Herne the Hunter
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragged horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
Classic poetry isn’t proud. While most modern poets are far too tasteful to feature anything as vulgar as a monster—consigning such imaginary creations to Hollywood movies, fantasy art, and computer games—writers from Homer through to Yeats crammed their work full of mythological figures, uncanny fiends, and rampaging horrors.
Who could forget the grotesque Grendel in Beowulf, gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness beyond the Viking warriors’ fire? Or Spenser’s bizarre Error in The Faerie Queen, vomiting toads and books at the Red Cross Knight? Or Tennyson’s shadowy Kraken, rising from the ocean depths to meet his doom at the Apocalypse?
One of my favorite oddities is Herne the Hunter from Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Towards the climax of the play, the sprightly Mistress Page recounts the story of a “keeper here in Windsor Forest” who is far more than he seems.
He is glimpsed at “winter-time” while the earth lies barren, and walks abroad at “still midnight” between the day and night, when the realms of the living and the dead touch and become one. He has “great ragged horns”—a peculiar image that suggests an imposing bedraggled wildness.
His presence is not beneficent. He “blasts the tree,” freezing life. He even makes the “milch-kine” (meaning milk cows) “yield blood,” turning white purity to murderous scarlet. This reminds me of certain moments from Macbeth when nature appears corrupted, such as in the tale of Duncan’s horses tearing the flesh out of each other.
Yet when Mistress Page mentions the spirit shaking his “chain” in a “most hideous and dreadful manner” the seriousness of the passage turns to a nudge and a wink. He sounds too much like a B-movie ghost to be truly frightening. In fact, we can sense this doughty Windsor housewife rolling her eyes in disbelief.
The context for this description is the riotous humiliation of the aging knight Falstaff, who has been chasing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford up and down the town. The two exasperated women decide to teach him a lesson—urging him to dress up as Herne the Hunter before they agree to a rendezvous. When he does so, they arrive with a host of children disguised as sprites, who pinch and “turn him about.”
The demonic suggestion of the horns becomes ridiculous, for they suggest nothing more than the horns of the cuckold—the man who is outwitted by a woman. Falstaff is scorned as a “hodge-pudding,” “a bag of flax,” and a “puffed man.” Fortunately, he takes it all in his stride and the play ends with everyone trooping off together.
Though Mistress Page refers mockingly to the “superstitious idle-headed eld” (old people) who would believe such a tall tale as Herne the Hunter, it is surprising how many still do. Even in the last century, people reported seeing him striding through the woods. His appearance is thought to be an omen for Britain—or for the royal family living at Windsor Castle. The film The Queen adapts this symbolism when Queen Elizabeth II (played in an Oscar-winning turn by Helen Mirren) sets eyes on a stag in the Highlands when the future of the monarchy seems precarious.
It is not only Mistress Page’s age that delivers this story “for a truth,” but our own. Many pagans claim that Herne derives from the ancient horned god that Christians call the Devil. Yet, in reality, there is no mention of the hunter prior to Shakespeare—and, in the play, his legend is part of an elaborate practical joke.
It is a testament to the Bard’s genius that even in a moment of flippant fantasy, he creates a figure so strange and memorable that it is almost impossible not to believe in him. Perhaps one day we will indeed hear the call of Herne the Hunter’s ghostly horn and look up to see his antlered silhouette among the trees.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is unique in being a Shakespeare play dismissed by critics, but loved by audiences.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.