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.