We end where we began: 12th-century Woolpit, England, where there suddenly appeared two green children who can’t have existed but sound like they should have. Whom 17th-century writers like Robert Burton and Francis Godwin, intoxicated by their own era’s discovery of alien worlds in the sky, tried to rationalize as extraterrestrial visitors.
In an earlier post in this series, I quoted a 2006 article by medieval historian and archaeologist John Clark, “‘Small, Vulnerable ETs’–The Green Children of Woolpit.” I was delighted to receive, a few days later, an email from John Clark containing a link to his superb monograph, “The Green Children of Woolpit,” which he’d just posted to the website academia.edu. As far as I’m concerned, Clark’s scholarly, imaginative, beautifully written study is the last word on the “green children.”
Of course he can’t explain them.
“The mystery of ‘the green-hued wanderers among the sheaves’ … inspires all who would interpret it afresh for a modern audience,” he writes at the end. “Meanwhile, those who seek a ‘down-to-earth’ (or even extraterrestrial) explanation of the events will find scope for endless speculation, but probably ultimate disappointment.”
Yet what a journey Clark treats us to! No need for a summary–you can read it yourself with one click. He analyzes the two primary versions of the story, by monastic writers William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, and weighs the evidence for their relation to one another. (Conclusion: they’re not quite as independent as appears at first sight.) He gives a lucid account of what we know about Richard de Calne, the knightly landowner who hosted the two small strangers and later employed the girl–“wanton and lascivious,” as we’re told she later became–in his household. He explores the intriguing detail that the children claimed to come from a place called “St. Martin’s Land,” and suggests, with all due tentativeness, that “Martin” may really have been … Merlin.
Clark isn’t very sympathetic to modern efforts to rationalize the story, to turn it into a slightly distorted account of basically mundane events. He shows–as Duncan Lunan had, in his far less satisfying book on the “children from the sky”–that the medical condition the Victorians called “chlorosis” won’t get us very far in understanding the green skins. There doesn’t seem to be any medical condition that will account for the children’s coloration. (Yet I can’t forget that one lady posted to my Facebook Fan Page last January 9 that “my brother turned green 2 months before he died of liver cancer.” Possibly a clue?)
“It is difficult to conclude that [the story] is wholly fiction,” Clark says. “Yet, as we shall discuss below, it includes apparent folktale elements, elements that are familiar in traditional literature. It is tempting to strip away apparent accretions in the hope of revealing a core of historical ‘truth’–but ‘accretions’ and ‘core’ are too well integrated. We are left with a conviction that something happened, but an uncertainty as to exactly what.” (p. 66)
After this series of posts, I’m forced to a similarly inconclusive conclusion. I have a powerful impression that the otherworldly green entity–a flying saucer pilot, or a “wanton” green girl or an ascetic Islamic saint or a little man torn to pieces by dogs in a Texas cotton field–is a constant in the human psyche, cropping up in different times and places in varying guises. (Female UFOnauts have been known to be pretty strongly on the “wanton” side, although the lady I’m thinking about wasn’t green.) But where the entity comes from, what significance he/she/it bears for those who tell the story–these I have to leave unresolved.
In some ways, Clark leaves me even more puzzled than I was before. He seems to be the first to have noticed how baffling it is that the children are said to have grabbed bean plants “and looked for the beans in the stalks, but when they found nothing in the hollow of the stalks they wept bitterly.” How, he asks, would the children have recognized bean-plants as food-bearing plants, yet not known where to find the edible parts?
He points out that, when the children claimed to have come from a world without sunshine, this was in response to a direct question about whether the sun rose in their homeland–and I’m left wondering why it should have occurred to anyone to ask such a thing.
One of the most fascinating parts of Clark’s essay is the medieval story’s impact on fiction writers in the 17th century (Godwin) and again in our own times. He speaks of a 1935 novel (The Green Child) and another from 2003, a children’s opera from 1990 and a play from 1996 (Wolfpit), all more or less inspired by the story. There’s a 1997 song, “Green Children,” based on a version that sets the action in 19th-century Spain: “The strangest sight, there alone they stood / With skin of green and words no one had heard / … And wove a tale of a dyin’ sun, they left the darkness / Dark world come undone.”
(Click on the video at the bottom of this post to hear the song.)
Have these writers somehow preserved bits of the unconscious content hidden in the original tale? Clark suggests as much in his discussion of a 1981 story by John Crowley, “The Green Child.” Unexpectedly, a bit of folklore crops up in this “rather pedestrian” retelling: the idea that fairy-folk and mortal humans mustn’t eat each other’s food, for if they do, they’ll never be able to return to their homeland. Clark quotes an extraordinary passage from the story, describing how the green girl accepts a bowl of milk from a kindly peasant woman:
“She took it now, with a kind of reverent fear, and as carefully as though it were mass-wine, she drank some. She gave the bowl back to the woman, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, her face frightened yet resolute, as though she had drunk poison on purpose. … Years later the woman would look back and try to remember if the girl had ever cried again; and did not remember that she ever had.”
I don’t quite get goosebumps from reading that passage, but close to it. A sign, I take it, that the modern writer has tapped into the depths of the medieval story–into the depths of the collective mind from which the story emerged. From those alien realms inside us from which the UFOs, with or without little green men at the controls, are our persistent visitors.
(This is the last post of the series on the otherworldly green entities. I’m going to take next week as a break from blogging; back the week of March 30, on a new subject.)
by David Halperin
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