Is there a cathedral where you live? If so, chances are it will be an old one … just how old, would you say? And when you crane your head up to look at the ceiling, its arches lost in shadows, what else do you see? You might need binoculars, though – but the older the cathedral, the more likely you are to find, nestling atop of corbels and capitals, a singular face with leaves and branches climbing out of its mouth; sometimes fierce, sometimes cheerful, mostly a trifle wild … this sculpted entity has been with us far longer than the cathedrals, and long before the Normans who built them, with a name that has only regained resonance in quite recent times: The Green Man.
Theories abound concerning his origins, both etymological and geographical; he turns up in a variety of guises, from Rome(Bacchus and Dionysius) to Mesopotamia and Egypt, (green-faced Osiris); he is Jack in the Green, Cernunnos, Pan, Silvanus, he can be found in Sumerian, Hindu, Aztec cultures – he exists everywhere, a source of life and natural force . Occasionally neglected, his image however has survived in nooks and crannies, a constant reminder of man’s reliance on his natural environment and of man’s constant struggle with the elements. Another of his many names is Robin – but is he Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous imp – or Robin Hood, woodlander and defender of the poor? Apparently both and more: a guardian, a powerful god, an impish spirit, a playful invoker of spring and sprouting seedlings; at once venerated and feared: for crops can fail too if you cause him displeasure … the corn dollies and harvest festivals are vestiges of something more than a ritual – they entreat the return of sun after winter, of growth after hibernation, they are offerings of supplication and penitence brought by children to their volatile father.
How has he fared with time, this father, this god of fertility and vitality? I mentioned he has gone through periods of comparative neglect, as when the Industrial Revolution stampeded across the countryside, bringing steam, iron roads and coal, blinding the people with its smoke, weakening his memory and perhaps also his strength and yet, something has struggled through, some collective memory perhaps, clinging onto the notion of one protective entity that will defend the very source of our food and means of survival. It is this protective aspect and this comparative neglect that I have focussed on in my mystery novel, Greenwood Tree. Here, the presence of the Green Man is hovering on the outer edges of dreams, occasionally manifesting himself (in more than one form) to warn and defend, his strength weakened by the frail memory of humanity. In addition he acts as the main linking figure in a multi-genre mystery, where detection meets mythology, in that foreign country called the past. In my mystery he has retreated, and his home is under threat, perhaps an indirect comment on his rather tenuous place in the cultural and social upheaval of the 1920s. I also tend to think of him as one of many Green Men, for to my mind there is something in the Ancient Greek idea that every tree contained its Dryad, every river and stream its Naiad : together unstoppable – but individually, vulnerable. In a similar way, the countryside from the time of the railway has been under constant, if gradual, threat, mirrored by England’s own very uncertain, susceptible condition in the aftermath of World War One. When Nature is attacked however, she has a way of fighting back, sometimes in unexpected ways.
The Green Man, in my treatment of him, thus becomes a metaphor for this vulnerable, while green and pleasant land. Disturb him at your peril.
(First posted as the Green Man Cometh on Dean’s Den)
Here it is… there it goes… and here we are. A new cover for Greenwood Tree. It was fun developing it, from its early days as a straight mask on black background, to deciding on the font (that took the longest time!) to choosing the colour…. after much to-ing and fro-ing, and tests, and re-runs, and tweaking and applying of curling tongs – we did it. I particularly like the font, as it combines that sense of decay, ancient and with a nice touch of mystery. I particularly like the effect of the T – sinister, with suggestions of an axe blade. Which has a certain relevance. A lot of very kind people will be posting this cover on their blogs. I do hope you will pop by them, to say hello and see what else they get up to. The full list is here : AuthorsAnon Newsletter – and we’ll be chatting (I hope!) on Google + and FaceBook so do add your pictures, links to anything related to Green Men, myth and mystery, 1920s, the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, 18th century manners and fashion …. there’s plenty to choose from once you start …. 🙂 I can’t feature images on this kind of template, so I have posted the banner as an image widget … it’s a bit odd… you end up scrolling to the right to view it properly. I might find another way of displaying it …. There will be all sorts of other stuff on the other blogs, so I am just putting a few favourites here, which I may or may not be posting at the various events as well…. Starting with a bit of Julia’s London: (I have posted this before, I do think the colour quality is amazing ) and some of the sort of life-style she felt a need to escape …: (Although I think she packed at least one of those cocktail dresses..) and a little something I just came across: the George Inn at Lichfield where the infamous ball takes place in 1783 …
I may well add more later. I’ll just pop one of the clips that will be circulating the web on here as well…
(Er, you will remember the name, won’t you ..? 😉 )
Today I was reminded by chums on Twitter that it is the birthday of one of the great raconteurs of the British traditional ghost story : M.R.James. Over the course of the day I have suggested adding quotes, visiting this or that site, posting about it here and there in those places you would most expect to find him in. Yet there is little ‘noise’ about him, birthday boy though he be. But then, generally, his is a quiet influence, something left subtly behind with his passing; almost without comment, quasi intangible. He thrilled and continues to thrill a wide gamut of readers, and has inspired and influenced writers and film-makers. Scarcely a Yuletide passes without some version of one Jamesian tale or other being televised or played out on radio. Yet try to establish exactly what it is that attracts his audience, and the responses tend to vary : is it the setting? the academic detail? the dry wit and humour that add further edginess to the horrors to come ? Surely it is a bit of all of these, the sum of parts resulting in classics such as The Stalls of Barchester, Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance and a particular favourite of mine, Casting the Runes.
It was with the centenary in mind that I suggested to some author friends earlier this year that we put together an anthology of our own ghost tales – a sort of ‘in memoriam’ . There was immediate response, and with any luck, the anthology will launch around Hallowe’en. In the meantime, a small effort of mine(barely even a novelette, but too long to be a short story) will be launching soon from Captive Press. While the publication is not on the day of his birth, I can at least post the trailer for it now as a sort of salute.
Happy Birthday, M.R.James.
Related links :
Papergreat : with a lot of nice links
Master of the Ghost Story : a more in-depth look at the writer’s life and works
Spooky Isles : a special, erudite post in honour of M.R.James’s birthday
A Podcast to the Curious (minute, detailed discussion of M.R.James’s tales)
Thin Ghost (I particularly like this elegant site, in particular the illustrations for the tales)
Dark Media City for all things spooky
And if you fancy sporting a ribbon in the world of Twitter in memory of the great man : http://twibbon.com/join/MRJames-Centenary
I am celebrating the centenary for the whole of this year, so I am hanging on to my Twibbon.
Now, where’s that punch bowl . . .