Alex Wright, IBT Executive Editor, spoke recently to Carolyne Larrington about her new book The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles (publishing September at £20) and the process of unearthing the delightful tales within.
ALEX: Carolyne, 2015 is a vintage year for you, with three new books and a paperback of your earlier IBT book on the Arthurian enchantresses all hitting the shelves pretty much at once. What’s admirable and unusual is that you seem to be equally comfortable with the register of academic or ‘scholarly’ writing as you are – as here in The Land of the Green Man – with writing for a more general audience. It looks very much, especially now that the material in TLGM forms part of ‘The Lore of the Land’ – a BBC Radio 4 series to be broadcast in the second week of September – that you are well on the way to celebrity (or at least recognition by a wider public than may sometimes be the case for an Oxford don!). You clearly enjoy writing books; but would you say that you got more satisfaction addressing your academic peers or interested non-specialists?
CAROLYNE: There’s a book of essays I’ve co-edited on emotion in medieval Arthurian literature coming out in November too, so it really is a bumper year for me. And as for writing for academic versus non-academic audiences, the answer is very much that I relish both. I have really enjoyed making quite complex and wide-ranging arguments calling on a variety of medieval European literatures, in my recent academic writing, but I also believe very strongly that those of us in the academy have an obligation, a moral duty even if that’s not too pompous, to communicate our discoveries, to talk about the things that fascinate us and why they are so wonderful, to a wider audience and readership. I’m particularly interested in what academics call ‘the narrative turn’, which might be glossed as telling stories, and making some arguments about the work that different kinds of stories do in historical and contemporary cultures, and that’s something that both academic and non-academic readers can grasp very easily.
AW: The Land of the Green Man offers its readers a rich cornucopia of mythological fauna. You make it very clear in the book that, from goblins and mermaids to hellhounds and dragons, these islands have been thoroughly shaped – at least in the landscape of its people’s collective imagination – by a wild, capricious, sometimes dangerous and usually untameable bestiary. It seems to me remarkable that such a relatively small landmass as the British Isles should have given rise to such imaginative diversity. Why do you think that is?
CL: The British Isles are made up of a palimpsest of stories, one layer written over another, going right back to the last Ice Age, I suspect – though of course we don’t know what the stories of the people who built Stonehenge were like. But ever since then, there have been wave after wave of different peoples – Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, and now South Asians and Caribbean folk – arriving on these shores. And all of them bring their own imaginations, their own stories with them; they people the land with spirits and transplant their tales. In his wonderful novel American Gods Neil Gaiman supposes that each immigrant group in the US brought with them their own gods, deities who are managing to make a living in all kinds of ways, provided that someone still has a need for them. And it’s the same here in Britain; we live among richly textured and densely storied landscapes, where all kinds of different tales can thrive, if they still have work to do.
AW: One of the strongest themes in the book is the need that people have to feel connected to a particular place. You write that the strength of our bonds to a place should never be underestimated. Why do you think this mutual interlocking of people and place is as strong as it is, and what does it say about the perennial urge that human beings have to be rooted in an earth or ground they can call home?
CL: Why does the heart lift on seeing a particular spot as we turn the final corner on the way home? I think this has partly to do with profoundly subconscious memories and sensory experiences which we amass in our young day, memories which replay the innocence and curiosity of childhood. Though I didn’t much like my boarding-school near Whitby, I still retain the strongest memories of school walks among hawthorns in blossom, of swimming in the Esk and feeling tadpoles wriggling between my toes, and of the view across the Esk Valley to the high tops of Sleights Moor when the heather was at its most purple, and my heart still bounds, I discovered when on the track of the Hart Hall Hob at Glaisdale recently, at the sight of the North Yorkshire moors, even though it isn’t my home territory. So it has to do with memory, with discovery of new sensations, and quite often to do with a sense of beauty too. And if you are reared without roots, as I was, finding that attachment to place later in life calls up powerful emotions – finally finding a place that feels like home.
AW: Another very strong theme you explore is that of loss. When I lived in Norfolk, probably because the coast of that county is in places so much at risk from coastal erosion, I became very interested in the fate of the lost town of Shipden, which fell into the sea after a violent storm in the Middle Ages and now lies a mile or so under the sea due north of Cromer. Why do you think we are still drawn so much to the lost or vanished places of the past? Is it because we are all pulled towards some collective folk-memory that has shaped the present and who we are now?
CL: One particular reason that the tale of the sunken city resonates so insistently in our imaginations is the recognition – one we keep thrusting away, but which keeps returning – that our own cities and towns are vulnerable to natural disaster, to the effects of climate change on sea-level. From the lost civilisation of Atlantis to the ruined continent of Valyria in the Game of Thrones mythos, we’re aware that there are inexorable forces which our cleverness and technological ingenuity won’t help us to overcome. This anxiety combines with what we might call the ‘Ozymandias effect’, the suspicion that ours is just one civilisation which succeeds so many great and glorious human achievements, now lying in ruin. If we are to love and cherish what we have, it’s important to be able to imagine what it would be like to lose it – whether that is a beloved child exchanged by the fairies, a mighty city sinking beneath the waves, or the luck and prosperity of the farm.
ALEX: Another chapter addresses the themes of ‘lust and love’. There’s a noticeable strand of eroticism in some of the tales you explore. You quote Christina Rossetti, who writes memorably in her poem Goblin Market of the fatal desire that girls might form for the juicy wares offered by strange little goblin men. It must have been easy, at a time before electric lighting, to imagine all sorts of sinister things lurking in the lane behind the church on a moonless night. Danger and desire seem to be intertwined in much writing about elves, goblins and other fantastical creatures of the British Isles. Can you explain what’s going on here?
CL: It’s easy nowadays, I think, to forget or to underestimate how powerful social and religious norms used to be before the nineteen-sixties, and how important they are still for some communities within our culture. And when social constraints operate to repress sexual desire or erotic curiosity, particularly for women, then those longings express themselves through indirect pathways. The idea of the elf-knight, faintly blowing his horn in the forest, heard by a girl who’s beginning to explore her sexual identity, who calls him to her – and then what? – speaks still to quite contemporary questions of managing male and female desire. Sexuality, these stories keep reminding us, is powerful and dangerous; but so too are other drives: motherhood, marital love, sibling bonds. Traditional stories are good at identifying ambiguities and sometimes resolving them, sometimes not. But they offer unusual ways of unpacking the things we think and the things we feel.
AW: For me, one of the most enjoyable legends you recount is bound up with the Rollright Stones, an ancient site close to where you live. The tale of the Whispering Knights, turned forever to stone by a playful and malevolent witch, seems to have some parallels with Camelot, the Arthurian legends and Morgan Le Fay. Of all the myths and legends that you discuss in your book, which is the one that you find the most captivating yourself?
CL: For me, I think it’s the various iterations of the ‘Lost Wife’, the evocation of the husband’s suffering and the quite chancy ways in which he manages to get her back. In the best-known version of the Greek myth of Orpheus, he fails in the rescue because he doesn’t trust the powers with whom he has made the bargain and his heart prompts him to take one last fatal look behind him to make sure that Eurydice is still there. I like the Middle English version in which Orfeo waits out his time in the wilderness, waiting for something to happen to open the crack between this world and the other world, and his calm shrewdness in keeping the Fairy King to his promise. That profound human hope that the lost loved one can be recovered, if only… the heart of the plot of Susanna Clarke’s wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so recently on TV… is the story that moves me most.
AW: Towards the end of your book you discuss the outlandish tale of the green children of Woolpit, whose story is first told by Ralph of Coggeshall in a Latin chronicle of 1210. The legend and its variations describe a boy and a girl discovered at the mouth of a cave who claimed to come from a strange twilight world to which they could no longer return, which seems to have been the land of Faery. Do you think this story, apart from being divertingly colourful and engaging, has any deeper meaning or significance? Caves and caverns seem to be liminal places in the British Isles, gateways to other worlds which are not always what they seem. Does the idea of there being boundaries between the seen and the unseen, the visible world and the intangible one, say something about the perpetual desire of human beings to transcend the limitations of time and space imposed on them?
CL: We are little creatures with a limited mortal span, and I think that we struggle with that fact in the depths of our consciousnesses. We know at some level that immortality would not do, that if we go off to Tir-n’an-Og, the Land of the Ever-Young with Niamh of the Golden Hair, however splendid the feasting there, eventually we would want to come home. And then we’d find that everyone we ever loved had gone, and that three hundred years had passed in enjoying the pleasures of the Other World. These tales about the unseen worlds, the parallel dimensions behind the mirror or ‘on the other side of the rain’ as Jonathan Strange poetically puts it, allow thought-experiments which ultimately help us to reconcile ourselves to being human, glorious, complex and tragic as that is.
The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles publishes 3rd September 2015
Carolyne Larrington is Fellow and Tutor in Medieval English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Her previous books include King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (I.B.Tauris); and Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children’s Books (edited with Diane Purkiss). You can follow her on Twitter: @profcarolyne
DON’T MISS: 7th–11th September, 1.45-2.00pm: ‘The Lore of the Land’, the BBC Radio Four series based on the book