Friday, September 11, 2015

The Walker of the Snow

My current phase of research for The Great Fright North involves tales of the Windigo, which is now often written as wendigo. This cannibalistic creature, of Algonquian legend, has taken on many forms including that of a demon, devil, or a supernatural spirit that possesses human beings. (It has since become a popular monster menace in films and on television.)

Many early writings are collected in John Robert Colombo's excellent Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction (1982), which covers three centuries of works from the 1630s-1970s. Long out of print, this tome is a preeminent work on the subject.

Punch in Canada (V.l N.1, Jan. 1849)
An early tale related to this spectral creature was written by Charles Dawson Shanly (1811-75), an Irish immigrant who settled in Southern Ontario (then known as Upper Canada) in 1836, where he worked for the Board of Public Works.

An artist and poet, Shanly became the editor of Punch in Canada in 1849, to which he also contributed content. It was published weekly until 1850, and primarily mocked society, politicians, and the government (much like its British progenitor, Punch, or The London Charivari). Those interested in reading up on this periodical can find it at the Early Canadiana Online website.

Shanly eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became a full-time journalist. There he wrote for the New York LeaderAtlantic Monthly, and Albion; he also helped found Vanity Fair, which was a humour magazine published in New York from 1859-63 (not to be confused with the current monthly magazine that shares the same name).

His ballad, "The Walker of the Snow," was published in the May, 1859 edition of Atlantic Monthly. Colombo notes that although Shanly's Shadow-hunter apparition may be a distant cousin of the Windigo, both ghastly figures "strike terror in the hearts of lonely travelers of the northern woods."

The Walker of the Snow (1859) 

SPEED on, speed on, good master!
  The camp lies far away; --
We must cross the haunted valley
  Before the close of day.

How the snow-blight came upon me
  I will tell you as we go, --
The blight of the Shadow-hunter,
  Who walks the midnight snow.

To the cold December heaven
  Came the pale moon and the stars,
As the yellow sun was sinking
  Behind the purple bars.

The snow was deeply drifted
  Upon the ridges drear,
That lay for miles around me
  And the camp for which we steer.

’Twas silent on the hillside,
  And by the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion
  To break the solitude,

Save the wailing of the moose-bird
  With a plaintive note and low,
And the skating of the red leaf
  Upon the frozen snow.

And said I, -- "Though dark is falling,
  And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome,
  If I had but company."

And then I sang and shouted,
  Keeping measure, as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
  As it sprang beneath my tread;

Nor far into the valley
  Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me,
  In a capuchon of gray,

Bending upon the snow-shoes,
  With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
  As we travelled side by side.

But no token of communion
  Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
  At the crossing of the brook.

For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
  As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
  Left no footmarks on the snow.

Then the fear-chill gathered o’er me,
  Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
  Where the Shadow-hunter passed.

And the otter-trappers found me,
  Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
  As the snow in which I lay.

But they spoke not as they raised me;
  For they knew that in the night
I had seen the Shadow-hunter,
  And had withered in his blight.

Sancta Maria speed us!
  The sun is falling low, --
Before us lies the valley
  Of the Walker of the Snow!

Shanly died in Florida in February, 1875, and is buried near the family homestead in Arva, Ontario. His ballad inspired Canadian artist William Blair Bruce to paint "The Phantom Hunter," which he completed in 1888. He was living in Sweden at the time, and the painting was a huge success at the Salon art exhibit in Paris that year. Bruce's work is now on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, which is in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.

The Phantom of the Snow (1888) by William Blair Bruce


Post a Comment