Spring is finally upon us – it’s even been unusually sunny here in West Wales, and not a spot of rain for days! Turning the calendar over to March always makes me feel a little more cheerful – the dark, drab days of winter are finally coming to an end and the days hold the promise of warmth and light and colour. And of course, in Wales, the 1st March is St David’s Day – or, to give the day its proper name, dydd Gŵyl Dewi.
Along with dogs, hares are my favourite animal. My house is full of prints and ornaments, and there are several lovely moon-gazing hares in the garden (not real, I’m afraid). I’m very interested in paganism, and the hare has very strong links to paganism and witchcraft. In Scotland, the bluebell is the harebell, and the legend is that witches would turn into hares and hide in the harebells.
One of my favourite books is ‘Starve Acre’ by Andrew Michael Hurley, in which a hare features. You can read my review here. The cover is fabulous, and I’m really thrilled to see there’s an upcoming film, starring Matt Smith.
I love this image of a beautiful hare – but where did the term ‘Mad March Hare’ come from?
The meaning is clear – someone as ‘mad as a March hare’ is behaving strangely, as hares do in the month of March, although they have an excuse as it’s the start of their mating season, something I’m sure they are very excited about. But when did we start to use the comparison to describe other people?
One of the first recorded instances of an early form of the term dates from around 1500 in the poem ‘Blowbol’s Test’:
Thanne þey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare
(Then they begin to swerve and to stare, And be as brainless as a March hare)
John Skelton, writing in the 16th century has a penchant for variations on the phrase, in both’ Replycacion’ (1528):
“Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare”
And ‘Magnyfycence’ (1529)
“As mery as a marche hare”
Even Sir Thomas More was a fan, and in his ‘Supplycacyn of soulys’ (1529) gives the first record of the phrase as we now use it:
“As mad not as a March hare, but as a madde dogge.”
A derivative phrase – ‘hare-brained’ – appears in 1548, in Edward Hall’s Chronicle:
“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained…”
Perhaps the most famous mad March hare is the creation of Lewis Carroll, in that lovely classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ who, along with the Mad Hatter, presides over a very confusing tea party:
‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”
In the original illustrations for the book by Sir John Tenniel, the poor March Hare is depicted with straw on his head. This was a symbol often used in Victorian illustration to depict madness. It has been suggested that this comes from no less a famous madwoman than Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’. Gertrude describes her, in death, as having ‘fantasticke Garlands’ of ‘Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daysies, and long Purples,’ and ‘Coronet weeds’.
As for the poor Mad Hatter, that’s a whole other post, with far more gruesome connotations, mad as he is from mercury poisoning!
Anyway, it’s good to celebrate the coming fine weather, and I for one certainly have a spring in my step (now, where did that one come from?!)