A common (neo)pagan tale is that of the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King. They are brothers who complete each other: the Oak King represents light and life, and rules in summer, a time for action. The Holly King represents darkness and death, and rules in winter, a time for introspection. They fight for supremacy twice a year. At the winter solstice, when it is darkest and the Holly King is at the height of his power, the Oak King defeats him in battle and takes his place to rule as light and warmth grow. At the summer solstice, when the sun is at its peak and the Oak King is at the height of his power, the Holly King returns and defeats him to take his place.
Someone recently suggested (in an online discussion forum) that rather than brothers fighting, this story could be about lovers, and older man and a younger man, who change places over the seasons. I loved this idea and decided to write it up for #Yule
; the result is below. If men loving each other makes you uncomfortable, then don’t bother reading any further.
Oak and Holly
It was on winter solstice that Oak came of age. He stepped away from the sacred pool, all branch and no leaf, but he stood straight and tall, trying to look the part of an adult, hoping his inexperience didn’t show. A fine young man, thought Holly, he’s a tree now. I remember him as a sapling, even as an acorn. I remember the shared autumn ecstasy when Oak shed his acorns!
Oak saw Holly, a powerful older man in a smart red cloak trimmed with fur, a white stag standing behind him. He wore a prickly crown of holly leaves and twigs set on his straight hair, which was streaked with silver. He wore thin rimmed glasses – silver round his pale blue eyes, and carried a thin staff with a small skull set on top. The world was new, but the same, and Oak remembered being older, remembered his lover being younger.
Oak took a breath and stepped forward. Even as he did, the darkness lessened, evergreens perked up their leaves, and sleeping leafless trees tossed in their slumber. Holly looked on in admiration, thinking he brings light and fertility with every step
. They walked towards each other, and Holly reached out his hand first – Hello my old lover, my new lover, my brother, my other half
They touched again for the first time. Come, young Oak, let us be together again.Teach me
, Oak said, his voice shaking slightly like thin branches.
Holly leaned in and kissed young Oak, who was all goosebumps and excitement. Let me make love to you
, Holly said, and Oak nodded, his branches rising and parting. Yet even as Oak submitted, Holly knew the young one’s power was growing, and that he would not be the master for long.
As the weeks passed, Oak grew stronger day by day. He enjoyed being subservient to Holly, he learned fast things he already knew from seasons past, and Holly was a generous lover and teacher. They walked the forest together, and wherever Oak stepped snowdrops and seedlings sprouted at his feet. Soon Oak matured from awkward young thing to a strapping lad, even as Holly grew more silver haired.
On the day of the spring equinox it happened. They embraced and stared lovingly into each other’s eyes for a long moment as equals. Finally they disentangled limbs and roots, and Oak picked up Holly and carried him to their shared mossy bed, leaves sprouting on thickening branches in the canopy above.
As summer crept closer, Oak grew strong and burly, even as Holly grew older and leaned on his staff now and again. At midsummer it happened, as it always did, as they both knew it would, yet it was still a sorrowful parting. I’ve not much time left, and anyway, I’ve grown too old for you
, Holly said plainly, trying to keep up with Oak as they walked towards the sacred pool. I love you always
Oak said in a rumbling deep voice. The white stag was waiting by the pool, and Oak once more picked up the old man and gently placed him on its back. Travel well
, he said as he slapped the flank of the stag, and the animal bolted immediately with only a brief grunt from the old Holly.
Oak drank from the sacred pool, repaid it in tears, then stepped back and enjoyed the sun. He was at the height of his power, which was felt by plants and animals throughout the forest, by the soil and the streams, the sky and the clouds.
A ripple announced the arrival of his young lover. Holly stepped forward, a slight young man of a tree, hardly more than a sapling, with thin glasses and blue eyes. He stared at Oak, recognising his beautiful lover, yet unsure if this was a man or a tree, perhaps even a bear. Whatever he might be, a wreath of lobed leaves on his head was all he wore.Welcome my young lover, my old lover, my brother
, said Oak, reaching out his hand. Holly stepped forward looking around in wonder, and as he brushed past a shrub a leaf withered brown and fell to the ground.
They kissed for the first time yet again. A squirrel, drawn by Oak’s deep soft moaning, jumped on Oak’s shoulder and then onto Holly, and immediately fell dead. Holly picked up the carcass and it decomposed rapidly. He kept the skull and looked at it. Oak embraced Holly again. I’ll give you a staff
he said, looking around for a suitable branch. You already have
, Holly giggled. Oak laughed deeply at the joke he’d heard a thousand times before.