Friday, 25 June 2010

Green Incarnations - Ellen Renner

It’s one of the most powerful images in British folklore: the head of man who seems to be made of the very oak leaves from which he peers. But who is the green man? Herne the Hunter, a British version of the horned god Woden, with his wild hunt tearing across the night sky? Or the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, transformed in Wiccan mythology into the Holly King and Oak King? Herne makes his first literary appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but many writers have been drawn to this story of death and rebirth. I’ve recently read or re-read four children’s books which adapt the myth in different ways and for different age-groups.
Lob, by Linda Newbery, a beautifully illustrated book for newly confident readers, introduces the concept of the green man on its most basic and positive form. A green man for gardeners, Lob is a nature spirit of growth and regeneration. Newbery uses this theme to tackle the important subject of death and loss. A young girl learns to cope with the death of a beloved grandfather, while the green man who inhabited the old man’s garden must renew himself and find a new home. It is a story of hope and continuity.
Bereavement is also the theme of the Sally Nichols’ Season of Secrets, intended for slightly older readers. Nichols uses the Wiccan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King, twins who wax and wane with the seasons, taking it in turns to hunt and be hunted, to die and be reborn. This cycle of life and death is literally played out before the eyes a child mourning her newly dead mother. One wild night, Molly is caught up in the hunt and befriends the dying Oak King. In Season of Secrets Nichols addresses the dark side of the myth with directness and honesty. She balances loss with joy as we journey with Molly towards the inevitability of change and the necessity of growth.
A book I regularly re-read is Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. In her version, Herne is hunted and devoured by his own dogs in a never-ending ritual. There is a melancholy edge, a deep sadness to her portrayal of a being both hideous and beautiful. A creature of the dark, hidden away inside its mother Earth in a modern world which neither remembers nor wants it. A being ‘cruel and kind at once’, who longs for freedom for the wild magic which is his essence: ‘My ancestors came out by day and didn’t frighten or puzzle people. I want to be the same.’
Here light and dark are not simple good and evil but existence and its opposite. Light is ‘the movement behind movement ... the stuff of life itself’, while darkness is that which cannot alter and derives its power from ‘things as they must be’. In this story Herne is stronger even than the luminaries; he possesses the power of death, the passing of time, which in the end must overcome the very stars themselves.
Last year I was delighted to discover the complex and intriguing use of the huntsman myth in Katherine Langrish’s Dark Angels. Her embodiment, Halewyn, is a far cry from the Oak King. He is a trickster, a manipulator; always predator and never prey. He is less to do with seasonal cycles than the darkness of the human soul for, as he says: ‘Out of all Creation, only men and devils know how to be truly wicked. Isn’t that so?’
Halewyn’s mythic origins are not clear cut: is he Herne the Hunter, the Welsh Arawn or the Lord of Misrule? Is he the King of the Elves, a demon or the very Devil himself? He seems to be all and none of these things, as Langrish draws on rich and various sources from folklore and myth. Here we find the payment of a living soul to hell every seventh year, as in the legends of Tam Lyn and Arawn, combined with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The book begins and ends with the wild hunt. A mortal wolf hunt prefigures the final climactic scene, where Halewyn sprouts Herne’s antlers and leads his Wild Host over the edge of the world itself – the Devil’s Edge.
Langrish’s huntsman is the darkest of all these portrayals, mercilessly trapping a human soul every seven years to seize and carry down to hell. This is the fee which allows for his existence and that of his kingdom of rejects and misfits: ‘The mad old beggars on the roads, they’re my people. The cast-off children nobody wants. The babies abandoned in ditches. The guilty, the lost, the wanderers, the refuse of Heaven’. But even here there is ambiguity, for Halewyn is a devil with a sense of humour and in the end metes out a wickedly apt justice.
Four very different books written with different ages and audiences in mind, but four rich incarnations of the green man which I have greatly enjoyed.

12 comments:

Charlie Butler said...

Nice to see another Green Man aficionado! Have you read Susan Cooper's Green Boy? It ends with a marvellous evocation of the Green Man, I think. Also well worth a look are Geraldine McCaughgrean's The Stones are Hatching, Jane Gardam's sad and lyrical The Green Man and - ahem - my own Death of a Ghost.

Not so many children's books based on the SheelaNaGig, mind...

Miriam Halahmy said...

A lovely review of all these books and their linking theme.

KMLockwood said...

Ho ho - another Green Man fan here too. A post worth reading - and yet more books to go on my wishlist!

Ellen Renner said...

Hi Charlie, thanks for those. I know the McCaughrean book and am a huge Gardam fan so will definitely look that out. I thought I'd read all of Susan Cooper's so am delighted to hear of one I don't know. And will definitely look yours out - great title! Yes, the green man fascinates me. Keep hoping inspiration will strike someday ...

Katherine Langrish said...

Ellen, I was thoroughly enjoying your post, and making a mental note to buy Season of Secrets - when I scrolled down and came across my own title. How very lovely of you! I too am a big fan of Dogsbody, loved The Stones are Hatching, and HAVE TO GET anything by Jane Gardam I haven't already read, especially about green men! Charlie, I want your book too. Some happy reading ahead of me!

But the sheela-na-gig... there's a challenge...

Ellen Renner said...

I haven't begun to do it justice, Kath. I love it and have started reading again because of skimming through for the post! And yes, Charlie's given me lots of happy reading to look forward to this August.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

What a fascinating post, Ellen - the Green Man is such an evocative character and symbol. Really enjoyed reading these reviews and the various interpretations of the Green Man! Thanks!

Katherine Roberts said...

Lovely post Ellen... the unicorn approves! The Green Man is also thought to have links with the traditional Arthurian tale "Gawain and the Green Knight". A few years ago the British Fantasy Society produced a calender based on the legend, with twelve different writers and artists telling the story through the 12 months of the year... I still have my calendar and always think of the Green Man when I look at it.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Ellen. Looking forward to reading all of these - what delights to come!

Sally Nicholls said...

Thank you, Ellen! (From another Green Man fan).
Sally x

Lucy Coats said...

I love all these books--the only one I haven't read yet is Lob, and it's on my list. Funnily enough, I've just finished The Stones are Hatching. I am another fan of the Green Man, and used a version of him in Hootcat Hill--in his wild, primitive Cernunnos incarnation. Really enjoyed this post, Ellen.

Ellen Renner said...

Lucy, Hootcat is on my reading list! I'm going to re-read the McCaughrean, as I've totally forgotten that bit, which is worrying.