Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 September 2018

Malcolm Guite is fascinated by “foliate heads” carvings in old churches and cathedrals

My face in the foliage, you’ve seen that face before
Carved in the choir by your fathers in days of yore
I’m the power in the pulse, I’m the song underneath the soil,
I’m the unseen king of the ditches, ragged and royal. . .
 

THESE lines from my song “The Green Man” sprang from a fascination with the mysterious carvings of “foliate heads” in old churches and cathedrals, a motif first named “The Green Man” in an article by Julia, Lady Raglan, in the journal Folklore in 1939.

It has since become the standard term for the immense variety of these “faces in the foliage”, some mischievous, some numinous, some leering, some wise — and all intriguing. From Southwell Minster, to Kilpeck, from Rosslyn Chapel to Hereford Cathedral, they peer out from their hidden groves of stone and wood. Lady Raglan associated these figures with the folk traditions clustered around “the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the Garland, who is the central figure for May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe”. She goes on to suggest that these traditions are themselves the memory of an earlier pre-Christian religion.

There may well be elements of a pagan reverence for the mystery of growth and renewal, and for the magic and beauty of the greenwood, woven into the figure of the green man. And rightly so, for pagan means at root a dweller in the pagus, the field or heath (hence also the word heathen).

But the fact remains that all of these carvings are to be found in churches and cathedrals; it was the Church that preserved the memory of this earlier reverence, and discerned that these figures also belonged within that delicately carved grove, that forest of light and stone which is Gothic architecture.

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And, again, rightly so, for in Christ “a greater than Pan is here”, and that greatness always includes what it fulfils. The Word in whom all things were made patterned the sign of his death and resurrection into nature itself, and pagan reverence for the “death” of the seed that falls to earth, and its resurrection in golden grain, was preparing us in heart and mind to recognise the death and resurrection of the One who said “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it abides alone, but if it dies it brings forth much fruit”.

Perhaps those foliate heads from whose mouths spring out the leaves and tendrils of the vine were carved in recognition of the One who said “I am the Vine; you are the branches.” Orthodox Christians have nothing to fear from an image like the Green Man. Whatever may become of him on the neo-pagan pages of the internet, when he is brought to Christ he flourishes.

So I continued, unabashed, weaving a new thread of “I AM” sayings into my song:
 

I’m the roots on the stock, I’m the tender shoots on the vine
I’m the goodness in the bread, I’m the wildness in the wine
There’s power in the place where my smallest tendrils are curled
And my softest touch is the strongest thing in the world
I’m the Green Man, don’t take my name in vain
I’m the Green Man, its time to break my chain
If you cut me down I’ll spring back green again.

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