I don’t read much children’s fiction these days, having no little ones of my own, but I came across Gail E. Haley’s The Green Man at a library sale this week, and boy did I ever snap it up. It was a forgotten childhood favorite of mine, and all the memories came flooding back as I flipped through the illustrations. Haley originally published it in 1980 (at least here in America), and I think it’s been out of print since about 1988.
Haley’s The Green Man tells the story Claude, the son of Squire Archibald. At the tale’s outset, Claude is an arrogant, selfish young man who spends his days hawking and hunting and parading around the village wearing his fine clothes. One day he rode into the village to order a lavish meal and as he waited, he watched the villagers. He noted several of them laying food outside and laughed at the practice saying, “Look at those ignorant peasants putting out food for the Green Man when they can barely feed their own children!” The landlord of the inn gently rebuked Claude and tried to explain that the villagers were expressing their gratitude to the mythical figure who kept their animals healthy and protected their children if they ventured into the forest and who helped the seasons turn and the crops grow. Claude, of course, scoffed at this as rubbish.
Some days later Claude went hunting and found no animals were coming from the woods. He ventured further into the forest and got lost. The day was hot and Claude petulant and sweating, so when he came across a pond he stripped off his clothes and dove in. As Claude swam, a beggar man made off with his fine clothing. Claude tied some leafy branches around himself and set off to return home, but it was so far away that he couldn’t return before nightfall. He took shelter in a cave, and when he awoke the next day he found it was someone’s home: there were chickens and goats and a few necessaries like baskets and an axe. No one arrived to care for the animals, though, so Claude fed them and then himself.
Soon Claude heard a search party sent by his father to find him, but was so ashamed to be seen without his fine clothes–after all, he was now dirty and covered in leaves–so he hid himself saying he’d borrow something from the person who lived in the cave. But no one came. Over time, Claude found purpose in tending to the livestock and observing the wildlife. Soon he gathered berries and nuts, and gleaned from the grain harvest to feed the livestock. He learned and lived in solitude, and eventually helped animals and young children in distress, who then asked him if he was the Green Man. A year went by in this manner and Claude grew more and more skilled in the ways of the forest, and turned his selfless skills to helping the forest flourish.
Eventually Claude came across a swimmer in that same pond he himself had been in so long ago, so Claude snatched the swimmer’s clothes away and returned to his father’s manor. His parents were amazed to see him; they’d thought he’d been killed by robbers or wild animals…but all Claude would say was “The Green Man saved my life.” He returned to life as it was before, but his arrogance was gone. He now cared for his animals and the villagers…and every night set food outside for the Green Man.
Honestly, this is pretty much an all-around winner. The pagan theme is rich, the story arch of character growth is moralistic without being cloying, the demonstration of living with nature is on point, and the art is great. The only quibble I have is that its publishers have put it out of print. Luckily for us, Amazon, Alibris, and other online booksellers can connect us to people with copies to sell: every site I found had at least 20 sellers listed. Scribner did only publish paperbacks, but a few “library edition” hardcovers (like mine!) can be found.