I’m not sure what stands out for you when you think of the late 1990s – DeLillo’s Underworld? The dot-com bubble? Titanic? – but for me it’s two things: working (somewhat reluctantly) in New Age publishing and going (not at all reluctantly) to raves. It isn’t a period I think about very much now, but when I received a copy of Carolyne Larrington’s new book about British folklore, The Land of the Green Man, with its mystical cover image, I experienced a very strong flashback. Despite appearances, though, this is no ‘woo-woo’, joss stick-smelling, cod-esoteric guide to channelling one’s inner nature spirit (such books do exist – I edited one), nor a flyer for an event promising tribal drumming and Goa trance DJs all night, secret location TBC. Instead, it is a fascinating, accessible and, dare I say it, rather sensible exploration of the place of folklore in the British Isles and the folklore of place.
Larrington teaches medieval English literature at St John’s College, Oxford; her previous book was King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan & Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition. She also has a special interest in Old Icelandic literature, and her revised and expanded translation of the Old Norse collection The Poetic Edda is now the standard text. She is not a folklorist, and The Land of the Green Man benefits from that: her perspective is broad enough to take in not just the canon of British folklore with its arcane classification system (‘Tale Type 415’), but also Keats, Conan Doyle, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the Harry Potter books. Giving the stories that still shape us as a nation their full cultural and imaginative context is the central triumph of this book.
The Land of the Green Man is divided into six sections: ‘The Land Over Time’ (stories about how landscape features developed), ‘Lust & Love’, ‘Death & Loss’, ‘Gain & Lack’ (which includes tales that deal with employment and labour), ‘The Beast & the Human’ and finally ‘Continuity & Change’ (considering folklore that expresses hopes and anxieties about history and human culture). There are stories from all parts of the British Isles and from further afield, too, when they have a bearing on local legend. Here are warring giants, black dogs, powerful smiths, mischievous fairies, wild hunts, white ladies, seductive elves, witches, water-horses, wolves and selkies, knights and dragons, brownies and boggarts, changelings, wodwos and magical wild hares. Larrington teases out the meanings of each story with a straightforward respect that makes you look at them anew, not as quaint artefacts from a less well-informed past, but as ways of engaging with questions we are still trying to answer today. What makes a marriage work? How should we treat those in our employ? What does the next generation need to know?
Books written by academics for a general readership aren’t always a success. Sometimes their authors aren’t able to leave behind the passive voice, or only do so with a level of discomfort that remains palpable in the text. Sometimes they go too far the other way in an effort to be down with the kids, resulting in a work that patronises its readership. But in The Land of the Green Man Larrington gets the tone just right. She opens in the first-person present, giving us a glimpse of her walking her dog in south Oxfordshire, but shifts into the first-person plural for the rest of the book, lending it a confiding air that recalls the experience of being in a lecture hall with a particularly interesting tutor. It makes her easy, likeable company and it’s no surprise that the book’s publication was accompanied by a series of programmes on Radio 4.
What’s less consistent is the depth in which each theme is explored. In the most satisfying sections Larrington gives us a detailed precis of a particular folk tale, fitting it into its contemporary context and describing any variants, then exploring the anxieties or issues it embodies and pointing us towards modern retellings. There are real moments of insight to be had when she lets each subject breathe – as she does brilliantly, for example, with the story of True Thomas. But some chapters, notably ‘The Beast & the Human’, cram in too much, leaping from one story to the next without time for each to sink in and referring to other legends and tales not treated in the book in a way that risks leaving the casual reader bewildered. Perhaps for those versed in folklore, a discussion of Sadb the Deer-Woman obviously leads to Niamh of the Golden Hair, which leads to the Pig-Headed Princess, fier baiser stories, the Laidly Worm and the ballad ‘Kemp Owyne’; but I would have preferred just a couple of examples explored in more depth. Conversely, when she arrives at the Green Man, a discussion foreshadowed at the start of the book and a figure with renewed significance for many writers today (including me), she rushes it, pointing out – quite rightly – that the idea of the Green Man as an avatar for the environment is a modern construction, but offering no insight into his ancient meaning or why his foliate head is found carved in so many churches across Europe.
These are minor quibbles, though. The Land of the Green Man is an immensely readable tour through the folklore of the British Isles, one that will have you wondering, next time you’re doing ‘big fish little fish’ at an outdoor rave, whose face it really is staring out from the flyer, which giant created the rolling hills around you, and whether the repetitive beats you’re dancing to aren’t in fact the pounding feet of the Wisht hounds come to bear you away.