hand, the town needs at least 40000 new tax-payers in order for the books to balance. So, homes are being built on every available space. I am a member of a group called Hands on Middlesbrough, which seeks to raise awareness of these issues. It was founded by Scarlet Pink, who led a spirited campaign to save the oak trees at Acklam Hall as the builders moved in. The Middlesbrough suburb of Acklam is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Aclun, “the place of oaks.” That such symbols of the region’s heritage should be uprooted to make way for progress is outrageous. I remember looking at those trees as I walked past Acklam Hall and asked myself: whosoever claims those trees should protect them.

Migration, a topical issue in Britain, also found its way into the story. The narrator is a Zimbabwean man married to a British woman. It is her heritage that we are mostly concerned about, but his- in the form of his paternal aunt- follows him to the part of Britain he has chosen to make a home in as an intrusion. She is an eccentric, possibly mad woman, left to her own devices in this new land. Still, she becomes the link between powers visible and invisible, the past and the present.

Other ideas swirled into the story, clearly, but these are the main ones that moved me to sit down and pen it. I wonder what else others will read into it.