THE UPSIDE DOWNWhy We Get the Green Man Wrong
John Mitchinson explores a presence not a character, lurking on the edge of our technology-addled consciousness…
Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
The excitement generated by the invitation to the Coronation featuring a foliate head, better known as a ‘Green Man’, summoned more heat than light.
Some Pagans resent its appropriation by the establishment; some Christians (though not very many) have questioned its use by a Christian monarch. Both sides are missing the point – and as so often these days, it is the ‘culture war’ narrative that is the main beneficiary from the confusion.
So, let’s try to unpick it – after all symbols matter and the Coronation was awash with them. Who knew there were so many ceremonial swords? The Sword of Spiritual Justice, the Sword of Temporal Justice, the Sword of Mercy – not to mention the monarch’s various sceptres, gauntlets, golden tunics, robes and orbs. As one wag on Twitter commented, by the end of the ceremony Charles looked like a character in a computer game laden down with objects to help on his forward journey (which in a way, he was).
Nor are these occasions as politically innocent as their defenders like to claim. The impressive stint put in by Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons, carrying the eight-pound weight of the Sword of State has propelled her to the top of the list for the next leader of the Conservative Party. This prompted another tweeter to adapt a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Strange women distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”
At the heart of the Coronation was a kind of magical sleight of hand – all the plundered bling and the quaint ceremony endeared us to the fact that we were being asked to accept that certain tribal bloodlines are more important than others: a dangerous and disturbing idea that in the wrong hands can lead to the excesses of the Ahnenerbe, Heinrich Himmler’s folklore-fuelled think tank. Which is exactly what the more extreme exponents of republicanism want us to believe.
A more nuanced view comes from cultural historian John Higgs, who suggests in a recent newsletter that the anti-monarchists consistently underestimate what they are fighting against: “To defeat something, you need to understand the source of its power. To try and defeat monarchy with rational thought is a category error. Republicans suggest rational alternatives for choosing a head of state, but these fail to attract support because they lack magic.”
Magic is not something you can accuse the Green Man of lacking. But where does he come from and what does he symbolise?
According to the Palace, he is “an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign”. Hence his use on the royal invite. But this isn’t quite true.
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. There is almost no evidence to back this up, as scholars like the historian Ronald Hutton have regularly made clear.
The point about the Green Man is that 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. He is as much about destruction as rebirth, and those that claim the Green Man as a benign agent for the healing power of nature misunderstand his power.
Ambiguity is the key to the Green Man archetype.
The 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 seventies, 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 a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI’