A figure of the commons and the wild places, the Green Man is for the rebels, the dissidents, the heretics and freedom fighters, writes Rebecca Tamás — not the monarchy.
Invitation to the coronation of Charles III, designed by Andrew Jamieson. Image: Buckingham Palace.
‘He is life and rebirth. He is the end and the start, for what is the grave but a cradle?’
‘To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.’
I was disturbed to see a Green Man illustration appear on the recent invitation for the coronation for King Charles III and Queen Camilla. The royal website states: ‘Central to the design is the motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign. The shape of the Green Man, crowned in natural foliage, is formed of leaves of oak, ivy and hawthorn, and the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom.’ Why, you might wonder, did this bother me so much? After all, the Green Man is, as the statement says, a ‘figure from British Folklore,’ used for a British monarch, and its symbolism of the environment and the natural world do have a connection to Charles’ personal image as an eco-King, as concerned with Britain’s natural places as he is with ruling his subjects.
But the inclusion of the Green Man rankled because this endlessly debated, endlessly fluxuating figure has to come to represent nature in its freest, wildest form; nature as it connects to humanity on the margins, in the wood, amongst the trees, on common land, together. The name ‘Green Man’ was first officially recorded in the work of Lady Raglan, in her article for The Folklore Journal in 1939, to describe the foliate stone heads found in churches all over the country, thought to represent an absorption of pagan, nature-god imagery into the Christian religion. But, as Raglan suggest, these foliate heads are only one part of a weave of association, folklore and myth that is studded throughout the unofficial history of the Green Man figure in this — a history that does not belong to monarchs and emperors, but to the people. Raglan suggests that:
‘[The carved foliate head] is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question of whether there was any figure from real life from which it could have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is only one of sufficient importance, the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland who is the central figure in May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe.’1
In Raglan’s description, we see a figure of folklore that is tricksy, rebellious and powerful, a dissident figure central to our rural imaginary, not one with the cosy overtones King Charles might have been hoping for. The Jack in the Green Raglan mentions, who we see in Mayday celebrations — a man within a huge wicker structure, covered in leaves — is a figure not only of birth but of destruction. I’ve seen myself at the Hastings May Day ritual, how, after a day of wild dancing, the Jack in the Green is ritually killed, his leaves ripped off and thrown into the crowd, as spring gives way to summer, and the potent, endless cycle of birth and death is played out. This is a moment of celebration laced with painful mortality, a recognition that we are vulnerable and fragile in the face of endlessly renewing nature. Robin Hood, another figure linked to the Green Man, may be a figure of swashbuckling children’s entertainment, but he is also a symbol of wealth redistribution, rebellion against tyranny, and free, utopian experiments with community, played out under the boughs of the greenwood trees.
Such dissident symbolism continues to this day, as writer Jo Livingstone argues in their essay The Remarkable Persistence of the Green Man: ‘over the last fifty years the Green Man has become a specifically countercultural icon. It was adopted by New Agers in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and recast by the changing status of folkloric imagery into a surprisingly durable alt icon. The Green Man Festival in Wales, for instance, which proudly identifies itself as “non-corporate,” was founded in 2003.’ The Green Man and his lineage have represented, and do represent, a spark of disobedience, a disobedience that rejects land enclosures, rulers and control, and that has made the Green Man such a popular figure, always transforming, always being reborn. I see his image at seasonal rituals, at environmental protests and at hippie celebrations, lively, joyful and present. The Green Man speaks to us of a bond with the land that transcends capital, ownership and pleasant, anesthetised ‘days out,’ a bond which burns in the mud and the soil with a dark and mutable flame.
Charles’ choice of the Green Man for his coronation is therefore not only misguided, but offensive. As The Guardian reported only last week, the late Queen and King Charles have received millions from land and estates in their unearned ‘duchies’ — land ownerships stemming from ‘archaic charters dating back to when the country was divided into medieval fiefdoms.’3 In 2022 ‘duchy income totalled £41.8m. Adjusting for inflation, the pair have received the equivalent of more than £1.2bn in total revenues from the two estates … Ever since the advent of parliamentary democracy … generations of MPs have challenged the arrangement and called for duchy profits to be paid to the Treasury instead.’4 The royals hold on to thousands of hectares of land through a quirk of our obsequious system, and refuse to let the public benefit from these spaces or their profits, even at a time of widespread poverty brought on by the cost of living crisis. Not only that, but these duchies are exempt from corporation tax and capital gains tax, ‘the result of a longstanding but ill-defined doctrine that exempts royal bodies from complying with swathes of British laws. That provides the duchies with commercial advantages over conventional property estates in the UK.’5 King Charles may adorn himself with the symbols of nature and wild freedoms, but he is actually nothing more than a grasping landlord, a power broker who holds onto the land of this nation for his own personal gain.
It has become apparent in the last few years that there is a strong and growing interest in British folklore, myth, rural customs and seasonal rituals. An example of this can be seen the research done by Jon Wilks, editor of Tradfolk, a folk culture website, who made a list of all the Wassailing events taking place in the UK in 20226, and found 61 separate celebrations of our apple trees— 61 ritual events where libations are given to the trees, songs are sung and cider is drunk in the hope of a good harvest. Everywhere we look, there is a resurgence of events such as these, which connect to the cycles of the natural world, and consider our space within them — suggesting that we might be partners in a web of life, rather than rulers at the head of nature. I would be far from the first person to intimate that this resurgence comes, in large part, from the knowledge that we are in a climate crisis– the recognition that our relationship with nature is in a terrible state, and that we need to find ways towards balance, respect and collaboration with the lifeworld of which we are a part. The growth of the Green Man, and his image, is part of this reckoning with the terrible damage capitalism has wrought, a confrontation with the fact that capital’s obsession with controlling and exploiting nature will lead to misery, destruction and horror for human and nonhuman alike.
For Charles to adorn his coronation invite with this symbol, when, as a hugely wealthy landowner, and unelected inheritor of money, security and status, he represents the opposite of everything the Green Man stands for, is disgusting. He has stolen the Green Man from those who should be sheltered by its rough yet enchanted history at a time of environmental collapse, just as he has stolen his money and jewels and palaces from his British and colonial subjects. For all his ‘passion for nature,’ he is, at heart, just another monarch-exploiter, a kidnapper of symbols and public trust, part of a long chain of hierarchal rulers who abuse their power. The Green Man is of the commons and the wild places, is for the rebels, the dissidents, the heretics and freedom fighters, and is at home in communities of human and nonhuman kin; those who want to share the earth together, grow together, and live in balance.
I hope that the Green Man’s kidnapped image will flicker out, freeing itself from the misguided invitations, escaping through the haze of bunting and confetti, to haunt the King and his coronation, and to haunt his reign beyond. I hope that its green leaf-ridden voice might echo in the thicket, the river, the hedge and the wood, to remind Charles that nothing lasts — that everything, however old, however powerful, will burn down to ash and fall away. And that, whatever the rulers and the oligarchs and the landlords might want us to think, a new way to live can always be born.
1 The Folklore Journal, 1939.
Rebecca Tamás is the author of the poetry collection ‘WITCH’ (Penned in the Margins, 2019), which was a Poetry Society Choice and a Paris Review Staff Pick, and the environmental essay collection ‘Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’ (Makina Books, 2020), which was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at City University London.