Meeting the Green Man

Reading time: 13 min.

The Green Man, by Gail E Haley, is the first book that changed my life. I found it in my brother’s room. I was nine. The cover drew me in: a man clad in leaves striding through the wild with acorns around his neck, a rabbit at his feet, and a squirrel on his shoulder clutching his beard. That was enough. I decided to borrow it forever.

The story starts in spring. A prince, out on a hunt, gets hopelessly lost in the woods. He cools off in a lake, and when he’s done his clothes and horse are gone. Hiding his nakedness, he traipses off to find shelter. At nightfall he comes across a cave stocked with berries and nuts, and a couple of chickens and a goat, which he starts to look after.

The man is too embarrassed to be found without his clothes, so he stays in the forest. By and by he learns its ways. He clothes himself in its leaves and moss. He cares for its plants and animals. He commands its wild beasts not to hurt people who stray into it. Autumn comes and winter. His beard and hair grow wild. A child, wandering lost, asks him, ‘Are you the Green Man?’ He supposes so.

One spring day our Green Man is out foraging. ‘The smell of budding leaves, warm earth, and growing things filled the air.’ Passing by a lake he notices a young man taking a dip. On the bank is a tethered horse and find a pile of fine clothes. In the saddlebag is a pair of scissors. The green man cuts his hair and takes off his cloak of leaves, puts on the clothes and rides the horse back to town.

His parents, amazed, say they thought he was dead. ‘It was the Green Man who saved my life,’ he replies.

I noted mum’s inscription in coincidentally green ink: ‘To Andrew, love from Mum and Dad, Xmas 1981.’ She must have made a mistake. Andrew was out climbing trees; books bored him. By his teenage years he would be climbing cranes on construction sites, cracking open the gas bottles for a high. The tame, go-nowhere predictability of Stratford-on-Avon had tried and, thankfully, failed to contain his energy. I was a misfit too, and for the same reason, but unlike my brother, my own maladaptation was to become intensely introspective. I found deep joy in nature and music, but soon realised to my confusion that this wasn’t normal. My social detachment was painful. I took turns to blame myself and the world around me and tried to plumb the depths of both, on the intuition that liberation lay in some hidden understanding that I’d yet to track down.

As a searching, pondering kid I would have taken to books but I barely knew them. Mum loved the Reader’s Digest – the house was full of its issues – but during our childhood she was habitually depressed, too tangled up to encourage us to read much once we’d tired of Peter and Jane. Dad’s long hours as a window cleaner left him too knackered to spend much time with us after he came in; he preferred people to books anyway. They loved us, though. Our Christmas presents – which we kids understood as our natural entitlement – were made out of dad’s determination to climb his ladder. Sometimes, we ate only because mum was willing to go hungry herself.

At university I found myself among people who’d grown up with books. They’d discourse wittily on ‘the classics’ as if everyone knew what they were – I’d never heard of them. I was so devoid of reading as a child that The Green Man doubled my library to two volumes. The other was an illustrated Gulliver’s Travels, a gift from dad who’d been a great traveller himself on round-the-world container ships. Gulliver, hapless and passive, bored me, but in The Green Man I found vitality spilling out from every page. Every object in Gail Haley’s richly painted world was alive. A mushroom, a basket of apples, a water rat hidden in the shadow of its burrow – all had their own presence, all participated in the life of their place.

And in the heart of the forest was a human being: a tame prince turned wild man. Having stripped the aristocrat of his vanities, the book follows his redemption in the fullness of nature, page by page, until he finally becomes who he really is. Gail Haley draws the green man’s freedom as an easy stride and an open gaze, which looked out at the reader with kindness, asking an unspoken question. Here was a man who was strong without being cruel and gentle without being weak, carrying no more than he needed and desiring no more than he had. Here, I thought, was an accomplished human being. And he wasn’t boring either. In my childhood I’d get excited to find myself among a group of men, only to find them awkward in their own company, discussing their favourite junction for joining the M1 on a journey north. This was Stratford-on-Avon Man, from which the Green Man led me away in relief.

While I admired the Green Man’s character, it was his achievement of what I lacked that made the book important to me. He was at peace with the place in which he found himself. His belonging suggested that I might learn to belong as well. This new horizon of possibility began to open up my life. And it needed opening up. Although my parents’ bright eccentricities and working-class values were a counterweight, my junior school was vigorously socialising me into the middle-of-the-road middle-classes of Middle England. I suppose we were being cloned. The High Street was being cloned at the same time, as the little grocery shops were closed and turned over to McDonald’s and Next. A year later my teacher was blithely sharing her patriotic pleasure in the Falklands War as it unfolded. We were living through the Cold War’s constant malaise, but it was all happening somewhere else; we would be waiting for Armageddon politely, standing in line, fitting in.

Neither Andrew nor I were having any of that. He was literally climbing the walls. As for me, The Green Man represented a life lived for something authentically exciting – the natural magic of living things, people included. I was a boy, he was a man, a possible future. It was a countercultural experience. I didn’t have the word for it but I felt the truth of it.

I’d realise later that the world of The Green Man is, as typical of children’s books, all promise and no tragedy. His heart has never broken. In his forest, nothing suffers. He hasn’t had to reckon with any wounds – with how to allow them to become part of who he is, part of his aliveness. And like the mis-advised ‘son’ in Kipling’s If, the Green Man is another fantasy male who is supposed to succeed by his own efforts.

But Gail Haley’s children’s-book world, limited though it is, still carries its truth with confidence. Its simple story still holds its shape for me after 25 years or so of learning and activism. It doesn’t jar to invest the story with the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and deep ecology of Joanna Macy, who weaves humans in with a natural world that ‘has a role to play in our liberation’. The Green Man can fill with the bugling solidarity songs of Cornel West and Alice Walker, for whom a healthy world is both a gift of divine grace and a labour of human love. Lace him with the darker, disturbing, astonishing natural histories of Frédéric Rossif and Annie Dillard. Charge him with the prophetic politics that Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold bring to their love of the land, determined to follow ‘the urge of seasons… against which civilisation has built a thousand buffers’. Situate him, even, in the radical theology of mutuality in Isabel Carter Heyward and Martin Buber: ‘In the beginning is the relation.’ The Green Man hasn’t collapsed under the weight of experience, he’s grown – he’s aged.

And he keeps popping up. I find him in Mark’s spare words on John the Baptist as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness… clothed with camel’s hair’ who ‘ate locusts and wild honey’. He’s Duke Senior in As You Like It, whose trials of banishment in the wildwood ‘feelingly persuade me what I am’. And he’s Walt Whitman’s man-as-nature self-portrait in Leaves of Grass, as ‘one of the roughs, a kosmos, … Through me the afflatus[1] surging and surging…’ On the big screen I’ve seen versions of the Green Man rendered by Willem Dafoe in The Hunter; James Cameron’s Avatar; and the survivalist veteran in Leave No Trace. Each time, I meet another vein in his personality.

So many men! But the man of The Green Man is the work of a woman. I pop Gail Haley into Google and eventually find a 2007 interview for the University of North Carolina archive. She’s a North Carolinan herself, but back in the 1970s she’s living in London. Walking through Soho one day she notices a hanging pub sign showing a man’s face covered in leaves. She’s never seen the face before but it awakens an ancient memory, she says. The pub’s the Green Man (now a sports pub), but the landlord can’t tell Haley what that means so she goes to the folk library at Cecil Sharp House to find out.

It turns out that the Green Man’s iconography is almost universally the same leafy head carving. Besides pubs, he adorns stone wells and wooden roof bosses, but no myth or legend tells his story. He’s not obviously a mortal man or a god or a sprite, but he’s clearly a figure of power, typically shown blowing out the breath that animates the living world. Haley finds his analogues in English lore as shamanic Merlin, Gawain’s provocateur Green Knight, the outlaw Robin Hood, Shakespeare’s mischievous Puck, and even Mithras, the Indian god of renewal worshipped by Britain’s occupying Romans. In one church, she finds Jesus depicted in ecological aspect as the Green Man, his head swathed in leaves.

I see the carvings all over the place now. At a church in Abingdon, the verger points out for me a tiny Green Man carved into the quire stall: ‘Horrible pagan things,’ he says – it takes me a moment to realise he’s not joking. Here in Oxford, the tour guides point out a solitary lamppost in an alleyway by the university church, claiming that C S Lewis dropped it into his Narnia stories after noticing it after service one Sunday. Above the cottage door, just a few feet from the church, he noticed the porch braced by two carved fawns: that was Mr Tumnus. The carving on the door itself shows a large Green Man head with leaves so like a wild mane that it could be a lion: Aslan – Narnia’s allegorical Jesus.

Folklore lives where the civilised world and the wild world meet. It’s as if imagination wanders to the edge of town – out past the urban fringe where the rubbish piles up and cars are burnt out – and crosses over into the wildness. It returns enraptured or wounded or both, and we gather round to hear the tale. Gail Haley poured these stories and symbols into her own, invented Green Man legend. She picks up Robin Hood’s theme in one painting, for example, by having the prince walk past an amputee beggar playing a pipe. When the Green Man carries a calf across a stream in flood, he’s channelling St Christopher. Standing with a child, surrounded by trees that seem to lean in towards them in deference, he’s Jesus, answering the school assembly hall prayer to ‘bless all the dear children in thy tender care’.

Haley explains in the interview that she writes her books so that children can know their own traditions. She implies – rightly, in view of my Stratford-bound childhood – that our forcing-house education system and entertainment-saturated culture has long been pushing away our psychically rich, politically potent, primal stories. Gail Haley is a smuggler, sneaking them back in, re-membering a heritage that my teachers were never going to show me, or possibly even know about. I was unconscious of all the resonances that Haley sounded in her book, but I reverberated with them; they changed me.

All the same, The Green Man is more than a story cobbled together from forgotten legends. The book is a prism for the author’s own ecological vision: a natural abundance where all beings participate and belong, in which humankind must lose its hubris to find its place. Civilisation’s representative – the prince – has got himself lost not because he’s bad, Haley tells her interviewer, but because ‘he’s not paying attention’; ‘he’s uneducated and arrogant because of his position’. In becoming the Green Man, he moves past desires of dominance – past the rule of our own neoliberal-patriarchal-consumerist age – to find purpose in the service of the life to which he belongs. And what is the redemptive force? The spirit of the forest itself; the returning prince credits the Green Man with saving his life. And it is she whom I want to thank, rather than our folkloric tradition alone, for the rounded unity of peace, wildness, and hope that her book offered a child of nine.

Her own life was nothing like this when she was working on the book. Her partner at the time was like the prince, with an upper-class accent and excellent connections, but far nastier, ‘incredibly violent’. He was locking the door and beating her ‘black and blue’, as she puts it in her interview. He’d emptied the joint bank account, kidnapped the kids, and stole the paintings for The Green Man. He even stole their daughter’s uniform so she couldn’t start school (the uniform shop agreed to provide new clothes on credit). Haley had to hide in a women’s refuge. She finally got away for good, moving back to the States with her kids, her cats, and her paintings. ‘The Green Man has always been there to save my life,’ she says, ‘he kept me going through all of that.’ She had him tattooed on her back to symbolise ‘regrowth and renewal’.

When I go back to my parents’ house to dig the book out, I expect mum to tell me she took it to the charity shop twenty years ago, but it’s still kicking around. The all-colour cover has faded to a uniform pale green, though leafing through it I find the story’s as fresh as the first day I picked it up. Now I notice something new, though – a truth necessarily out of reach of my childhood mind, which the book seems to have held in trust for my adulthood. I had never understood why the Green Man left the forest. After all, this was where he found his contentment – his ‘wholeness’, as Haley puts it. In my ideal ending, he’d stayed there forever, but now I think I understand why he returns home in the manner of the prodigal son. It’s in the forest that’s he’s learnt to belong, but it’s in the town, here in the mess we call civilisation, that he’ll learn to live – now, finally, that he knows what his life is really about.

David Gee, April 2020.


[1] Afflatus = divine breath.

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