This blog, Finding the Green Man, was inspired by a self-portrait of my father and his lifelong commitment to art.
The Green Man is also a legendary pagan deity, a symbol of rebirth and the cycle of growth each spring. As a carved figure on cathedrals throughout England and Europe, he is usually depicted as rather fierce, often just the face, peering through or made from leaves and petals. In medieval England a costumed green man would lead parades and ceremonies, carrying a club of fire and spraying sparks and flames on the passing crowd, hence the association of the green man with pyrotechnics.
Images of the pagan deity don’t really bring my father or his art to mind. Dad's eyebrows might be described as foliate, though brushy or bristly seem more apt.
Most references to the Green Man appear to stem from the mythical deity. Along with other legendary figures, such as the Black Horse and the Headless Woman, the Green Man has long been a popular name for English public houses or pubs and is also the name of several breweries and at least one Tyre & Exhaust shop.
Instances of the Green Man in music, literature and film as either title or setting, or both, abound. A few examples bear special mention.
The Green Man is a 1956 movie starring Alastair Sim as a "jovial freelance assassin" (a pleasing threesome of words not often strung together). The cheery killer for hire masquerades as a watchmaker and plans to blow up a British Cabinet minister at the Green Man Hotel. His plans are accidentally foiled by a vacuum cleaner salesman. As one might expect, shenanigans and hijinks ensue, punctuated by some notable dentistry or lack thereof. Speaking of dentistry, the film also boasts Terry Thomas, beloved for his gap-toothed portrayals of cads, toff and bounders.
The Green Man is also a 1969 novel by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995, author of over 20 novels, including Lucky Jim and One Fat Englishman, also poetry, short stories and other works). Amis' The Green Man, which takes place in an historic coaching inn, is a bricolage of horror, ghost story, mystery, moral fable, parody and more; the mash-up of genres may explain why I found it such a perplexing read a few years back. Though, having just now rediscovered my yellowed paperback on the upstairs bookcase, I am determined to read it again. The first page is enticement enough with, among other things, a recitation of some of the menu items on offer at the inn, such as eel soup, pheasant pis (typo or archaic spelling for pie?), saddle of mutton and caper sauce and treacle roll.
He had me at treacle roll, which I imagine relies on a good, sturdy sponge, as so much British baking seems to do; having just binge-watched a season of The Great British Baking Show I was amazed at the plethora of sponge--rolled, piled and otherwise deployed. I had no idea.
As further inducement to reread The Green Man, I came across a reference to Amis' novels as being distinguished by a certain "fogeyishness" and while it doesn't seem to have been intended as a particularly complimentary descriptor, it appeals to me as something we don't see enough of nowadays.
The Amis novel was adapted in a 1990 BBC series with Albert Finney, an accomplishment not noted with any prominence in Finney's biography though reviewers of the television series describe it as more accessible and entertaining than the novel, a reference that leads me to infer that I wasn't the only one stumped by the book on the first go round.
Other references to green men abound. Here are some--by no means comprehensive--highlights:
Several DC Comics superheroes.
The Pennsylvania urban legend of an unfortunate electrocution victim.
The illuminated green figure on traffic lights that indicates to pedestrians that they may cross the road.
Little green men, as meaning guys from outer space.
A communications device at unstaffed police stations in the Republic of Ireland (interesting, right?)
Supporters of the Vancouver Canucks.
A folk music festival.
Many new-agey bookstores and shops.
Perhaps the abundance of green men in culture and history is common knowledge; it wasn't to me. I stumbled on much of this information a few years back when I was working on a mystery novel with the working title The Green Man and was curious whether the title had already been used. Obviously it had been, many times.
I have since abandoned my mystery novel (for good reason) but remain enamored of the title and may yet use it one day. If and when I do I will be joining a grand tradition dating back a thousand years and one that is more distinguished, and varied, I would hazard, than the many allusions that also exist to blue men, red men and yellow men, all of which seem mainly noteworthy for body paint or the donning of spandex bodysuits, and other, uglier, allusions.
The Green Man lives.
Dorothy, author of GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK, blogs about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman and a writer of a certain age in a youth-centric universe.