Faber & Faber, 2016
pbk: 304 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
At the beginning of this book, as Lyon recalls setting out, in the puddly aftermath of a massive flood, for a return visit to Kilpeck in the Welsh borderlands, to mark the beginning of her search for the Green Man of myth and folklore, she writes: I was not in a mood for finding God or redemption, or, for that matter, its pagan equivalent. I was interested more in how to simply understand a relationship with nature and the land in which both were considered to be alive, and not just alive but conscious.
Unlike the other books I have read about the Green Man—that ubiquitous but endlessly varied symbol that takes the form of a human face sprouting greenery—this one is impossible to pigeonhole and its message is hard to pin down in a few sentences. But for me, that’s somewhat appropriate. The Green Man is unpindownable. Not just because his origins are so ancient and so complex but because he represents something that is still alive and real and omnipresent. Despite humankind’s efforts to ‘conquer’, ‘tame’ and ‘manage’ Nature, Nature resigns supreme—because of course we are Nature, subsumed within it, just like everything else in the living world.
So, whether or not that was her original intention, what this author has produced, as a result of her journeying around the UK and other parts of Europe in search of the Green Man – and her amusing but often rambly and confusing meanderings through history, literature, folklore, religion, sex, magick, shamanism, metaphysics and endless speculative cogitation – is a book in which the Green Man is never pinned down, yet ever present. He flits between the pages, appears out of nowhere—sometimes in the unlikeliest of places and in the middle of human interactions—to remind us that since he embodies the spirit of Nature he, too, is everywhere that life exists—which of course is everywhere.
His laughter seems to echo all down through the text and his elusive presence permeates every chapter. If you want to get a feeling for what the Green Man really is, don’t simply go to books of myths and folklore or to stone carvings in rural churches, though their often sneaky presence there is always a delight to discover, but go to the forest, as this author does—to her own special forest where she and her children build a tiny temple of sorts—and listen to it breathing. See, as Lyons does, the image of an old car body being quietly consumed by brambles…dismembered by rain and air and plants in less than a human lifespan. The stone corbels and other images of that leaf-encrusted face may be centuries old but the Green Man is immortal and lives among and within us, sometimes in some unexpectedly modern forms. We may never understand him with our minds, but with our bodies we do, and probably always have. He is forever with us, whether we realize it or not. And right now, he brings a message.
For the revival of interest in the Green Man in this time of climate change coincides with the realization that we humans are really not all that smart and may well have doomed ourselves to extinction by our own hubris, our own false belief that we were in charge. As the author says: We needed to get over ourselves and find ourselves again, our smaller selves, entwined with the selves of all other things.