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English magic: how folklore haunts the British landscape

The Land of the Green Man by Carolyne Larrington shows how supernatural stories can help us understand reality.

One harvest time during the chaotic reign of King Stephen, a farmworker in Woolpit, Suffolk, found a pair of children hiding in a pit. They were frightened. They couldn’t speak English and their skin was bright green. At first they wouldn’t eat anything but raw beans. The boy died. But the girl grew up, got married and learned English. She said they had come from a place called St Martin’s Land, where the sun never shone. They had heard a beautiful sound and followed it into a cave. When they came out of the cave they were in Suffolk. She knew now that the sound was the ringing of church bells. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton suggested that the children “fell from the Heavens”, so in The Man in the Moone (1638) – the first science-fiction book written in English – Francis Godwin made the rejected children of the moon-dwellers green. The pulp sci-fi idea of Little Green Men from outer space starts in a Suffolk autumn in the Middle Ages.

Caroline Larrington’s joyous celebration of English folklore delights in the way these stories bounce around the culture, never quite going away. She traces the history of changelings from the smoke of the fireside to Irvine Welsh’s Acid House. I was particularly pleased to see Lowestoft’s finest, the Darkness, get a mention for their take on the terrifying Black Dog of Blythburgh. There’s a direct line from the Scottish brownie to Harry Potter’s Dobby.

Some fictional characters – Dracula, say, or Peter Pan – are so vivid that they detach themselves from their origin and become part of our common heritage. But a folk tale is something different. It demands that we believe it has some truth in it. We go to see the claw marks of the Black Dog on the church at Blythburgh. We listen for the church bells of the drowned village. We want there to be a monster in the loch. We yearn to know that there really was a king called Arthur, even if he wasn’t all gussied up in armour and sitting at a round table.

Alan Garner – who deservedly gets a section of the book to himself – famously retold the legend of Arthur sleeping beneath the escarpment of Alderley Edge in Cheshire in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner has since then performed a kind of verbal archaeology on the story, which he originally got from his grandfather. He has scraped away the Arthurian additions and worked his way back to an ancient fertility ritual. He found a moment of ancient magic that continues to reverberate faintly in the place names, pub signs and information centres of suburban Greater Manchester. In an age of constant movement, there is something appealing about these place-specific stories. Larrington’s book really does describe a journey through the landscape (it has been adapted for radio, and would make a terrific TV series).

Sometimes the reality is emotional rather than historical. Larrington gives a wonderful account of changeling stories and speculates that these tales of disruptive impostor infants – who are flung into fires or streams or down wells in the hope that the fairies will return the stolen human child – give us a heartbreaking insight into ideas about disability or emotional disturbance.

This summer I walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall. At every landmark, you could watch people go through a series of actions as rigid as ritual. Park up. Climb up. Look into the distance, try to imagine what it was like before the A69. Go to the tea room. Conjecturing about Roman ruins is almost as old as the ruins themselves. Anglo-Saxon poetry is full of awestruck speculation about who could have built these great structures. The chief joy of Larrington’s book is that it takes those centuries of wondering as seriously as the original wonder.

Her account is both scholarly and sprightly but it has a poignant undertow. She is “an army brat” who comes from “nowhere”, and yet nearly all of these stories are tightly tied to a particular place. They are stories that explain place names and geographical oddities. They connect our brief human lives to a geological timescale. The local people are their custodians.

These become special places, but Larrington is alert to the idea of what makes them special – the misunderstandings, the superstitions, the rituals that grow up. If you walk up Alderley Edge you will find traces of many signs of ancient activity: old copper workings, knapped flints. But you will also find a miniature stone circle. Sometimes you’ll find people standing in the middle of it, feeling its ancient power, hoping for some kind of druidical connection. All this even though the local information leaflet informs you that the stones were plonked here by Alan Garner’s grandfather, a stonemason who thought it a decorative way to get rid of some stock after he over-ordered.

The titular Green Man falls into this category. There are lavish coffee-table books outlining the history of this ancient vegetation god – half man, half shrub – who gives us a glimpse of what our native religion was like, before the coming of Christianity, when we all lived in the greenwood and were supposedly at one with nature. Except, of course, he is no such thing. The Green Man dates back to 1939, when he appeared in a learned article by Lady Raglan of Llandenny, in Monmouthshire, who concocted him by conflating certain folk traditions with the foliate heads found in medieval churches. I usually find people who fall for this kind of “spiritual but not religious” stuff intensely annoying, but Larrington shows more tolerance as she observes the way we invented this newly ancient idea and used it to help us realign our relationship with the environment and our past.

According to the old story, the man who sleeps under Alderley Edge is an ancient chieftain – a remnant of our beginnings – who will return at the end of time. Not far away is the beautiful inverted dome of the Lovell Telescope, pointing out into the universe, searching for echoes of the Big Bang and evidence of the forthcoming Big Crunch. Living in an infinite universe, we search for beginnings and ends. The Land of the Green Man is a celebration of the long-living tales of a short-lived folk. 

The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles  is out now from I B Tauris (£20)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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