In his search, Howie faces many obstacles. The locals act as if they have never heard of young Rowan, but he soon begins to doubt them. Howie is staying at the Green Man Inn where he meets the owner and his beautiful daughter Willow. On the wall of the inn, one can find photographs of the annual apple harvests in the center of which is the May Queen (according to tradition, this is a young girl, also a virgin, who bears the responsibility for that year's harvest and the fertility of the earth). There is one photograph for each year, except for precisely the current year whose place is empty (the photo was allegedly broken and had to be fixed, and there is no negative to be found). Howie continues searching and comes across other clues which indicate that Rowan really did exist and that she has in fact disappeared. One of these clues is a grave with her name on it.
In his further search for truth, and now that he has finally got the necessary proof of Rowan's disappearance, Howie goes to the highest authority on the island looking for justice - Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee). He explains the history of the island to Howie. Here we find out that Lord Summerisle's grandfather found the islanders in a depressive state when he came to Summerisle and brought them to their feet. He engaged them in the cultivation of a new sort of apples and convinced them that the harvest would be good as long as they worshiped the old gods (a part of which was the very cultivation of the apples). When the apples started to yield, the locals found meaning to their lives once again, drove away the clergy from the island and returned to the old gods believing that the harvest was the gods' way of awarding them for their effort and worship whereas the Christian God had condemned them to empty lives.
The search for Willow continues and Howie decides to dig up her coffin in which he ultimately finds a dead hare. He then accuses Lord Summerisle of taking part in some sort of Pagan sacrificial ritual in which Rowan was killed, promises to find out everything and that the islanders will bear the consequences of their actions.
Our sergeant still manages to find a negative of the missing photograph in his later search. In it, he sees that Rowan was that year's May Queen and that she was surrounded by empty boxes. Obviously, the harvest failed that year and, after some research on Pagan customs, Howie comes to the conclusion that the locals blamed Rowan for this. The apples are of extreme importance to the island since they are it's primary source of income and everyone depends on them. He believes that the locals have trapped Rowan somewhere and are just waiting for the right day to sacrifice here. And what better day than May Day (i.e. May 1). Ancient customs dictate that crop failure is a sign that the gods are displeased with something and that a human sacrifice (possibly that of a virgin) is one way to calm them down. It is only after the gods have been pleased that fertility will be restored to the land. Or at least that's how the inhabitants of Summerisle thought.
That night, Willow attempts to seduce Howie with her song, but he manages to resist the temptation only thanks to his firm character and his promise to God (he is celibate). In the morning, deciding that he will have to return to the mainland for backup, Howie finds his seaplane (in which he arrived) has broken down and that he has no other choice but to continue the search for Rowan on his own. Since this day is May Day and therefore a day of great festivities as well as parades on Summerisle, everyone is wearing masks, costumes, singing, dancing and celebrating. One of the main characters is Punch, the fool. Traditionally, someone is chosen to play the fool each May Day. This person is usually the local buffoon and is treated as a king for a day. This year, the owner of the Green Man Inn was chosen for this honor. Howie decides to knock him unconscious so he can steal his Punch costume and join the parade in disguise to find out more about Rowan's disappearance. So he joins the parade which finally ends on the beach where it culminates. Lord Summerisle announces a sacrifice and reveals Rowan who is tied up in front of the entrance to a nearby cave. Howie runs to her rescue, frees her and escapes through the cave only to find that he is trapped on the other side. Rowan and Howie are met by Lord Summerisle and a few other locals. He now finally understands that Rowan lead him right into the trap.
In a somewhat lengthy monologue by Lord Summerisle, we find out the whole story: the islanders lured Howie onto the island so they could sacrifice him and they have been manipulating him all along. It is true that the harvest failed and that the islanders now believe that his problem can only be solved by appeasing the gods. But an animal sacrifice, or even that of a child will not do now. As Lord Summerisle puts it, there is nothing better in this case than the "right kind of adult". This implies that the adult came willingly, that they suite both the figure of the king (a figure of authoriy and law such as a sergeant) and the fool (which the locals have managed to turn Howie into). This person also has to be a virgin. Our sergeant matches all the criteria. He is then cleaned, dressed in clean white robes, tied up and taken to the summit of a cliff where he is met by a huge wicker man filled with animals. And one place is reserved for him. Howie is then locked up in this gigantic sculpture which the locals then set on fire. The final scene shows a burning wicker man, Howie praying to God in his last moments and begging the islanders to really think about what they're doing. Meanwhile, they merrily sing and dance in a circle around the fire and call upon the summer.
Pagan Elements in the MovieThe first Pagan element of the movie which is immediately noticable is the music; it's mainly filled with folk songs which are packed with Pagan references. The movie itself begins with the song "Corn Riggs" whose chorus reads:
Corn Rigs and barley rigsCorn rigs are bonnyI'll ne'eer forget that Lammas nightAmang the rigs wi' Annie.You probably noticed the direct mention of Lammas, one of the eight Neopagan sabbats. The whole song touches upon different aspects of this sabbat and, more importantly, the central theme of the movie - fertility. Speaking of which...
Perhaps the most well-known song from this movie is, in my humble opinion, the one with the most Pagan symbolism in it - "May Pole".
Sergeant Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.
Sergeant Howie: What?
Lord Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Sergeant Howie: Oh, what is all this? I mean, you've got fake biology, fake religion... Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Lord Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost...
Sergeant Howie: And what of the TRUE God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?What is at hand is essentially the opposition of the old and the new which is expressed literally in certain moments (as in the examples above), while is is expressed metaphorically in others. The well-known scene in which Willow seduces Howie is an excellent example of this. During the whole song, Willow is naked in her bedroom and in it literally asks Howie to join her. The beginning of the song is somewhat polite, but as the songs nears its end, it is based more and more on double entendres which excite the imagination and which surely caused murmuring among the public back in 1973:
Lord Summerisle: He's dead. Can't complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.
Fair maid, white and red,Comb you smooth and stroke your headHow a maid can milk a bull!And every stroke a bucketful.All this time, Howie is preoccupied with resisting her call. Besides, is there any man that wouldn't be enticed by these lyrics? For a moment he almost gives in, but he somehow manages to resist in the end. Metaphorically, this scene depicts the battle between natural human longing and irrational rejection of pleasure, between Pagan customs and Christianity, primeval liberal tradition and a new rigorous one, between the old and the new, between life and death. I mention the latter because Willow's invitation was a test for Howie. If he had broken his promise to God and slept with her (yes, before marriage), the locals would not have deemed him fit for sacrifice any longer and would have spared his life. In this sense, Paganism (or more precisely complying to Pagan customs) represents life in the movie, whereas Christianity represents death as Howie was sacrificed because he remained faithful to his God. At the end of the movie, the Pagans still won though. But not only because they sacrificed the movie's representative of Christianity and the Christian God, pious England and educated civilization. They had already won when Howie had returned to his bed and decided to reject Willow's invitation. The very manner in which he stretched out his arms towards her room and scratched the wall proves that Howie is a man who has never lived a day in his life and whose faith has left him unfulfilled.
The locals contrast Howie in this respect because they openly celebrate sexuality in every way possible (from making love in the fields, performing other fertility rituals, openly talking about sex to uninhibitedly changing sexual partners). The celebration of sexuality is present in Neopaganism also. Every sabbat has a sexual aspect (in the sense of celebrating a certain phase of the relationship between the God and Goddess), symbols of sexuality are present in rituals and fertility in all its aspects is celebrated in ritual, but also outside it (the fertility of humans, animals and especially the earth).
When The Wicker Man was filmed, Neopaganism and Wicca were just starting to reveal themselves to the public. The reared their heads in the 50s with Gerald Garner, and by the 70s had somewhat announced themselves to the public through books and magazines. This was all very new and controversial back then, but this movie brought some of the fundamental elements of Paganism closer to the public. From a contemporary perspective, the only problem is that it could have promoted negative beliefs about Paganism (and created negative stereotypes) only due to its end. Therefore, although The Wicker Man cannot be understood as an accurate depiction of modern Paganism, it resembles it in some aspects. We as Pagans can only be thankful because it brought to light one potential taboo in time and made the general public aware that Paganism even existed.