Monday, December 14, 2015
Arthur Conan Doyle on the Devil and Hellhounds
Folk tales of the devil riding through the forest on a magnificent black steed, leading a pack of hellish hounds, prompted Arthur Conan Doyle to visit Dartmoor Forest in Devon, England. It was there he would later send Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles. A hellish hound certainly features in the novel, and seems perfectly at home amid a landscape of such wild and rugged beauty. But it is not the devil, nor a magnificent black horse, that personifies Dartmoor's beautiful but dangerous character in his classic story. Instead, it is the carefree, inoffensive ponies that wander the moor.
One day, Dr Watson steps outside of Baskerville Hall to take a walk across the moors. Hearing the approaching footsteps, Watson turns to see a small, slim man carrying a butterfly net. The naturalist introduces himself as Jack Stapleton, a former schoolmaster. As they talk, Stapleton warns Watson of the dangers of wandering alone through the countryside.
"Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of a bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive. By George, there is another of those miserable ponies!"
There's a reason that Arthur Conan Doyle paints Dartmoor as a dark, forbidding place. It's a windswept stretch of gently rolling hills, or fells. Crowning these rises are wild grasses, spindly shrubs, and trees bent by the winds that howl over the land. Or at least, that's how we found it, when my wife and I visited this year.
Did I mention that we visited there in summer?
Nearly everywhere else we went in Devon and Cornwall, I wore shorts. But long pants, a thick shirt, a windbreaker, and a knitted hat proved essential to battle the winds that screamed in your ears and threatened to freeze you from exposure. (Try wearing a baseball cap, and the winds will tear it off your head!) I imagine residents adore Dartmoor's unique beauty in winter, but I can't imagine living there in the summer, let alone during the colder seasons.
No wonder folktales of Dartmoor feature the devil and hellhounds. But what place could be more evil, than a forest that regularly claims the lives of sweet, adorable ponies?