Reviewed by Gayle Fallon (email@example.com)
In The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles, medieval literature scholar Carolyne Larrington explores the intersections of topography and folklore.1 Larrington traces the intimate, complex connections between the land features of Britain and its inhabitants, connections which generate not only ancient explanations for seemingly miraculous phenomena, but long-lived narratives that are ever evolving to suit the needs of contemporary people. The Land of the Green Man also serves as a repository of sorts for various versions of traditional tales; much of the book’s content is comprised of story summaries and retellings, interwoven with Larrington’s own commentary. The imitable, adaptive nature of folkloric narrative necessitates blurred—and often barely perceptible—boundaries between one tale and another, and Larrington identifies and navigates these boundaries skillfully, sometimes adding scholarly research concerning possible historical reasons for similarities among stories and sometimes wisely eliding such clarification. It is clear that the author has little interest in utterly demystifying folktales and the complicated threads which they share. Larrington’s literary analysis, though insightful and informative, never dispels the unsettling poignancy of the tales themselves by overwhelming the stories with close reading annotations or secondary source references—it is enough, in Larrington’s view, to draw networks among various tales and the lands from which they have sprung. This is not to say that Larrington’s reflections are written for a lay audience, but that her decision to combine the tales with concise commentary makes the work’s content appealing to both scholarly and popular audiences. The Land of the Green Man can thus serve as a useful text for academics seeking a reference work and for those readers looking for a thoughtful introduction to the book’s subject matter.
Larrington’s systemization of British Isles folklore is, indeed, embedded firmly in the Isles’ terrain. Despite the rather abstract thematic titles of her six chapters, e.g., “Lust and Love,” and “Gain and Lack,” there is a unifying topographical motif in each of these. For example, in the chapter “The Beast and the Human,” the majority of mythological creatures discussed are associated with water—selkies, mermaids, water-horses, and kelpies. Larrington’s focus on the fluid and frequently liminal spaces between animal and human make the inclusion of werewolves and witch therianthropy in this chapter appropriate. Likewise, in the chapter “The Land Over Time,” land features of great scale, such as mountains, are linked with fantastical creatures of gigantic proportions. Giants and gods erect enormous monuments, clear huge swathes of land, and mold the earth to their liking. They also, at times, dissolve into the landscape itself in order to signify colossal shifts in human philosophy: Larrington points out that the Callanish stones in the Outer Hebrides represent “actual giants who refused to be baptized or to build a church” in response to the missionary efforts of St. Kieran (37). By relating tales not only with other tales, but with unique landscapes, Larrington avoids a reinscription of a kind of Campbellian monomyth. She also seems to refuse to flatten tales into types (as does, say, the Aarne-Thompson classification systems), though she does mention general tale types occasionally and never explicitly discourages such classification. The same fantastical creatures may appear in disparate places, but the land-bound identifiers of each creature matter deeply to Larrington—it is the land that binds them together and works as a complicit co-creator of these narratives, that changes the fear-inspiring fairies of Cornwall to the comparatively kindly fairies of Scotland. Where Campbell would simplify, Larrington multiplies, and her folklore becomes as multifaceted as its originating landscapes.
It is significant that Larrington includes discussion of man-made structures like cities and barrows throughout the book, not as contrastive creations, negatively defined by the green spaces around them, but as human responses to the natural world, responses which become part of the landscape and, consequently, part of human mythology. Farmsteads conjure boggarts who refuse to be separated from human households (even when exasperated farmers attempt to evade the mischief-makers by moving), fairy changelings take the place of baby boys, and the images of Gog and Magog, the guardian giants of the City of London, “remind city-dwellers that there are forces which […] humans cannot control” (29). In this work, human habitations that interrupt and merge with landscapes become the spaces which mobilize the supernatural world. As places where these tales are passed on, the human homes mentioned in Larrington’s book seem to concurrently normalize and exoticize folktales, since it is in the home that we first learn our mythologies, which straddle the division between the familiar (the lighted hearth) and the mythical (the foreboding woods). When storytellers forget to impart stories, the home becomes an alien sphere wholly divorced from the natural world outside of its walls. For instance, Larrington mentions that most people since the early Anglo-Saxon rule of England knew how to assuage the souls of the troubled undead who came back for a visit to the living, and that it is only now that we are starting to omit the religious and social rituals that would let the quick and the dead rest more easily (115). Though Larrington is never alarmist in her work, comments like this one suggest that we are now regularly choosing to ignore a traditional definition of humanity; we refuse to see ourselves as potential members in a cast of supernatural roles which previously delineated the essentially human via the mythical. What’s troubling is that modernity does not always attempt to redefine humanity by building upon previous folklore, thereby denying progeny access to a mode of sussing out a place in the world. The act of acknowledging a mythical presence in human residences—not solely in the untamed reaches of the natural world—fills a human need to view ourselves as part of the earth and its processes.
This acknowledgement simultaneously provides us with the freedom to reshape our tales to fit the confines of contemporary living. To demonstrate this, Larrington seamlessly parallels modern versions of folktales and their earlier counterparts, mentioning works such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence alongside ancient oral narratives of the drowned city of Ys. It is the ease with which Larrington creates a diachronic outline of folklore that also makes her occasional modern translations of Old and Middle English texts seem more like updated versions of tales than functionally relayed information for lay readers. Here, there is no search for an “authentic” text, for the original, authoritative story whose exotic age assures modern readers that we understand the world better than our forebears. Larrington periodically mentions the oldest account of a tale, but never implies that modern works influenced by an ancient story are somehow bastardizing or misrepresenting an earlier version. The presentation of folklore as a dynamic, integral part of our modern world makes The Land of the Green Man a collection not of historical superstitions but of living metaphors. As Larrington states in the introduction:
"[T]he legends of our past offer particular kinds of answers—beautiful and mysterious answers […]—to very large questions through a kind of metaphorical thinking, through structures and patterns which, in their stripped-down clarity, show us what’s really important in an unfamiliar light." (9)
At the end of the book, Larrington proves that the “unfamiliar light” of folklore can perpetuate healthy concerns about our modern inability to see landscape and earth within physical (and linguistic) structures; truly, Larrington hints, forgetting folkloric narratives altogether can rob us of the reminders we need to sustain healthy community with natural rhythms and networks. The eponymous Green Man appears in Larrington’s concluding chapter, in which she asserts that our current motif of the Green Man, associated firmly with an oddly positive portrayal of the medieval wodwose (Wild Man) and all things vegetable, has a “short pedigree” as “the protector and guardian of the forests” (227). Rather, it is our dawning ecological consciousness that has inspired a proliferation of Green Man images, such as the land guardian in John Gordon’s novel The Giant under the Snow and the trinitarian Green Man of sculptor Phil Townsend’s Green Man’s Life-Cycle. Larrington sees the Green Man insinuated on a global scale, in Tolkien’s Ents, in sensational rumors of the Yeti of the Himalaya and the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest. These new-fashioned giants of nature follow us quite literally into our homes through our literature and television screens, blurring the boundary of the familiar homestead and the wild, as they are wont to do. They remind us of our accountability to both land and the stories rooted there, and function as evidence that folklore follows us into communal spaces and participates in the formation of our relationships with earth and one another.
Louisiana State University
1. It should be noted that BBC Radio 4 has recently featured Dr. Larrington in the five-episode series “The Lore of the Land,” which is available here at the time of this article’s publication.