With the natural world under increasing threat from government policies and market forces, there would seem to be three related paths open to those of us who do not accept the imperative of industrial progress at any cost.
First, there is resistance: direct action, petitions, lobbying and general disruption. Second, there is the process that will necessarily inform the first: the recovery of roots, natural and cultural, that remind us of our connection to the land and the manner in which our forebears have maintained that connection. Third, there is the way of seeing that complements the first two paths: re-enchantment, or the imaginative reaffirmation of the wonder and mystery of the natural world.
If I say that Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man seems to have little to say about resistance, that is not by way of complaint: her book is not intended as an eco-activist’s manual. What she has provided is a sourcebook for those who have realised the related need for recovery and re-enchantment. Her sphere is the British Isles, but I would hazard a guess that those who revere the green world, wherever they live, will find a model of how to read a landscape in terms of myth, legend and folk tale.
That term “folk” is not without controversy, of course. Larrington argues that the founding of the Folklore Society in 1878, which seemed to have the benefit of keeping alive the wealth of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish stories derived from the oral tradition, actually had the effect of ossifying a body of narrative, rendering the characters and events merely quaint; worse still, they became accessible only in academically approved versions. A living tradition became a mere research programme. The Land of the Green Man, by contrast, is an entertaining and yet authoritative compendium of tales retold with both charm and vigour. As such, it reminds us how remarkable and how precious is the land from which these stories emerged.
As to the contents of this compendium, suffice it to say that we meet, among others, giants, ogres, dragons, wandering knights, elfin queens, enchanted lovers and (to me most intriguing of all) ancient sleepers under sacred hills. Weaving in and out of this wealth of narratives are the recurrent themes that Larrington reflects on, and which tend to fall into pairs: life and death, beast and human, continuity and change.
Change is a key concept here. What I take from these reflections is that the endless reworking of narratives complements the metamorphosis that is gloriously evident in the natural world. So miraculous does that capacity for change seem that we find that these tales continually blur the boundary between the “natural” and the “supernatural”, between the earthly and the eternal. We might say that this capacity for amazement has been reaffirmed by the modern writers Larrington discusses: J. R. R. Tolkien, Alan Garner, Ted Hughes, Susan Cooper, J. K. Rowling.
She is rightly anxious to demonstrate that, however we come at the subject, we are not concerned with a sterile repetition of plot: stable characters in identical situations. As she says: “These are tales rooted in a particular earth, which have blossomed forth, over the years, in different forms.”
Consider the presiding genius of her book, the Green Man, on whom she reflects in her final chapter. It is, of course, valid to point out that this fascinating figure reminds us of various others – Robin Hood, Jack-in-the Green and King of the May, for example – but Larrington refutes the thesis of certain folklorists that there is one basic pattern with one fixed meaning. She is surely right. Stories change: they stay alive through acquiring new significance.
Thus, the Green Man has come in recent years to be regarded as an emblem of the green movement, which obviously could not have been the case a century ago. Far from discrediting the ecological adaptation of the symbol, this realisation should remind us that the fate of nature may increasingly rely on human beings drawing on the power of the folk imagination. In this endeavour, Larrington’s book is going to prove indispensably inspiring.
Laurence Coupe is visiting professor of English, Manchester Metropolitan University. He is author of Myth (2009) and editor of The Green Studies Reader (2000).
The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles
By Carolyne Larrington
I. B. Tauris, 256pp, £20.00
Published 30 August 2015