Modern Myth and Meaning: The Yule Log Lady

Modern Myth and Meaning is a blog series on the contributions of literature and pop culture to contemporary mythology. It investigates how themes represented in science fiction, fantasy, and horror intersect with layers of American consciousness, exploring the meanings of those connections.

I watched Twin Peaks when it first aired in 1990. Though I was arguably too young to handle Lynch’s tableau of murder, abuse, and raw sexuality, luckily my parents didn’t seem to think so. We all cozied up on the couch to watch Ronette Pulaski stagger across a bridge, Agent Cooper dream of dead girls, and of course, Laura Palmer wash up on the shore of a river that runs from the woods into town.

If you’re not already a fan of the show, you’ll probably think it’s sick of me to say that we laughed a lot. But anyone who’s experienced Lynch’s weaving of self-aware genre tropes (like cops eating mountains of doughnuts) with an ensemble of weirdos that makes South Park’s cast seem like the Brady Bunch has probably giggled at least once or twice.

Amid the delightfully odd characters populating Twin Peaks, one stood out as even weirder than the rest. This was Margaret, the Log Lady.

Though the town of Twin Peaks had come to accept the Log Lady, Special Agent Dale Cooper—a man who hangs upside down like a bat in the morning and recounts his dreams into his Dictaphone to be filed as evidence—does not know what to make of her. And so viewers became equally puzzled, and curious, about this enigma within the enigma of Lynch’s creation. Who was Margaret Lanterman? Was she just nuts, or were her psychic predictions true? And where the heck did she get that log?

The Log Lady became a cult icon. We saw references to her in other shows such as Northern Exposure and, much later, Psych. When Twin Peaks was syndicated in 1993, Lynch added introductions by the Log Lady to frame each episode. She even got her own action figure.

On one hand, the Log Lady’s success has to do with the incredible actor, Catherine Elizabeth Coulson (1943–2015), who depicted her. Catherine shattered glass ceilings in the film industry working behind the camera on projects such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, performed for years in the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and will soon be the subject of a documentary film (squee!). But, on the other hand, I think Margaret Lanterman’s roots and tendrils in the mythic realm also have to do with her cultural ascendancy.

Log Lady as herald

The Log Lady inhabits at least one mythic archetype—the herald—challenging Cooper to further embrace the supernatural path to learning truth. When she first asks him to speak to her log, he’s not ready. Despite accepting his own dreams as valid, Cooper still seems to feel that the mystical messenger of Twin Peaks is a bit of a joke.

A little later, when Cooper opens up, the log reveals many truths, including the location of a cabin owned by one of the men Laura had sex with the night she died. The Log Lady initiates Cooper into a world where the supernatural opens one door after the next. While this process may not always be exactly healthy for our protagonist, it does change him irrevocably.

Other examples of the herald include Hermes in The Odyssey and the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. These characters are often messengers, or you might think of them as go-betweens whose travel between worlds shapes the protagonist’s journey. They often carry some of that special world with them.

Gradually, the Twin Peaks show, feature film, and tie-in literature would answer some of our questions about Margaret Lanterman. The log, it turns out, does connect to the supernatural forces at work in Twin Peaks. Margaret’s husband, a lumberjack, died fighting a fire the day of their wedding; she cut the log from a partially burned tree in the haunted woods. And the Log Lady had herself been through the forest’s metaphysical gateway to the Black Lodge as a girl. She returned with its sigil etched in her skin.

A liminal figure who had been to the other world and back, the Log Lady offered mostly circuitous advice. She could not tell Cooper exactly what would happen to him, or Laura either, though she did show the imperiled girl compassion and truth days before she died. Watching this scene from Fire Walk with Me, I always thought the compassion meant more to Laura than the advice.

What of the log?

The herald of change, in our case, carries a prop that has potent meaning within the series. The fire that took her husband, and that symbolically took Laura, was destructive, but the Log Lady saved a vestige of that destruction, making it into a vehicle for compassion. As she said in one of her season 1 introductions, “Sometimes my anger at the fire is evident. Sometimes it is not anger, really. It may appear as such. But could it be a clue? The fire I speak of is not a kind fire.”

Indeed, the flames consuming Twin Peaks were anything but kind. The Log Lady couldn’t stop the forces of evil that dwelled in her town, but she used what she knew of them to slow their progress, and bring comfort and aid to those in need. Ultimately, from the vantage point of season 3 (2017), she had more impact than she knew.

In our world, Margaret’s log may resonate with a kinder type of fire. The winter tradition of burning the yule log—or, lately, of playing one on YouTube—goes back to ancient European gatherings held in the darkest days of the year to celebrate the coming light. I say “winter” rather than “Christmas” because this pagan tradition predates the Christian era, though Christians later adopted it.

I doubt my Celtic ancestors ever expected to eradicate winter, but they knew to keep the fire burning in the darkest days. The Irish poet John O’Donohoe put this so eloquently in a documentary about his relationship to the land: “Springtime is the secret work of winter all the time. If at this time in your life you are enduring through a place of bleakness, it is never as bleak as it seems on the surface. At the heart of the stripped down, arrested cold stillness of winter, there is huge movement secretly at work.”

This New Year is a precarious time, with the US government shut down and so much more than paychecks for federal workers hanging in the balance. We don’t know what is coming, and our control is limited. I for one have been angry at the fire for some time now. But as the flames lick my heels, I’m going to remember Margaret Lanterman, and try to think, what would the Log Lady do? She had the courage, after all, to transform her tragedies into wisdom that lifted spirits and lit the way forward.

What are your favorite Twin Peaks moments? Share in the comments below, or tweet me at @ewonice or the editors @AmazingStories0!

If you liked this story, you might also enjoy reading the previous post in the series.

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  1. These are brilliant insights – thank you for sharing them, Erin.

    By coincidence I just started creating a herald character last night, and today I have discovered your treasure trove of thoughts and insights. I feel like you have given me a wonderful Christmas present and I forgot to get something for you.

  2. Thank you so much for this well written and insightful piece. What really resonated with me is the idea that “Springtime is the secret work of winter all the time.” This describes the experience during my short time in Iowa. Having been a desert dwelling human for most of my life, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the experience that I would have internally. Thank you for the reminder and encouragement to continue with this growth using compassion and connectedness.

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