Sir Kingsley Amis first came to prominence when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for Lucky Jim, one of the great comic creations of the 20th-century. In subsequent works he proved to be a master of invective and comedy, as well as revealing his interest in the supernatural in several short stories and the chilling novel The Green Man (1969), which was described by The Times as “an accomplished ghost story in the M R James style, under appreciated when it first came out, but winning some belated admiration when it became a television serial in 1990.” A clubbable, generous-hearted, though often irascible man, Amis unwittingly created a furore when the novel was first published. It was written in its original form as a radio broadcast intended to make listeners believe it was a factual account. The whole idea backfired, however, when – like H G Wells before him – he found people, including close friends, believing it was true! Indeed, despite the fact that he repeatedly stated it was a “lying narrative, fiction disguised as fact,” this misapprehension – like the theme of another of his short stories Who or What Was It? – haunted Amis for the rest of his life.
A Times Literary Supplement reviewer described The Green Man as “three genres of novel in one”: ghost story, moral fable, and comic novel. The story reflects Amis’s willingness to experiment with genre novels, while displaying many of the characteristics of his more conventional works, both in superficial aspects such as fogeyishness and problems with alcohol, and in more substantive aspects such as its self-reflective observation of human cruelty and selfishness in everyday relations. The novel is set in and around The Green Man, an inn between London and Cambridge owned by Maurice Allington, a 53-year-old man with a second wife, a teenage daughter and an 80-year-old father living with him in the inn’s upstairs apartment. The inn and its name date back to the 14th-century, and the inn’s charm is further embellished by a history of haunting related to a 17th-century owner, Thomas Underhill, a Cambridge scholar who dabbled in the occult. Underhill was associated with two unsolved murders, including that of his wife, which could not be traced back to him. The Green Man remained relatively unknown and under-appreciated in comparison with Amis’s other works until it was adapted as a three-part serial on BBC television, which aired in 1990, starring Albert Finney. The atmospheric serial was filmed on location, with West Dorset doubling as the Cambridgeshire area and won the 1991 BAFTA for Best Original Television Music (by Tim Souster).
The mythical figure and architectural image most commonly referred to as the Green Man, which inspired Amis’s story, is one of the most enduring and universal to be found in the British Isles. Mysterious faces, either masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from their mouths, are to be found carved, painted or described in a bewildering array of places all over Britain, from gravestones to tapestries, from churches to cathedrals and from books to street architecture. These foliate heads are also seemingly timeless in their appeal; some were carved in pagan times, others appear in medieval churches – indeed, there seem to be few historical eras that have not contributed to the rich mythos of the Green Man, who has also played a major role in sixteenth century English pageants, seventeenth century Scottish memorials, eighteenth century folk dances, nineteenth century church restorations and twentieth century fantasy literature. But the array of forms and images that have all conveniently been labelled the Green Man are almost overwhelming in their diversity. There are female versions of the Green Man to be found in Irish churches, tales told of Green Children in East Anglia and Green Beasts that are almost as common an architectural feature as their more human-like counterparts. Connections have also been made between the Green Man and mythological figures such as Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter and the Jack-in-the-Green. This is to say nothing of the images resembling the Green Man to be found at religious sites across the world. Indeed, at times, it seems that the only thing that links all of these various forms is the common moniker ‘Green Man’.
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. 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 enchanting 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. The Green Man also appears 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, and in more modern times Charles de Lint’s Forests of the Heart. Even if you can’t spare time to read any of these works, I would hugely recommend watching the seminal nineties adaptation of Amis’s Green Man novel, which seems to capture something of the essence of this enigmatic spirit of nature in all its various forms.