The Green Child (1935) is Herbert Read's first and only novel, a fantasy based on an enduring legend. In the 12th century, two children - male and female - reportedly appeared in the Suffolk village of Woolpit, green-skinned and speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. While the boy died soon afterwards, the girl lived on, and was gradually integrated into village life. Read's tale takes this as its starting point (although he transposes the events to the early 19th century) hypothesising on the later life of the surviving child, before going on to invent a whole race of subterranean 'Green Children' whose worldview is based almost exclusively upon geology.
|Woolpit sign depicting the Green Children|
The story should have baffled me, I suppose. It's hard to say. The bizarre overall structure gives the lie to Read's clarity of expression; you could open it on any page, read a couple of paragraphs, and conclude that it was a rather dull novel by a similarly dull, well-meaning man. And yet, read it in full, and you're left with a distinctly trippy aftertaste, which draws into doubt the author's true intentions. You know you've been taken to a strange place inside your own head, but you don't recall the journey; the fabric of reality has been stretched, but it has happened without your knowing.
It's difficult to catch Read in the act of distorting space-time. An obvious example would be the transition between the human world and that of the Green Child, which takes place at the close of the first section and the opening of the last. This is made particularly disorientating by the splicing in of a lengthy middle chapter, detailing at great length Olivero's rise to power as President of the fictional Republic of Roncador. This section would be unremarkable to anyone even vaguely well-versed in the history of nineteenth century uprisings - or rather, remarkable in that, for a novel, it presents so little of any novelty. While the first and last sections play fast and loose with the laws of physics, President Olivero's story is ruthlessly procedural.
|Read's Green Children live in phosphorescent caverns, and have no concept of sky|
The real question I was left with was this: should I be drawn into the bottomless pit that seems to have consumed those few who have tried seriously to pick The Green Child apart? The shadow of genius looms over this novel to such a degree that I can't help but feel suspicious. It's easy to be an apologist for something that sets itself up to be deliberately obscure, but I'm not even certain that that is what was intended. Perhaps The Green Child was really just the result of poor planning - the fusion of several ideas that should each have been the subject of stories in their own right. This was, after all, Read's only novel; perhaps the weirdness, the incongruities that make this book so unique, are symptoms of his own inexperience.
|The Green Children of Woolpit|
What are this book's implications for fantasy writing? Well, as far as influence goes, it's as dead as the Darling Downs Hopping Mouse. I still can't see how the story of the Green Children of Woolpit is "the norm to which all types of fantasy should conform", nor even what that myth has to do with his own novel. Still, I found that it rivalled Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse' as a masterclass in portraying the alien uncomfortably close to ourselves. Most of all, I found the idea of a people who do not imagine the world as matter existing in space, but rather as finite pockets of space in a universe of infinite matter, both beautiful and thought-provoking.
|Herbert Read (1893-1968)|
★ ★ ★ ½
Whew. Check back soon for something more contemporary and hopefully a little less hardcore!