John Mitchinson hails the return of the Green Man to remind us the land is alive and we will all die
The old gods are tenacious. A year ago, in the deep of winter, my eldest son George rang from his student digs in Manchester and asked if I had any books on the subject of the Green Man. This was a surprise – I had a shelf of them, but he’d never betrayed any interest in the subject before. He was at film school, I assumed, making grainy urban shorts to a lo-fi hip hop beat, a long way from the old green magic of the village he’d left behind.
Thanks to Covid, his short graduation film, From Soil and Saplings, was shot but never finished. It was shaping up to be a resonant slice of folk horror. The son of a property developer has been sent to scope a recently purchased woodland site for new housing. He ends up spending a night among the trees, chanting poetry by firelight, haunted by a sinister figure in a mask made from twigs and bark. The next morning, he shreds the sale documents and title deeds.
The film contains two of my favourite ideas. The first is that landscape itself is sentient, that matter is somehow conscious. Today we called this panpsychism, but it’s as old as our species. William Blake extolled it (“every particle of dust breathing forth its joy”), Wordsworth was animated by it (“a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”) and it has fuelled the imaginations of a whole tradition of modern British writers from Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman to Sarah Hall and Daisy Johnson. My favourite expression of a “holy” landscape is given by the sceptical psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Peter Schaffer’s classic play Equus: “Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs – just as of certain frowns in people and slouches…” I’d say to them – “Worship as many as you can see – and more will appear!”
We still feel the chill of recognition that one day we will die, and the roots and tendrils of nature will reclaim us, converting our dead flesh into vegetal life
The other idea that drives the film is the revenge of nature as personified by the figure of the Green Man. As a term, “Green Man” is no older than 1939 when it was coined in a speculative essay for Folklore by Lady Raglan, in which she attempted to link the strange Gothic carvings found in European churches and cathedrals of human heads with tendrils of foliage streaming from their mouths to a mythic-ritualistic Pagan fertility tradition. In fact, we don’t need to know why the masons carved these powerful images to feel the weight of their symbolic load. We still sense the exhilaration of new green growth in the spring, and still feel the chill of recognition that one day we will die, and the roots and tendrils of nature will reclaim us, converting our dead flesh into vegetal life
It’s this ambiguity that draws me (and I suspect drew George) to the Green Man as an archetype. The strange uneasy union of human and plant. The idea of nature fighting back by reclaiming our minds and putting new green words in our mouths resonates across contemporary culture. Our damaged planet is reminding us through drought and flood and ice storms that our greed and waste come with a high price attached. The idea of Gaia – the earth as a single interdependent biosphere – has become scientific orthodoxy since its emergence in the 1970s, but in its wake the darker, less easily tamed figure of the Green Man has also returned to haunt us.
He plays for both sides, and neither. Unlike the Arthurian cycle, there is no written-up, codified set of myths and legends that fix his story. He is a presence not a character, lurking on the edge of our technology-addled consciousness, waiting for us to fall asleep, for our houses to fall into ruin, for our vegetable gardens to choke with weeds so he can remind us that we, too, are part of Nature.
John Mitchinson is the co-founder of publisher Unbound. He is also co-founder of the TV panel game show “QI”, and has co-written all their books