Hollow Places – An Unusual History of Land and Legend
Christopher Hadley, William Collins, £20
Early one 1830s morning, workmen were uprooting an ancient yew near Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire when the tree fell unexpectedly – exposing a huge cavity, and evoking superstitions of ‘Piers Shonks’, who slew a dragon and defied the Devil. So begins a sensitively intelligent excavation into Hertfordshire history, the English imagination and omnipresent myth.
The cavity is supposed to be the dragon’s grave – the first of many ‘hollow places’ explored in the earth, historical accounts, and ourselves. Mythology glides into geology and palaeontology as we visit Purbeck, where Shonks’ slab was quarried, and recall that dinosaur fossils were once seen as dragons’ bones.
Where there are monsters there must be champions, ergo Hercules, Cadmus, Beowulf, St. George – and Shonks, whose surname suggests great stature. Versions of the story make him a Christian knight, superhuman archer, or defender of ancient liberties, or all these simultaneously. His tomb is in the church’s wall, and this too makes him anomalous – a protector, or needing protection? Mythic motifs intertwine like foliage around the face of a Green Man, and ghosts stir even in the quiet Home Counties – an unsettling truth known even to those who tried to exorcise them in the name of God, or ‘rational’ modernity.
To conventional historians, Piers Shonks is a signatory to dull 13th-century legal deeds – yet he ‘survives’ outside such frames of reference, paradoxically preserved because of the impossibilities yoked to his name. The enchantment-hunting author traces the dragon-slayer’s progress through bestiaries, tree-lore, chivalric literature, county history, Norman law, trial by combat, the Dissolution, Puritan vandalism, agricultural ‘improvements’, and early antiquarians. He enlists Matthew Paris, John Aubrey, William Cowper, M R James, and others to show there is always more than one ‘reality’, or single story.
Myths, he finds, are really memories – they shaped history, and recur, holding truths about our deepest hopes and fears, perhaps especially in a post-Christian country when
We have lots of hollow places and less and less to put in them.
Piers Shonks lies in the grave but battles on forever, far beyond the borders of Hertfordshire and heavy bonds of earth.
This review first appeared in the 4th December 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission