The Green Man

Oh, the landscape is tired.

I took my camera up to the forest yesterday, looking for pictures of green shoots beginning to burst forth, but there was nothing there.

Well: almost nothing. The plants which were sending forth silvery folds were the most common and aggressive of all, the brambles.

It hasn’t hit its stride yet. Wild stuff, when it is rampant: there is something unsettling about a plant invading our space.  John Wyndham chose Triffids as his demons; The Little Shop of Horrors cashes in on the same deep unease.

But there are much older incarnations of such misgivings; the figures of men which have been quite literally taken over by vegetation.

The Green Man is everywhere you look: as a name for our Public Houses, where a man can get ale to sup, or a bacardi and coke over which to flirt; carved in churches and secular buildings, not just in Britain but farther afield.

He is a sign of spring: of the rude fecundity of nature.

Mike Harding researched The Green Man: the symbol has never been out of fashion and artists love his unfettered wildness. He found that the figures fall into three categories: foliate heads, those completely covered in green leaves; disgorging heads, those which have plants growing out of the mouth; and the unsettlingly named bloodsucker head; that which has flowers and plants coming from every orifice.


But perhaps no representation of the green man is so strange as that in an account related by a gentleman called William of Newburgh.

William was a Canon, part of the Augustine tradition. He is estimated to have lived from about 1136 to 1198. And historians love him because he charted life during the Anarchy of Stephen’s reign.

The rest of us love him for quite another reason, I am afraid. Because William charted what he perceived to be possible, from a very mediaeval perspective indeed. And that included a few early vampires; also revenants  – souls which returned from the dead. All recorded dead-pan, with the credulity of a time in which dark seemed to hide many mysteries.

And he also records – in the same level tones as the Times when it reports a session in Parliament – the day they found the Green Children.

In East Anglia, reports William, there was a village four or five miles from the monastery of King Edmund. It was called ‘Wulpet’. Or literally: wolf pit. This is because on the edge of the village were some ancient caves known, among the villagers, as the Wolfpittes.

One day, harvesters were getting the crops in, minding their own business, when two children came unbidden out of the caves.

And they were completely green.

They were wearing garments of a strange colour, and a material no-one recognised.

And as you can imagine, they were a bit stunned.

They wandered around the crops in confusion until someone had the sense to get hold of them and take them to the village, where they were kept for some days.

But here’s the thing: they were slowly starving, because they could not eat the food the villagers were bringing. Not for days.

Finally the villagers brought a pile of beans in, still on the stalk. The children rushed over. But rather than eating, they examined the stalk of the beans for a pulse; and when there was none, they wept bitterly, William recounts.

The beans proved to be something they could eat, however, and starvation was staved off for a spell.

I know, someone said; why don’t we baptise them? And they did. It didn’t help the boy much. He only survived a little longer. But the girl lost her green colour, and in time settled down and married a villager.

The girl learned English, and was able to express a little about her origins. She came, she said, from the land of St Martin, although she could not remember where that was, or how she got from there to England.   One moment the pair were feeding their father’s flocks in St Martin, the next – after a cacophony which sounded like church bells  – they were standing in English fields at harvest time.

“The sun does not rise on our countrymen,” she is heard to have said, ” our land is little cheered by its beams. We are contented with that twilight, which amongst you precedes the sunrise or follows the sunset.”

A story shot through with strange unease, this. Just like those foliate men, carved and chipped from stone throughout Europe.

We need the green man now, here in England: the land is tired and nature’s virility is long overdue.

But can we handle him when he arrives?


40 thoughts on “The Green Man

  1. Perhaps a small precursor of the arrival of St Patrick’s day with all sorts of little green folks ambling about. Maybe a hope of leprechaun’s leaping about with their pots of gold.

    Yes, our hope springs eternal for the first signs of Spring, those little signs of green that lets our spirits rise.

    Over here in the lovely lowcountry of Charleston, SC, we are easily a month ahead for Spring, flowers and trees are blossoming and daffodils are a foot high instead of just poking their little nubs out of the ground. What a strange winter it’s been.

    1. That is a wonderful piece of music, Brett, thanks! It gets my composer’s ear going: you’re a musician yourself, you’ll hear the old modes, the precursors of the scale, in this wonderful tune. And the accompaniment – a sparse fifth. Very like the old street instruments one might have heard, when the green children first walked out of their cave.

      1. Very much look forward to hearing it. I am so disenfranchised from everything now snapped into ‘perfect pitch’ with auto-tune machines. I hear it on everything now. There is nothing to fill the spaces, anymore. We are hollowing out the spaces in between such that it is all so clinical and lifeless. Please help take me back to a time when things were gloriously more ragged around the edges…

  2. Strange magic gets me every time. I have chills.

    It reminds me of Susan Cooper’s “Greenwitch.” Which also gave me chills—of the best kind.

  3. Fairy Rings and odd little natural occurrences capture my imagination and now you’ve added to my knowledge base. I’m not familiar with the Green Man nor the Green Children…fascinating! You started with one of my favorite stress-relievers…a walk in a beautiful natural setting. I have thousands of photos taken of piles of leaves, green shoots, and beautiful tangles. Not a one worth preserving other than it captured my imagination. I do hope your tired landscape is indeed waking. Spring is so hopeful. Love your odd bits of knowledge, Kate 🙂 Debra

    1. Thanks, Debra 🙂 We have been watching the forest all winter, and feel ready for a change. But I am little ungrateful: for our bright yellow gorse has been out all winter. Must be grateful for such beautiful splashes of colour!

  4. I love this story, Kate. I wouldn’t go back and live in the Middle Ages, but some of the tales they wove were stunners.

    If it’s any consolation, I am a sickly pee green these days due to the amount of pine pollen coating everything here…………

  5. It is interesting to consider that our world may not be the only haven for men and women of all the rainbow’s colors!

    Lou’s right . . . this is the perfect preface to St. Paddy’s Day. 😀

  6. I’ve never thought of The Green Man as spooky or evil, and I refuse to start now. To me he symbolizes the birth of spring and fertility in our gardens. My current Green Man is part of the copper filigree that embraces a standard tube-style bird feeder in my backyard. It’s not elaborate, not mechanically complex, and doesn’t hold a lot of seed, but the Green Man watches over my yard year-round and I wouldn’t part with him for the world.

  7. Have you read The Girl Green as Elderflower, by Randolph Stow? Very beautiful novel, based partly on William of Newburgh’s green children story.

    1. Wow, Meli, no I haven’t! Thank you so much – I’ll seek it out and read. My Easter reading sorted out!

      Hope Felix – and the rest of you – are perfectly recovered now. That sounded like a nasty bout of something…

  8. What an amazing post Kate – really interesting read! Wishing you a rapid Springy Spring voluptuous in its promise of a new beginning 🙂

  9. I have a green man, a sprightly fellow that was a garden gift. He’s very friendly and comes out each spring for a stay in the garden, where he stays upon a crook in a tree. No little green kiddies, though. Ah, those walks in the forest and those first true buds of spring . . .

  10. That’s really interesting. I live just over half an hour away from Woolpit and I never realised what the origin of the name was. I’d just always assumed it was something to do with wool. 😀

  11. so eerie, time travel, instant travel?

    do we have a past more vegatative that we can easily believe?

    i’m going to give you some heads on fb as i can’t insert them here

  12. Enjoyed you post, and have enjoyed featuring your work when I can on my radio show, Ear Candy. Would love to feature this piece as well on a show entitled “Green Man”, with your permission? With gratitude, Gina

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