Hark, I Hear Herne!


Of Herne The Hunter — Of the Author William Harrison Ainsworth — Of LibriVox and the Free Audiobook experience — Being less a Review of These Things than a Short Ramble through the Grounds of Windsor Castle.

Da22‘s post last month about his Beltain Festival experience had me thinking again about Herne The Hunter. Notably mentioned in Shakespeare‘s Merry Wives Of Windsor, he was also a key figure in the 1842 novel Windsor Castle by William Harrison Ainsworth. That book has languished in my To-Read pile (well, folder) for years and in the interim has been recorded as an audiobook by LibriVox volunteers.

Listening to a novel in audiobook form is rarely ideal, but there are many advantages, of which convenience is the key. A good reader is a treat and can bring out different elements of the text by adding performance without theatricality. This recording was made by a rotating set of readers, which can be off-putting although I found no poor ones and no jarring shifts between them. Their role as facilitators of the text is probably best celebrated by the fact that I have so many quibbles and quarrels with the novel, having been engaged with that rather than their readings.

Ainsworth in later life

Ainsworth is another of those authors whose work was originally published serially and in this case it shows. The novel itself comprises six books, meandering in places with several dead-end filler characters present. The word “rejoined” is omnipresent. Book Three is comprised entirely of factual information about the castle cribbed from a Victorian textbook or tour guide. Elsewhere its inattention to its own narrative resembles the worst examples of fanfic, soap operas or webcomics (can you tell I’m not keen on the serial form when done poorly?). One chapter, entertaining enough in isolation, has Henry VIII hanging out with his scullery maids and kitchen slugs whilst they have a flour bag fight. And people bemoaned The Tudors TV series’ indulgences!

Both the subject and hero of the novel are a little hard to pinpoint, but it spans Anne Boleyn‘s dalliance with and demise at the hands of Henry VIII. Other characters are the forest keeper Morgan Fenwolf (the name of my next child, game character, metal band and sockpuppet account), Sir Thomas Wyat (lover of Anne), the Earl of Surrey (the nearest thing the narrative has to a protagonist), plus the ahistorical “comeliest lass in BerkshireMabel Lyndwood who like a will-o’-the-wisp appears in the story for a little while then vanishes.

Mabel Lyndwood as portrayed in the 1886 burlesque Herne The Hunted [sic]
And then there’s Herne The Hunter.

The otherwise mostly mundane and unfocused historical romance comes alive whenever Herne is invoked or appears, dragging everything towards the gothic. Be it the journey out to visit to his haunted oak tree, his taunting, prophetic words to Henry, his fondness for pushing Faustian pacts or even the characters exchanging his Joker-style multiple origin stories, Herne is the most interesting thing about the novel. Windsor Castle is held to have popularised the legend of Herne in the Victorian era, which apparently was something of a recurring case with Ainsworth as his novel Rookwood did the same favour for the highwayman Dick Turpin.

Dick Turpin illustrated in Rookwood

It’s worth noting that the novels’ looseness works to the benefit of a supernatural and intentionally ill-understood character like Herne. Being in parts vengeful forest keeper ghost, Mephistopheles and Leader of the Wild Hunt, he ultimately resolves to a sort-of trickster genius loci of the castle and its surrounds.

“I am not the malignant being you suppose me; neither am I bent upon fighting the battles of the enemy of mankind against Heaven. I may be leagued with the powers of darkness, but I have no wish to aid them; and I therefore leave you to take care of your soul in your own way. What I desire from you is your service while living.”

Herne The Hunter, Windsor Castle (book V, chapter IV)

The novel’s ultimate conclusion is the beheading (spoilers!) of Anne Boleyn. I really liked how Ainsworth handled this, plus it is definitely enhanced by reader acousticwave‘s carefully-paced delivery. You can hear it below (stop at the flash, if you don’t want to hear the books’ final lines)

The choice to represent Anne‘s execution not directly but in the form of a vision experienced by a tense, apprehensive Henry VIII is a really interesting one, opening up the scene to multiple interpretations. Is it solely his imagination, his fancy? A moment of revelation? Some wyrd sight conjured by Herne? Referring back to my previous WIBIL post, it’s notable that Anne does not die (everyone knows that an offscreen death in any media rarely sticks). Henry sees the signal and suffers the taunts of his tormentor, but really who’s to say?

I wish the rest of the book had featured the effort and style put into it that this and many of the Herne portions did.

Project Gutenberg has Windsor Castle in various formats and LibriVox’s version of Windsor Castle is available from their site or elsewhere. Both the recording and the original text are in the Public Domain and freely redistributable.

As long as Windsor Forest endures, Herne the Hunter will haunt it.


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