“The Oak King and the Holly King doth rule the forest green,
One bright and fair as a summer’s morn, one dark as a winter’s e’en.
Twice in each year the pair must meet to do battle for the throne,
And one shall remain in the goddess’s arms, while the other shall rule alone.”
When it comes to mythology, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the underdog, the anti-hero, the trickster, the misunderstood bad boy. So, it should come as no surprise that I’ve chosen to write about the Holly King.
The Holly King rules over the dark half of the year. He and his counterpart, the Oak King, are two faces of the same male deity. According to lore, the two engage in a battle with each other twice a year, at midsummer and again at midwinter, to win the goddess’s favor. The winner mates with the goddess and is ritually sacrificed at the end of his six-month’s reign, thus starting the cycle over again. The Oak King, being a sun god as well as a fertility god, rules the light half of the year. He defeats the dark at midwinter and his power continues to grow until midsummer, when the days begin to grow shorter again. He’s all sunshine, light and abundance. Whereas the Holly King, on the other hand, is mysterious, dangerous, devious…
Anyone else visualizing Thor and Loki at this point? Yeah, me too.
In addition, the Holly King is also associated with the feast of Saturnalia, particularly its Master of Ceremonies, the Lord of Misrule. He’s all about reversals of fortune, things out of place (like the bright red and green of holly in the dead of winter) and all manner of sexual licentiousness.
Yep, definitely a trickster, that one.
In my upcoming book, The Oak King (releasing March, 2015) the Holly King is a tormented character. He’s manipulative, sly and something of a loner…until the more gregarious Oak King falls in love with a mortal woman and the Holly King suddenly realizes what he’s about to lose.
See, in Celtic tradition, the goddess is the personification of the land. And in my book the heroine, Aine Murphy (a very independent-minded widow who owns the land where the story takes place) is herself a personification of the goddess. The Oak King, Fionn O’Daire, sees her and is smitten and decides to leave his throne to be with her. Unfortunately, he waits until after they’re married to reveal his true identity to Aine who, as a modern woman (well, it is 1894, after all!) refuses to believe him at first.
Eventually it falls to Aine to restore balance and heal the rift between the two kings—a rift which is, of course, almost entirely the Holly King’s fault.
The following (completely unedited) scene is Aine’s first meeting with Kieran.
Breathless, Aine stared up into the face of the dark-haired devil who’d materialized out of thin air, like the very worst sort of black magic. A pair of glimmering eyes stared back at her, mesmerizing in their intensity. Their color was exquisite too, the deepest green there e’er was, overlaid with silver. At any other time, she’d have appreciated the sight far more than she did right then.
“Kieran.” Fionn’s voice was harsh and cold with anger. “What are you doing here?”
A mocking smile curved the stranger’s lips as his glittering gaze rose to meet Fionn’s. “Well met, my liege, but I should have thought the reason for my being here was obvious.”
Not quite as tall as Fionn, nor nearly as broad, he was still as handsome a man as any Aine had ever encountered. His hair had been brushed back from his face and reached almost to his shoulders. Like the beard that bracketed his mouth, it was dark as coal, just lightly touched with frost. When he turned his sparkling gaze back upon her, Aine’s heart stood still.
“I wanted to introduce myself to your new bride, of course, and wish her happy. But perhaps I’ve come at an inopportune time?”
“You bloody well know you have,” Fionn answered. ’Tis a full ten days before the solstice—far too soon for you to be here. What were ye thinking?”
“Who are you?” Aine asked at last, finally finding her voice. “How did you get in here?”
The man’s smile stretched wider. “I will tell you, since you ask, though I don’t expect you’ll be pleased with my answers, nor yet believe me.”
He’d held out his hand to her as he spoke and Aine was shocked when her own hand found its way into his grasp without any thought of hers to guide it. A shiver of excitement worked its way up Aine’s arm as he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss against her knuckles.
“My name, dear lady, is Kieran Mac Cuilenn,.” The stranger’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “But I’m better known to you, perhaps, as the Holly King. I go where I will and tarry wherever I find a welcome.”
“Oh, gods save me,” Aine whispered. “This cannot be.”
“Indeed it can. And why so surprised?” He gestured at the holly branch she’d hung over the fireplace. “It appears to me I was expected. Did you intend for me to wait upon your doorstep when you’ve already invited me in by proxy?”
Aine shook her head. Either the two men were telling the truth or they were separate-but-equally daft in their delusions. Or else she’d completely lost possession of her senses and slipped into a dream. Each of these options seemed every bit as likely as the other, and she could not for the life of her decide which of the alternatives she hoped for or feared the most.
“And yet again I say it,” Fionn growled. “Why are you here?”
A little of the warmth left Kieran’s expression at that, and even his voice turned remote. “Behold, my lord, the wheel of the year is spinning. A new season draws nigh. I’ve come to yield my crown to you, O King of the Forest.”
“What…now?” Fionn stiffened in surprise. Aine felt the tremor that ran through him. “What new mischief is this? It’s not yet the solstice. I still have time.”
Kieran sighed. “Not this year. Our days are ruled by both Sun and Moon. Tonight the Oak Moon rises full and my rule ends.”
“What care I what phase the moon is in? She does not concern me. ’Tis the sun I’m bound to follow and his circuit is not yet complete. Our reigns are set, Kieran. And you’ve no more right to re-order the days than I do.”
Kieran sighed. “Come now, all this arguing is beneath us, and useless besides. I am well within my rights, I promise you. By virtue of its placement on the calendar, falling as it does between the old year and the new, Yule is a season unto itself, belonging to neither and yet to both. It is a thing apart, as it were, a time out of time. As such it falls under the purview of the In-Between.
“Over which you also have rule, if I recall correctly. I see now how this works. How very convenient for you. But I tell you, I will not have it!”
“Much as it pains me to disagree with you, I fear I must beg to differ with my sire yet again,” Kieran said. “I do not rule the ’Tween; indeed, it suffers no one’s rule, for it too is a thing unto itself. Still, those of us, myself included, who are ourselves creatures of the ’Tween, who belong to its mystery and share its attributes, are granted certain rights. While within its sphere of influence we may make use of its fluidity, stretching and molding it according to our wishes and thus shaping it to our needs. Tonight I judged it meet that my reign should end anon. And as I wish it, so it is. I pray you will not embarrass either of us by making any further protests. Whether you will it or no, you are bound to this duty. It is time for you to go.”
Kieran’s voice rang with certainty and weighty finality and, in response, a low moan of protest broke from Fionn’s lips. “No!”
The sound was very like a wintery gale whistling through the bare and brittle branches, so cold and desolate that Aine’s heart clenched. Startled, she turned and stared up at her husband. “Fionn?” The agonized look on his face as he met her gaze tore at her emotions. “What is it? What’s happening?”
There was a ghostly paleness to his face now, as though the moon itself was shining through it. A sad smile wreathed his lips. “I’m leaving, a grádh, my dearest love. Though it grieves me terribly, I must bid you farewell.”
If you'd like to read more about The Oak King, there's another excerpt here: http://www.pgforte.com/OakKingExcerpt.htm
You might also like to check out my earlier Celtic-Christmas story, Iron:
Nineteenth century Ireland. Blacksmith Gavin O’Malley is a bitter man, with a heart as hard as the iron he forges. He wants his life back—the one that was stolen from him the day his wife died in childbirth—taking their firstborn son with her.
When Aislinn Deirbhile, an immortal, shape-shifting fae, arrives on his doorstep, he knows he’s in luck. For Aislinn can give Gavin everything he’s been missing: A devoted-seeming wife in the image of his beloved Mairead, and children who are sure to outlive their father. Now, all he has to do is find a way to keep her—without losing his immortal soul in the process.
But Aislinn has an agenda of her own. On the run from a vengeful fae lord who’s vowed to either make her his or end her existence, she knows the iron that allows Gavin to take her captive will also keep her pursuers at bay. In order to put herself permanently beyond her enemy’s reach, however, Aislinn will need something more. She’ll need to win Gavin’s heart and convince him to willingly part with a piece of the very soul he’s trying to save.
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