(For Part 1, “Little Green Men – ‘Green Children’ of Woolpit,” click here.)
Duncan Lunan’s 2012 book Children From the Sky, on the mystery of the “green children” of Woolpit, is a frustrating read. And that’s putting it very mildly.
Which is unfortunate, because Lunan is a very bright guy who has read widely and has a lot to say, much of it sensible. He’s been a science fiction writer and critic, author of a newspaper astronomy column, and an observatory curator. In a fascinating interview, he declares himself a believer in extraterrestrial life and past human contact with it–but also a disbeliever in UFOs, and “an atheist – not an agnostic: I firmly believe, for reasons which seem to me to be compelling, that there is no God.”
He admits that, embarrassing as it seems for an atheist, he’s had personal experiences of being “haunted” by entities beyond his understanding.
In other words, an out-of-the-box thinker. After reading the interview, I could hardly wait to plunge into Children From the Sky. I found a book that’s diffuse, verbose, clogged with details whose relevance I never understood, and so murkily written that, after completing its 427 pages (not counting the endnotes), I’m still not sure I can summarize its thesis accurately.
Here’s the mystery Lunan sets out to solve:
Sometime in the 12th century, harvesters in the fields near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, spotted two children, a boy and a girl, emerging from the “very ancient ditches” among those fields. “Their entire bodies were green,” according to the monastic historian William of Newburgh–who, as a critical 12th-century thinker, found it difficult to believe so wild a tale but was compelled to it by the weight of the evidence–“and they were wearing clothes of unusual colour and unknown material.”
Another monastic writer, Ralph of Coggeshall, told much the same story around 1220, some 25 years after William. His account seems independent of William’s–which I quoted at length in last week’s post–although the two share many details. Like William, Ralph tells how the children, although hungry, refused all food except beans, and then expected to find the edible parts in the stalks rather than the pods of the plants. Both writers agree that the boy died before very long but the girl survived, that both (or perhaps just the girl) were baptized, that they (or she?) gradually lost their green color. The children originally spoke some unknown language, but eventually they (or she?) picked up enough English to communicate with their hosts.
But Ralph gives a few details that William doesn’t. The children, he says, were initially taken “to the home, at Wikes, of the lord Richard de Calne, a sort of knight“; and, “remaining for many years on the staff of the aforesaid knight (as we frequently heard from the same knight and his family) [the girl] showed herself greatly wanton and lascivious.” (Or possibly, Lunan says, “wilful and independent”–I’m following his translation of Ralph’s Latin.) William tells us that the girl eventually married a man at Lynn (modern King’s Lynn in Norfolk), “and was said to be still living a few years ago.“ Ralph says nothing of this.
Where did the children come from? How did they get to Woolpit? We’ve already heard what William has to say about this. Ralph’s version is a bit different. Asked about her homeland, the girl “swore on oath that as many as all the inhabitants and all things that were held in that land/world were dyed with the colour green, and that they saw no sun, but were pleased with a certain light, as if happened after sunset. But asked by what means she had come into this land with the aforesaid boy, she said, because when animals were being followed, they went down into a certain cave. Having gone into it, they heard a certain delightful sound of bells; seized by that pleasant sound, they progressed by wandering through the cavern for a long time, until they arrived at the exit. When they emerged from there, as if astonished and made breathless with fear by the excessive brightness of the sun and the unaccustomed temperature of the air, they stayed for a long time over the rim of the cavern. When they were frightened by the strangeness of the men coming upon them, they wished to flee, but could by no means find the entrance of the cave, before they were captured by them.”
The perpetual sunless twilight of the children’s land … the role of ringing bells in the story of their transport … the detail that they were pasturing animals when it happened–William and Ralph agree on all this. Their divergences are at least as interesting.
Most strikingly, Ralph knows nothing of the children coming from “St. Martin’s land,” or their people being Christian and having churches. He doesn’t mention William’s “shining land” or “broad river.” In a way, Ralph’s story makes more sense than William’s, for if the children came from a Christian land–why did they need to be baptized?
On the other hand, Ralph’s version rationalizes the sudden, inexplicable transport (“as though we were out of our minds”) described by William. The children enter a cave, wander through it “for a long time,” and come out at Woolpit. It sounds like this might be a clue to a naturalistic explanation of the story–children from somewhere or other got lost in a cave. But according to Lunan, there are no suitable caves in Woolpit’s neighborhood.
Lunan is at his clearest in chapter 8, discounting the various theories. There seems no way to envision actual children who originate somewhere in the vicinity yet speak a language unintelligible to the Woolpit villagers. There are no known medical conditions that turn the skin green. We also need, says Lunan, “to shed the idea the children might have been alien, which somebody persists in adding to my Wikipedia page.” “Convergent evolution” or no “convergent evolution,” there’s no way extraterrestrial beings could mate with humans, as the green girl was said to do.
(The UFOlogists might disagree. We’ll come back to this in a later post.)
So the green children were human beings, but from somewhere other than this earth. How can that be?
On this point I find myself lost in Lunan’s details piled upon details, most of which seem to lead nowhere. But this is what I think he’s trying to say:
Some extraterrestrial race, identity unknown and motives unfathomable (at least to me), engaged in a massive project of abducting human beings and transporting them through a “wormhole” in space to some unimaginably distant planet which had been “terraformed” to replicate conditions on Earth. (With differences like that the sun never shone, explainable by the necessities of the “terraforming.”) Through some mysterious accident, two children of this human colony were yanked back through the “wormhole” to their home planet, there to be discovered and marveled at by the Woolpit villagers.
If I’m reading Lunan right, he actually seems to think that the extraterrestrials had the cooperation of certain elements within medieval society–he singles out the Knights Templar–who were familiar with and made use of their space-travel technology. (Echoes of the modern conspiracy theories in which the US government is secretly in cahoots with extraterrestrial abductors.)
“After 65 years of UFOs, it’s particularly appealing to imagine the Templars using windpower, waterpower and methane digesters runing on horse-dung, to charge up devices which let them walk between worlds–to go anywhere in the Galaxy that similar devices existed, without using spaceships at all–their sergeants ordering the servants to clean out the stables early because the Grand Master had to be on a planet of Tau Ceti by Vespers.” (p. 345)
More than one textbook on the Middle Ages would have to be revised, if this were so.
Does Lunan, who describes himself in his bio as having an interest in ancient and medieval history–and who has clearly done an enormous amount of research on every relevant topic–make anything remotely resembling a case for his mind-boggling hypothesis?
I don’t know.
That is my great frustration with Children from the Sky. After reading all 427 pages, I still don’t know.
by David Halperin
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