Scarecrows, History and War

I have been reading Henry Williamson’s The Story of a Norfolk Farm in which he provides some fascinating insights into setting up a farm, but also of life in England between the wars. He writes:

I was a farmer, and farmers had scarecrows, and therefore I had a scarecrow. It was a most realistic figure of a man, bringing back the chalky fields of Picardy – although we never thought of them as cornfields above the Some. Jimmy had made the malkin of an old faded coat and a pair of grey flannel trousers, stuffed with straw. Its paper face was bleached with the sun, and whenever I had seen it, suddenly, as I had been rolling the Hang High field, it had given me a start. The legs were rounded, as though swelled. It looked like something that had died in that position, in a warning attitude, its arms spread out, its shattered head thrown back. Jimmy had been too realistic. The malkin should have conveyed a sense of the comic. Its clothes should have flapped on it. It should have grinned, with a mangold for face, a pipe, and an old shapeless hat, with hair of hay or straw. It was not a scarecrow; it was a reminder of things that had been forgotten, and were likely to happen again, unless men began to think differently, with the clarity and logic of genius.

This was written in 1938, so bears the weight of the storm of another war approaching, but it is fascinating on several levels.

Shouldn’t a scarecrow  by definition, be scary? Williamson was not a countryman, but one who took to the countryside after the horrors of World War I, a means of escaping the traumatic memories, so providing his own therapy to his own version of shell shock. But the true countryman – presumably not a war veteran, portrayed the scarecrow as it seems to have been intended, as a man to protect the crops. Yet there are other readings, as my dictionary describes a malkin in Shakespeare as a ‘dirty or lewd woman, a cat, a mop, or in Scotland, a hare, which is a beast with strong Christian and folkloric connections.


The image he provides is genuinely scary, and has echoes of the famous image of a man shot in the Spanish Civil war holding a rifle, arms thrown back.

In the First World War trenches, the bodies of many men died were unretrievable. In James Whale’s biography he described how his first lover died on the wires above their trench but it was too dangerous to retrieve the body, so it stayed there as they moved about below. It slowly dried out, arms flapping in the wind, a ghoulish image which they still saluted as they passed. Again, this is a  coping mechanism to deal with the horrors of their daily lives. Whale is famous for directing the first Frankenstein films in Hollywood, and it is intriguing that Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein in 1818 in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, suggesting though she lacked first hand experience of the frontline, that there was an awareness of death and the undead at the time.

But it also feeds into a whole range of folkloric practices of creating human images, whether burning effigies of enemies or lawbreakers such as Guy Fawkes, or as acts of shaming, as in Hardy’s  Mayor of Casterbridge.

It seems Williamson’s belief in the scarecrow as a comic image reflects his lack of knowledge of local folklore, that the realistic appearance of the scarecrow had to his urban mind degraded to the point of mockery, whereas in the countryside it was still intended to frighten crows, and hence people also.

The depiction of the human form was originally banned in christianity but church fathers got around this by allowing it when used as a form of proselytising, to encourage the illiterate poor to embrace their faith. This was the basis of stained glass windows depicting Bible stories, called The Bible of the Poor.

Yet in England there has long been a sturdy collection of folklore, some of which link in with church imagery. Many medieval churches depicted the cycle of life in terms of agriculture, that the harvest, that death was necessary to make room for new crops, hence the Grim Reaper was the bringer of death, but also part of the natural cycle. If others had not died, then the observer could not exist, hence the fear of death was reduced. This is at the core of the folk song John Barleycorn Must Die which was popularised by Blind Faith. Three men fro the West echoes the three kings. John – whether a king or a saint is also common. Something about the song still resonates:

This is The Scarecrow  from England’s great folk singing family,  Lal Waterstone which takes us back to a world we have lost.

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