Saturday, September 20, 2008

Season of the Scarecrow

No-one really knows the origin of the scarecrow. Some hold they derive from the old Roman custom of having a herm in every field, and are thus of sacred origin as a guardian of the crop. According to one tale they arose from a grim necessity. In the old days it was the task of the very old and the very young to protect the fields from birds and other marauders by shrieking, waving their arms, or chasing them away when they approached; so the weakest and feeblest could still serve the needs of their folk. When the Black Death swept across the land, the old and the young were hardest hit. In their absence, and with spare clothes suddenly in abundance, the scarecrow was created to fill the gap, and since then its' enigmatic figure has strode across the landscape of our imagination.

Scarecrows vary in construction, from a simple cross-pole with a tattered coat to full-figure stuffed men in elaborate costume. Their heads can be an old hat on the top of the pole, a broom head, or a carved pumpkin. In England they can be topped by gigantic turnips or mangold-wurzles, as big as a man's head, hollowed out and sculpted into faces. More elaborate scarecrows might employ multiple arms, tatters, pinwheels, or other devices that move with the wind to give the illusion of mobile menace to any creatures considering a raid on the crop. Indeed, the effectiveness of a scarecrow in one place is limited, because birds soon grow used to it, and a working scarecrow (as opposed to a decorative one) must be regularly moved to keep the crows wary.

In Japan they have a tutelary god of scarecrows, named Kuebiko, who is mentioned as early as the 8th Century. He is a god of wisdom, because he stands outside at all hours and sees everything. In some areas of Italy they put up a scarecrow figure in the fields and called it the Old Witch of Winter; it stayed up until the first day of spring when it was ceremoniously burned. (One such ceremony is featured in the film Amarcord.) The Guy Fawkes figure is a scarecrow stuffed with fireworks and burned on the Fifth of November; this custom of burning in effigy has almost magical overtones, and is another function of the scarecrow. In the different regions of Great Britain the scarecrow has many names: mommet, murmet, hodmedod, tattie-bogle, bodach rocais, bwbach, mawhini, and jack-a-lent. German immigrants to America brought the terms bootzaman (boogeyman) and bootzafrau (boogeywife) with them.

The grandfather of all scarecrows in fiction is Feathertop, published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852. Feathertop is a scarecrow constructed by the witch Mother Rigby, who animates him by having him puff on a pipe fired by a coal supplied by her imp, Dickon. This not only gives him life but makes him appear human to those that see him: the harder he puffs the more real he appears, and when he slacks off the straw begins to appear. Mother Rigby sends him into the world, where his handsome illusory appearance makes him prosper, and he falls in love with a beautiful girl and almost marries her. But a chance glance at a mirror shows Feathertop in his true form, and the distraught scarecrow hurries back to Mother Rigby, choosing to throw away his pipe rather than live as the sham he has been revealed to be. The witch sadly gathers up his remains, remarking that many fine successful men of the world are made up of worse remnants than her poor creation, whose moment of love made him see his shabby existence too clearly.

In 1900 L. Frank Baum created perhaps the most famous Scarecrow of all in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose portrayal by Ray Bolger in the 1939 film spread the fame even farther. Baum explained that anything that could be of use came alive in Oz, and that the Scarecrow was useful for amusing children. In 1936 in England Barbara Euphan Todd began her Worzel Gummidge books, detailing the adventures of two children with the rustic Yorkshire scarecrow, Worzel Gummidge. It was popularized over British radio and television, and is surely the ancestor of Spud on Bob the Builder today. In the animated movie Howl's Moving Castle there is a scarecrow called Turniphead, whose helpful nature and mysterious presence is explained when he is revealed to be a prince under an enchantment.

These of course were all magical scarecrows in their own right. But there is also a body of fiction concerning people who adopt a scarecrow persona for their own ends. In 1915 Russell Thorndike began a series of books featuring a character called Dr. Syn, who dressed as a scarecrow to hide his identity and strike fear into his enemies. There were two rival adaptations of these works in 1963, one by Disney and one by Hammer; I remember the rather chilling screaming laugh of the Disney incarnation. Peter Cushing plays the Dr. Syn role in the Hammer adaptation. Dr. Syn had some influence on the creation of Batman (another masked vigilante), which eventually included the character of Scarecrow, an unscrupulous psychologist who specialized in the study of fear. In the 1981 made-for-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow the amiable but dim farmer Bubba is disguised as a scarecrow to escape from the mob that wrongly believes he has harmed a little girl. They find him and kill him, but his spirit animates the scarecrow and seeks vengeance on the real culprit.

Scarecrows hover around the edges of popular culture. In Peter Jackson's movie The Fellowship of the Ring, a hobbit scarecrow marks the boundary of the farthest Samwise Gamgee has ever gone. In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Dream of the Endless is served by the sarcastic, cigar-smoking Mervyn Pumpkinhead. At the beginnings of Tim Burton's films The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow, pumpkinheaded scarecrows make creepy and ominous appearances. In Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, Terry Pratchett mentions Unlucky Charlie, a scarecrow that the witches have used as a target for magic practice so many times that it has developed a life of its' own, often showing up uninvited at homes and then leaving as mysteriously.

There is something scary about scarecrows, in any case, Nanny Ogg muses. I know that's their job, but I mean scarier than even that. They're not exactly just people but they're not exactly just...stuff. Or maybe it's those cut out-eyes.

Nowadays scarecrows have a large presence as a non-specific fall decoration, good from the beginning of autumn to the end of Thanksgiving; their cute grinning faces and sanitized patchwork clothes visible in any retail store. A scarecrow's job has been taken over by pesticides, machines, and screeching recordings, and they only exist on farms as a grace-note. But then, they have grown beyond these functions.

Scarecrows, as I have said, inhabit the landscape of our imagination. Whether born of disaster or divinity, they are a kind of benign, disposable gargoyle. They stand as a psychopomp in the field between the farm and the forest, between summer and winter, between human and inanimate. They are a symbol for the shabby and piecework in ourselves, and for the ephemeral nature of all existence. They are uncanny, but somehow on our side; as our creation, as something that looks human but isn't, we feel the responsibility, the guilt, and the affection we have for all things in which we have placed our creativity.


Anonymous said...

masterly...particularly the coda...please grace us with a scarecrow action figure line up as a sequel!

AlanDP said...

There's also a pumpkin-headed scarecrow-like bogeyman in Robert R. McCammon's "Usher's Passing."

This is an excellent post.