“Heard about the Jolly Green Giant
He’s so big and mean
Well, he stands there laughin’ with his hands on his hips
And then he hits you with a can of beans.”
—The Kingsmen (1965)
OK, now we’re getting a little bit ridiculous. Aren’t we?
This is the problem with doing comparisons, especially with Jungian sorts like me, for whom those comparisons range all over the globe. The circle of associations keeps expanding; you don’t know where to stop. As the circle gets wider and wider, it’s bound to take in all sorts of pseudo-correlations by pure chance. At the end, you don’t know which are the significant links, which the coincidental.
Is there a meaningful connection between the Jolly Green Giant of canned- and frozen-vegetable fame and the “little green men” of the UFOs, or the “green children” of 12th-century England–or between the little green men and the green children? (Or with the Islamic green saint, al-Khidr, whom we’ll get to in a few weeks.) The number of colors is limited, after all. There’s bound to be a huge number of things that are all green, yet have nothing to do with each other.
It would have been nice if William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, the monastic historians who are our primary sources for the medieval “green children,” had called them homunculi virides, “little green men.” Then I’d have a solid verbal equation to support my intuition that the two sets of anomalous creatures belong together at some level of the human (un)consciousness. But alas, the Latin word used is pueri, “children.” Is a “child” functionally the same as a “little man”?
Martin Kottmeyer, drawing on the research of UFOlogist Chris Aubeck, quotes some early 20th-century literary uses of the “little green men” (or “man”) that might possibly connect them with the green children. From the Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent of May 24, 1924, comes an installment of Olive Roberts Barton’s serial “Adventures of the Twins” entitled “The Little Green Man”:
“Down the beanstalk came the Twins from Beanstalk Land. Not like Jack had done the time the giant chased him, but slowly and carefully, reaching down with their toes to find safe places to put their feet. Suddenly one of the big beans opened and out came a little green man. ‘Hello,’ he nodded pleasantly. ‘Can’t you come in a minute?'”
The little man turns out to be the Beanstalk Fairy, and the “big green bean-pod” his house. Surely this is somehow linked to the green children’s insistence on eating nothing but beans, which they vainly look for in the stalks but then are shown in the pods? Or surely not. The association between green beings and bean-pods seems a fairly obvious one, which could be expected to crop up independently more than once over the centuries. No profound connection need be sought.
(Yet it’s odd–widening the circle for a moment–that in his earliest incarnations the Green Giant seems to have been a diminutive creature in a bearskin carrying an enormous pea pod, and in fact the phrase “Green Giant” originally referred to the peas rather than to any character associated with them. See the pictures at the bottom of this post. The “Adventures of the Twins” story reminds us that there’s a fairy tale in which a giant is connected to a beanstalk. But that giant isn’t green, so I can feel the circle expanding beyond all proper limits. And is it the distinction between peas and beans that we ought to focus on? Or their resemblance?)
Another of Aubeck’s items, however, makes me sit up and take notice. It’s from the Harrisburg (Illinois) Daily Register, and it’s dated May 22, 1947, about a month before flying saucers erupted onto the national consciousness. It’s headlined, “Green Skin.”
“Little green men do not exist solely in nightmares. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the complexions of the Punans, natives of Borneo, have a greenish hue because they never expose themselves to direct sunlight, but live perpetually in the half-light of the forest.”
Can someone with a pre-1947 edition of the Britannica tell me whether this nonsense is actually to be found there? The Punans of Borneo are real enough, but my Googling has turned up no reference to their supposedly greenish skin. It makes no sense that lack of exposure to sunlight should turn their skin green.
But maybe not nonsense. A myth in modern dress, rather, in which I hear echoes of the mysterious “St. Martin’s land” from which the green children came, which “obtains very little light from the sun’s rays, but is satisfied with that measure of its brightness which in your country precedes its rising or follows its setting” (William of Newburgh).
Unlike the bean-pod / little-green-man link, this doesn’t strike me as an obvious association, its recurrence unimportant. I’d guess we have here a clue to the hidden mental processes that created the green children in the 12th century, the little green men in the present.
So where does the Jolly Green Giant fit in? If at all? I gladly admit the possibility that he’s not a piece of this puzzle. (Not, however, because he’s big and the little men are … well, little. The giant and the miniature share common ground, in that both are violations of normal human size. The same unconscious thoughts, desires, and fears may be expressed by both.)
What I won’t admit is that this is a silly or trivial question, fit to be dismissed with a Giant ho-ho-ho. There’s something compelling, mythic about the Giant, that probably accounts for his being (according to Advertising Age magazine, quoted on a website I can’t vouch for but have no reason to doubt) “the third most recognizable advertising character of the 20th century, behind only Ronald McDonald and the Marlboro Man.”
I first made his acquaintance when I was about 5 years old, in the early 1950s, in my grandmother’s kitchen. I found him scary, and also disturbing in a way I still can’t put my finger on. I don’t think I’m alone in this reaction. It was apparently a persistent problem for the Green Giant Company, how to keep him from frightening people. “She looked at him,” says the 1965 song by the Kingsmen, quoted at the beginning of this post, “and she almost passed out from fright.” The song is meant to be funny, and in a crude way it is funny. But puts its finger on the aggression and hostility latent in the figure.
I think of the “green man” who haunts the decorations of medieval churches, the spooky being whose flesh morphs into foliage. “The despair and anguish expressed in some of the faces is even more disquieting because it is so human,” scholar Kathleen Basford writes of this creature. “The evil is so much more frightening because it is human as well as diabolical. It is when the fantasy is expressed most naturalistically that it seems most eerie and touches us most powerfully.”
“Green man” = “Jolly Green Giant”? Or, more accurately: the modern Jolly Green Giant a transmutation of the medieval “green man,” much as the “little green men” in flying saucers are modern incarnations (maybe) of the medieval “green children”? Can all these entities be combined into a single chain? The green children, Duncan Lunan assures us, have nothing to do with “the ‘Green Man’ of the old pagan religion, featured in church carvings for 1700 years, commemorated on pub signs and by the Green King brewery of Bury St. Edmunds.” I’m not so sure.
But maybe that’s just my irrepressible urge to expand the circle.
That’s the essential problem, isn’t it? How to fix the criteria for determining when something has anything to do with something else.
(To be continued–in two weeks–I’m taking a break from blogging for the week of February 9-13.)
by David Halperin
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