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.

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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 appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War