Artist of the Week - Marry Waterson

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Related artist: Marry Waterson

They spoke a green language…

Old habits and customs, old laws and sayings, old beliefs and superstitions are fast fading away from the age in which we live. I’m currently bewitched, held and hooked with these sayings and doings which form the basis of my work for the Modern Fairies project. If you ever think about fairies; what comes to mind?

At our first gathering/sharing workshop in Oxford, Terri Windling (fellow Modern Fairy) read me the poem “Green Children” by Jane Yolen.

From then on I became fascinated with the endless speculation about these two ‘otherly’ children who were said to have suddenly appeared in Woolpit, Suffolk.

The children had green-hued skin and spoke an unknown language.

Could this be a folktale describing an imaginary encounter with the inhabitants of another world, perhaps existing under the earth’s surface, or even extraterrestrial, or a jumbled account of a historical event?

This strange story was reported by the 12th century writers, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall.

These images, which mention the children, are from William of Newburgh's De Rerum Anglicarum in the British Library:

Die uiridib.pueri: about the Green Children
Village Uelpittes in English (anglico)

I have adapted Jane’s poem and set the words to a tune. Plans are afoot to animate a video for the song with the fabulous illustrations of Terri Windling and Jackie Morris.

Watch Barney Morse-Brown, Ben Nicholls and I working on the song:

Theories suggest that the children were fairies or aliens. Could they be the original ‘Babes in the Wood’ poisoned by arsenic (said to account for their green pallor) and left for dead by their uncle? There are also moralistic tales of the fate of unbaptized children.

Another account recalls ethnic cleansing by Henry II who persecuted the Flemish fleeing to England from famine, flood and overcrowding. Perhaps the children were refugees, separated from their parents, their skin colour reflecting malnutrition? Displacement is tragically very real in our modern world. This line of thought inspired this companion song to Jane’s poem.

All blog posts:

Green in my Growing Pains

The swift and the crane carry; full play my brother and I along a flyway

Turtle doves led us, even the stork knows it’s season.

Fiery colours of the fall, catch the flame, throw the ball

from the hands of war, the hounds of war into the eye of a storm.

My childhood songs in borrowed tongue, say I’m a child of a lesser God

wait for friends to call on foreign shores, I am a child of a lesser God.

In safety now I have found, I never felt so weak

stood on firm ground, you turn me round & knock me off my feet.

The swift and the crane sailed away, my brother died along the byway.

Childhood songs in borrowed tongues say I’m a child of a lesser God

and I’m green in my growing pains, in the wake of moonless waves.

As with all folklore there are many threads to any legend. We thought it would be wonderful to imagine a descendant of the girl who survived, grew to marry and have children. Terri Windling has written an “Archival” interview which we will record on wax cylinder to play at our performances at the end of the project.

“They say that I was too young when my Granny died to remember her, but I do.

How could I ever forget her? My Gran was not like anyone else. She was small, and thin, and bright-eyed as a bird – with a long white braid coiled on her head, white skin that never browned in the sun, and a wild way about her that made people gossip and shake their heads. They she that was strange as a girl – high-tempered and headstrong right into old age. She spoke a secret language, a language like bird song that she taught only to me: the seventh daughter of her seventh daughter. I remember it still. And the stories she told. Now I shall tell one of them to you:

My Gran came from somewhere else, she said. She didn’t know its name. It was not like here. It had no night and it had no day, just a low, steady light that never changed, and in that light everything was green. She called that country “The Green Country,” so that’s what I call it too. She said that she had a brother there, and one day, walking in the hills, they found a cave – or mabye it was not a cave, but a hole in the hill – and inside was a light that shone like gold. They walked toward it, hand in hand. The passage led them back out to the hill… but the hill had changed. Everything had changed. The sun was a bright ball in the sky; they had never seen such light before. They’d never seen a sky so blue; or trees that were brown as well as green. They knew, at once, this was not their world, so they turned to go back home again… but the cave was gone. They searched and they searched for it, but it had disappeared. And then they sat in the cold, strange grass, holding each other and shivering, until the men coming home from the fields crossed over the hill and found them.

Now my mother, she says that Gran was only a foreign girl from across the sea – from France, maybe, or Germany. But that’s a story with less truth than the one that I am telling you now.

The men who took those children home, they knew exactly what they had found:

Fairies. Children of the Fair Folk. Two little lost sheep of the Otherworld. That boy and girl were green as apples: their hair, their skin, their eyes, their teeth, the clothes they wore, the shoes on their feet. They were small and thin and green all over. They could not speak the King’s plain English. They could not eat our good plain food. They could only eat beans. Which is just what a fairy will eat, beans and milk. That’s all.

That boy, he’d be my great-uncle now if he had lived… but he did not. He never learned to eat our food; he pined and sighed and faded away, as green as apples till the day he died and they buried him at the crossroads.

But my Gran, she took to human ways. She ate her porridge, she ate her bread. Her hair and skin slowly turned to white as she ran through the streets and fields with other village children, merry and bright. The vicar's wife took charge of her. She was christened on a warm summer’s day. They called her Mary. They taught her not to speak of the child that she’d once been. They thought that she’d forget.

She never forgot.

And nor will I”.

Marry x