One of the most enduring, universal myths in the British Isles is that of the Green Man – the spirit who stands for nature in its most wild and untamed form, a man with leaves for hair, who dwells deep within the mythic forest. Through the ages and around the world, the Green Man and other nature spirits have appeared in stories, songs and artwork, while forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanted tales in world literature, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the faerie-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. All over Britain the image of the Green Man, masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from his mouth, is found carved not only into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves but also on medieval churches and cathedrals. The Green Man is commonly perceived as a pre-Christian symbol and a connection is sometimes drawn between the foliate faces found in places of worship and the ‘Jack of the Green’ tales of folklore. There are also startling parallels to be drawn between the Green Man legend and that of the seasonal hero-king, who dies with the passing of each summer but is reborn again as winter yields to spring. Strangest of all are the stories told all over the world of real-life ‘green children’ who have periodically emerged from the forest over the centuries like nature spirits brought to life.
The Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring and May Day celebrations, always played in such by a man on stilts in a costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. Such rituals are debased remnants of pre-Christian religious ceremonies in which trees were held sacred – forest groves being perceived as the dwelling place of deities and a wide range of nature spirits. A strong reverence for trees and the holiness of nature was by no means confined to the British Isles – to the Norse, in the wild, wintry forests of Scandinavia, a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil was the centre of the universe, while sacred trees and groves also played a central part in Classical mythology. The Greek god Dionysus, who is often pictured masked, crowned in vines and ivy leaves, is in many ways an archetypal Green Man figure. Parallels may be drawn between Dionysus and the Celtic stag-man Cernunnos, both being associated with the wilderness and the underworld as well as the great cycle of death and resurrection. In Arthurian mythology, which is as much French as English in origin, the great wizard Merlin was intimately acquainted with the primal forest – he learned the speech of animals and honed his prophetic powers during his years of madness spent roaming the woods and ultimately, of course, ended his days entrapped in the bowels of a tree by the faerie sorceress Vivian. In the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of King Arthur’s knights confronts a mysterious figure that emerges from the woods like a force of nature.
What inspired all of the myths surrounding the old forests? Perhaps they are in some way rooted in reality, as stories such as that of the Green children of Woolpit suggest. The only near-contemporary accounts are contained in Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicum Anglicanum and William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, written in about 1189 and 1220 respectively. The children, brother and sister, reportedly appeared in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, some time in the 12th century, perhaps during the reign of King Stephen, and were described as being of generally normal appearance except for the green colour of their skin. They spoke in an unknown language, and the only food they would eat was green beans. Eventually they learned to eat other food and lost their green pallor, but the boy was sickly and died soon after the children were baptised. The girl adjusted to her new life, but she was considered to be “rather loose and wanton in her conduct”. After she learned to speak English the girl explained that she and her brother had come from St Martin’s Land, an underground world whose inhabitants are green. The green children are usually explained away as nothing more than a folk tale or a garbled account of an actual historical event but there are some who suggest that this was a real encounter with (perhaps extraterrestrial?) beings from another world. Other similar stories continue to be told persistently around the world.
Whatever the truth behind the legends of the Green Man, it has proved to be an inspiring figure for a breathtaking array of writers and other artists, appearing in various forms in works such as Pre-Raphaelite artist William Morris’s novel The Wood Beyond the World, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, The Green Man by Kingsley Amis and in more modern times Charles de Lint’s Forests of the Heart. Also well worth a listen for all lovers of folk and world music is the Scandinavian band The Green Children, whose music is a bizarre but infectious mix of mystical dance-pop ballads and dreamy electro beats – the perfect accompaniment to reading any of the works I mentioned above!