These Green Man books are rooted in British folklore – but what does that actually mean?

I grew up with folklore as a core element of my reading. I don’t just mean the fairy stories that everyone knows, taken from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, commodified and sanitised by Disney. My local library and the primary school bookshelves had numerous collections of folk tales alongside other reading – and as I was reminded just last week by Simon Spanton posting this Book of Goblins cover on Twitter, they were often collected by authors who had written other books on those shelves. Then there were the older books; the collections of fairy tales by Andrew Lang, and George Macdonald’s stories. Victorian editors had softened the sharp edges of these tales, but they couldn’t do away with the strangeness, and that was so often reflected by illustrators like Arthur Rackham in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Some of these collections were themed – goblins, giants, witches – while others were regional – tales from the Orkneys, from Cornwall or Wales, to name but a few that I recall. Either way, these stories belonged in the world where I was living rather than some fantasyland, even if I couldn’t see what was going on in the shadows. As a voracious reader, I saw no division between these traditional stories and the fantasies written by Tolkien, Lewis and Garner. There were the same otherworldly beings in the Hobbit, Narnia and underneath Alderley Edge after all: wizards, goblins, elves. The folklore books also had darker, scarier things, and stories with uneasy endings that didn’t offer the consolation of some of those fictional narratives…

As an adult, I turned to reading scholarly and still very readable analyses of folklore, by writers such as Diane Purkiss. As a fan of local museums, and of National Trust and English Heritage visits, I would pick up books of local tales collected by antiquarians and enthusiasts. I began to see the depth and breadth of the folklore that still endures in rural England. I continue to see the extent of such mythology’s influence, as I recognise these stories from passing mentions in literature from Shakespeare to Kipling and right up to the present day.

At the same time, I come across half-tales and references that make it clear how many stories have faded away for lack of telling, leaving only tantalising traces. I discovered that mystic beings we think of as ancient archetypes have been recreated comparatively recently. The Green Man, the Horned Hunter, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Oh, the images are ancient, but the tales that went with them have all but vanished. Looking at the ways these things have been reimagined, when and by whom, is an ongoing fascination.

All told, these varied aspects of our folklore legacy offer me tremendous scope as a writer. I am able to draw on a familiarity with traditional fairy-tale creatures and themes that readers may not even be aware they have acquired. At the same time, I have a free hand to weave in those stray fragments and the strangeness that I come across to enrich my new story with surprises. As I write these particular books, I become more and more aware that I’m working in an age-old tradition as I do so.

Cover art and design by Ben Baldwin

2 comments

  1. One heartbreak (among many) of growing up as an American kid is that it always felt like we had no magic, that all the magic was in England. All the magical books of my childhood were by English authors–Wonderland, Narnia…we had great sci-fi set in the US but the real magical fantasy worlds all seemed born in England. I’m trying to find the magic in my area (Kentucky) and it’s here but it’s such a different variety (granny witches, the Goatman, the Mothman) that it’s hard to recognize and appreciate. But the grass is always more magical on the other side of the fence. You inspire me to dig into my own area and find our own magic. Can’t wait for THE GREEN MAN’S SILENCE. Finding these books during COVID has been a blessing.

    1. That’s an interesting observation – an American friend of my mother did give me an Edward Eager book as a kid, The Thyme Garden, but that draws on UK history even though the protagonists are from the US. I’ll be interested to know what you find. Meantime, happy reading, and you are naturally most entirely welcome as regards these books 🙂

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