Saturday, May 6, 2023

Hail to the king, baby?
Or maybe to the Green Man.

The coronation of King Charles III was held today at Westminster Abbey. The Associated Press summed it up nicely: The event was "steeped in ancient ritual and brimming with bling at a time when the monarchy is striving to remain relevant in a fractured modern Britain." The ceremony featured an orb, a sword, a scepter, a crown and some Crown Jewels that are long-ago loot that should be returned to the countries they were plundered from. The was also an appearance by the Stone of Destiny, which sent me down a fun rabbit hole on the internet earlier this week.

One thing that piqued my interest is the extent to which folklore is being used to undergird the continuance of the constitutional monarchy for the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth realms. The British Royal Family reinforced its ancient roots with the official coronation invitation (designed by Andrew Jamieson and shown above). On its official website, it notes:
"Central to the design is the motif of the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore, symbolic of spring and rebirth, to celebrate the new reign. The shape of the Green Man, crowned in natural foliage, is formed of leaves of oak, ivy and hawthorn, and the emblematic flowers of the United Kingdom."
But while the general idea of the Green Man goes far back into history, there are complex mythologies about the figure that don't always interwine neatly. And some say the current representation of the Green Man doesn't go back very far at all. An article by William Fischer on Grunge states:
"That the Green Man is widely believed to be a figure from antiquity isn't disputed, but whether or not he actually is an ancient symbol is another matter. The modern perception of the Green Man comes from an article written by Julia Somerset, the Lady Raglan, in 1939. She was interested in the ubiquitous presence of faces made out of leaves in church architecture throughout Europe (per The New Yorker). Her interpretation of those carvings, as an ancient pagan deity of spring that coexisted with Christianity throughout the medieval period, became very popular, but it's been widely challenged by scholars in the years since."

"Most folklorists hold that there was no tradition of a springtime spirit made of leaves, in Britain or anywhere else, and that the church heads were only decorative. On the other hand, some historians have found evidence for the Green Man as a genuinely ancient figure. Whether he's that old or not, the perception of him as such is well-supported by the British press, and so the perception remains."
Perhaps this modern rebranding of the Green Man into a benign figure, like Santa Claus, made it safe and noncontroversial for the Royal Family to use as a theme for the coronation. And it certainly fits well alongside Charles III's stated passion for environmentalism. But watering down this folklore figure and using it as a "mascot" for a royal ceremony does somewhat of a disservice to the mysteries and multiple incarnations of the Green Man throughout world history, which it not just British.