Smorgasbord Blog Magazine Rewind – Writer in Residence – The Birch Maiden by Paul Andruss


I am sharing this particular early post by Paul Andruss as it introduced me to the work of Donata Zawa who created some of the illustrations for Tales from the Irish Garden. I cannot recommend her work highly enough as she worked from ideas I had for the stories and created such lovely images.

The Birch Maiden by Paul Andruss – Illustrated by Donata Zawadzka

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The Legend

The Birch Maiden is a Scottish folktale about a beautiful fairy inhabiting a birch tree. One evening she is tempted by a basket of apples left on the ground by soldiers sleeping in the grove. One young handsome soldier awakens, and seeing her is instantly smitten. When discovered, the shy creature flees into her tree, which only makes the soldier desire her more. Eventually he learns of a way of making the fairy maid fall in love with him and she forsakes her tree to become his bride.

Here the story takes various twists and turns depending on the tradition that preserved it. Popular tales are rarely straight forward. Stories diverge due to being passed down for hundreds of years within the families of professional storytellers, from father to son. No doubt, some versions are embellished with orphaned fragments of otherwise forgotten tales.

Sometimes the fairy can only be freed if the soldier speaks her name three times under a waxing moon. Cunningly the soldier learns her name by hiding in the woods and listening to her sisters as they dance and sing in the glade. In this version the maid may sicken and die when she forsakes her tree for a mortal man’s love. In other versions she loses her memory, until one day she learns, from the song of a tame robin, her tree is dying and abandons her husband to resume her former life in the wildwood.

In darker versions, the soldier tempts her with an enchanted apple, obtained from a witch (sometimes the forest queen in disguise); traded for an impetuous promise to sacrifice what loves him most. He forgets to warn his wife to send out his favourite hound to greet him when he comes home from war. Thus his wife, or young daughter, is condemned to return to the tree, and the soldier learns the harsh penalty of trafficking with fairies.

The History

The Birch Maiden is reminiscent of ancient Greek tree-nymphs called dryads and hamadryads. The difference between the two is hamadryads die if their tree is harmed.
The word nymph requires explanation. Nymphs are girls of marriageable age. In ancient and medieval times, a girl was married off as soon as she was sexually mature, often around the age of 11. The classical world seeing women as inferior, and somewhat feral, feared their unbridled sexual appetite; which could only be contained in marriage.

Wild women such as Dryads and Maenads were viewed as sexual predators because they existed outside the civilised boundaries set by men. To be fair, the women followers of the wine god Bacchus, called Maenads, were pretty mean drunks who tended to rip blokes limb from limb after a night on the old Lambrini. But then again, with attitudes like that maybe the men deserved it. The Ancient Greeks were not half as trendy as we like to think.

Finding Grecian tree-nymphs at the northern edge of Europe is not surprising when considering the migrations of peoples during ancient times. An Irish tribe called the Scottii gave Scotland its name when they settled in the east by Hadrian’s Wall during the early Dark Ages. Here they met other migrants from Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark.

Many European tribes believed they originated in Greece. Germanic tribes and the Norsemen claimed they came from the ancient city of Byzantium. The antique Irish ‘Book of Conquests’ tells of the Fir Bolge, who lived as slaves in Greece.

Perhaps these are racial memories of an ecological disaster from 7,500 years ago, when the Mediterranean Sea broke through at the Bosporus (near where Byzantium would stand) in a mighty waterfall that caused the Black Sea to double in size in a matter of months.

Archaeologists estimate during this catastrophic flood, the water level rose by 5 meters a day. With farming established on the shores of the Black Sea for almost 4,000 years, the panicked population fled to Southern Greece where the first farming settlements in Europe are found around this time.

While we are familiar with the Biblical tale of Noah, not many people know is it is based on a number of flood stories thousands of years older that survived in the Greek myth of Deucalion and the Celtic of Hu Gadarn.

It is possible the Birch Maiden is an even more ancient. A tradition from the largely unknown aboriginal inhabitants of Northern Europe: the fishermen and hunters who had lived there since the Ice Age retreated some 13,000 years ago.

The incoming farmers already believed the gods punished mortals for clearing woodland without first propitiating the tree-nymphs, so it is easy to see them adapting the birch into their own traditions. Due to its shimmering white bark, the birch was already known as the Lady of the Woods and sacred to the primeval White Goddess of Old Europe.

The birch was the first tree to colonise Europe when the Ice Age ended and the mile-high glaciers that stretched almost down to London melted. Because it is well adapted to the cold it was also the first to leaf and so became a symbol of impending spring.

The Irish Ogham Alphabet names each of its letters after a tree which either leafs, fruits or flowers in succession throughout the thirteen lunar months of the year. The first letter is ‘Beth’: the birch. Its month starts after the winter solstice extending from the plough days of late December to the 20th of January. The first ogham message was 7 Bs, scratched on a birch twig that read: 7 times will they wife be carried off to fairyland unless the birch is her overseer. It is thought the word ‘book’ derives from its ancient name.

Associated with fairies, witches and the goddess, the birch encourages fertility and health. Cradles were woven from birch twigs to protect babies. Cows herded with a birch switch would be become pregnant. Maypoles were made from a birch trunk, and at Halloween witches flew to their Great Sabbath on birch brooms after first anointing themselves with a flying ointment made from the hallucinogenic fly-agaric, or fairy-cap toadstool, found growing amid birch trees roots.

Birch rods were used to beat wickedness from lunatics, criminals and children, a punishment used until recent times in the Isle of Man. Brooms made from birch twigs swept ill luck from the house and were used to beat the parish boundaries in spring to drive away all evil.

©Paul Andruss 2017

I would now very much like to introduce you to the wonderful artist and illustrator Donata Zawadzka who has graced my work with her art.

picture2Polish born Donata Zawadzka is one half of an accomplished husband and wife artistic team, now living in Gravesend. I have known Dona for 6 years.

After seeing her work on the internet and falling in love with it, I cheekily asked if she would mind doing some illustrations for Thomas the Rhymer. She agreed, but only if she liked the book. Fortunately for me she did!

Although she has many styles I fell in love with her delicate black and white line drawings reminiscent of the classic Victorian illustrators such as Charles Snicket, Walter Crane and of course the great Arthur Rackham. The Birch Maiden is a prime example.

I am sure that you will love her work so please to and view her outstanding art on her site. If you are looking for an illustrator you will find that Dona is a dream to work with and your books will be beautifully enhanced with her artwork.

picture3Connect to Donata Zawadzka

View her website : http://dezawadzka.wix.com/donatasgallery
Buy her work on Redbubble: http://www.redbubble.com/people/donattien/works/7004053-the-birch-maiden?c=32080-ink-illustrations
Like Dona on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/donataewa.zawadzka?fref=ts
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DonataEZawadzka

Thomas the Rhymer

You can find out more about Paul Andruss and his posts in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/writer-in-residence-writer-paul-andruss/

And as an extra bonus.. here is the gif that Paul designed for me to celebrate the release of Tales from the Irish Garden, including some of the illustrations by Donata.