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The Green Man

This short piece was commissioned for the book Icons of England, edited by Bill Bryson and published by Black Swan in 2010


I have seen his face everywhere, for longer than I can remember. High up on the stone roofs of great cathedrals. On the bench-ends of ancient pews. Carved into the lintels of churches from the last millennium. In the pages of books and on websites and sometimes, it seems, in the trees themselves at night in high summer. He is older than the trees; older, probably, than England itself. But he is still out there.

He is the Green Man, and his face can be seen carved into churches all over England, in a thousand variants. At his most basic he is a human face surrounded by woodland foliage. In his more pagan, florid, guise his mouth, eyes and nose sprout leaves, shoots and branches. Sometimes he is sinister. Sometimes he is comical or beguiling.

Who is he? We don’t know. What we do know is that this symbolic melding of Man and Nature is very ancient indeed. Some have speculated that he is the remnant of some ancient fertility cult, others that he is a devil or a god. Some believe he is a Christian symbol; others claim him for the druids, the Anglo-Saxons, the builders of the megaliths.

Why is he here? Again, we don’t know. Green men are not a specifically English phenomenon: they can be found, in various guises, all over Europe and as far afield as Nepal, Mesopotamia and Borneo. But why is he most commonly found, in England, in old churches? Is he a representation of the devil; the Church playing its old trick of co-opting pagan gods to represent its own version of evil? Is he a snook being cocked at Christianity by pagan-minded stone workers? Is he even – my favourite theory – a symbol of political resistance? Green men occur most notably in Norman churches, and it has been suggested that they were representations in stone of English resistance to the Norman Conquest of 1066. For a decade after that date, English rebels were at large in the forests, fighting a guerrilla war against their new masters. The Normans called them ‘silvatici’ – men of the woods. Did supportive stonemasons carve their faces into the new Norman buildings in solidarity?

Perhaps. But in the end the Green Man is an archetype, as old as the downs and the dales. He is all of us, and he reminds us of our place in the landscape and its place within us. In an age of environmental crisis he still watches over us; chides us, perhaps, for what we have become and what we are doing. He takes us back to basics: back to the greenwood where all life is born and to where it will all, eventually, return.