Who, or what, is the Green Man, and why is this medieval image so present in our precarious modern times? An encounter with the Green Man at an ancient Herefordshire church in the wake of catastrophic weather leads Nina Lyon into an exploration of how the foliate heads of Norman stonemasons have evolved into today’s cult symbols. The Green Man’s association with the pantheistic beliefs of Celtic Christianity and with contemporary neo-paganism, with the shamanic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and as a figurehead for ecological movements sees various paths crossing into a picture that reveals the hidden meanings of twenty-first-century Britain. Against a shifting backdrop of mountains, forests, rivers and stone circles, a cult of the Green Man emerges, manifesting itself in unexpected ways. Priests and philosophers, artists and shamans, morris dancers, folklorists and musicians offer stories about what the Green Man might mean and how he came into being. Meanwhile, in the woods strange things are happening, from an overgrown Welsh railway line to leafy London suburbia. Uprooted is a timely, provocative and beautifully written account of this most enduring and recognisable of Britain’s folk images.
Published by Faber and Faber.
An eARC of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I need to preface this review with the fact that I am a pagan (specifically, I’m studying druidry through the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and I consider my spirituality a living religion. These things are going to give some bias to how I read and reacted to this book, and not everyone is going to come at it from the same place.
Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man is, on the surface, a journey exploring the idea of the Green Man, the foliate male face which is associated with British folklore and found in many buildings, including churches. I picked this book up because of a personal interest in the imagery and idea of the Green Man (I have several reproductions of Green Men in my house) and because of a general interest in writing about nature and nature spirituality (Robert McFarlane’s books are a personal favourite, to get an idea of my tastes).
There is a lot in this book. The reader follows Lyon as she searches for Green Men in a variety of places, including England and Germany, and as she passes through groups of many people. She refers to many spiritualities and philosophies, and presents the reader with a literal forest of ideas loosely grounded upon the idea of the Green Man. She talks to many people about her quest, from priests to morris dancers, and even toys with the idea of starting her own fertility cult to return some kind of worship of the Green Man to the modern world (the mothers at school aren’t so keen on that idea).
Lyon seems sincere in her desire to explore nature spirituality, but for me the tone of the book tends, at times, to detract from this sincerity. There’s a strong thread of humour, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell if she’s laughing with or at her subjects, and the treatment of living nature spiritualities is often superficial. She certainly seems to have an awareness of druidry and shamanism, for example, but doesn’t seem to have gone too far into exploring what either of them mean as a living practice, which was often frustrating for me. Most likely other readers who aren’t deeply steeped in paganism studies may not have an issue with this.
It also would have been of benefit for everything she talks about to be properly referenced. There is so much covered in this book, which would make it an ideal starting point for someone to begin the exploration of nature spiritualities, and it would have been nice to give, at the least, a list of books and places which she found useful along the way. It should also be noted that Lyon uses initials to refer to people she talks about – presumably for privacy reasons – which was fine, except where it became easy to mix up who she was talking about, or she talked about a book that someone had written, and the reader has no way of tracking down what that book or who the author was.
Overall, I did enjoy this book, and would recommend it to others, especially if they’re looking for a gateway into exploring nature and nature-based spirituality. If you’re well read in pagan studies, you might want to look elsewhere, but likely you’ll find at least a few pieces of wisdom here.