If the attractive, hand-painted invitation is anything to go by, the coronation will be a neo-pagan rite in which King Charles III is invested as Archdruid, Master of the Hobby-Horse and Lord of Summer Isle. That’s because the most prominent image in the intricate, joyous floral design – by heraldry artist Andrew Jamieson – is the wryly smiling face of the Green Man. This emerald visage, the standout feature in Jamieson’s elegantly flowing design, belongs to an ancient, pre-Christian divinity who can still be seen in the architecture of medieval churches, a leafy face among all the gargoyles.
But who or what is the Green Man? Well, it all started 1939 when Julia Somerset (Lady Raglan) had an article published in the journal Folklore, in which she investigated the supposed mythic-ritualistic origins underlying popular cultural motifs, but her object of study was the foliate head design seen everywhere in European medieval church decoration of the eleventh to sixteenth centuries.
Before Lady Raglan’s intervention, this figure had been anonymous. She gave him a name: the Green Man.
Essentially, the Green Man is a decorative design with a human face. Leaves and stems twist around the features, usually originating from the mouth. He can leer, he can grin. Sometimes he looks as if he is screaming in pain. His carving usually looks down from a ceiling. Wherever there’s an ecclesiastical surface, you are likely to find him. In New York, you’ll find him, among other places, on Ninth street, in the East Village, reports the New Yorker.
Lady Raglan’s term for the figure was adopted by the scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner - best known for his forty-six-volume series The Buildings of England - and that was pretty much that, as far as terminology was concerned.
But, over the last fifty years, the Green Man has become a specifically countercultural icon. It was adopted by New Agers in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and recast by the changing status of folkloric imagery into a surprisingly durable alt icon. It’s a remarkable trajectory for a figure who, on one level, doesn’t even exist: despite his face being everywhere in the medieval period, a historical Green Man story seems to be attested precisely nowhere.
Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man takes the twenty-first-century scholar’s perspective on the Green Man: as a “vegetation god,” she insists, he has “been shown not to exist.” He was, rather, invented in 1939 by Lady Raglan, “for a world which was beginning to need him, a world in which people were gradually realising how industrialisation was stealthily degrading our planet.” He came to represent “all that the modern world undervalues, excludes or lacks.” He doesn’t appear in stories, “except those invented for him by modern writers,” Larrington explains, but his “appearance, as a hybrid of man and plant, insists that humans are inextricably part of that natural world which we in the West are so keen to subjugate.” The Green Man may not be locatable in some named hill or brook, Larrington tells us, but he speaks to us profoundly in our time of ecological crisis. He is nowhere but everywhere.
Nina Lyon, on the other hand, in Uprooted, testifies to the continued power of the Green Man just as Lady Raglan understood him. The Green Man, Lyon writes, is “a sort of forest-god, an emblem of the birth-death-rebirth cycle of the natural year. He was worshipped in hope of good harvests, and guards the metaphysical gate between the material and immaterial worlds.”
So, back to the Coronation invitation. Perhaps Charles wants to be his Kingdom's pagan patriarch as well as God’s Anointed. Perhaps this is a message not to take the pomp of the Abbey too seriously. The new monarch has already set out to be a religiously plural figure, says The Guardian, visiting different religious communities to make good on a stated wish to be defender of “faiths”. This invite suggests that this also includes neo-pagans, witches and followers of the old ways.
However you read its springtime symbolism, the coronation invitation is a witty, skilled performance that speaks well of King Charles III’s feel for art and sense of humour, as well as Jamieson’s talent.