The Green Child

Book Card  -  Volume 17  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Sun, Dec 2, 1990 1:59 AM

TITLE: The Green Child
AUTHOR: Herbert Read
PUBLISHER: New Directions Books
COPYRIGHT: 1935 (originally)

This is the second time in the space a few months that a truly magical book has arrived without warning in my truly magical mailbox. This time it was a gift from Pam, the writer who visited me in October. She was visiting her old college roommate in Chigago and this person's favorite book is The Green Child. Having gained an insight into my tastes, Pam snaggled an extra copy and mailed it off to me.

The Green Child is a major find. It was first published in 1935, and no less than T.S. Eliot called it "one of the finest examples of English prose style of our century." I was vaguely aware of its existence, but might never have gotten around to reading it if it hadn't been for this unexpected gift.

The book is divided into three parts, each totally different from the other two. In part one, Olivero, the dictator of a fantastic South American country, steps off the boat in the Europe of 1861 after arranging his own assassination. He slowly makes his way back to the English village he grew up in and left suddenly as a young man, allowing his beard to grow on the way.

He arrives in the village at dusk and watches the village stream by moonlight from a small bridge, trying to recollect the lost days of his youth. Here he makes a very odd discovery. The stream is flowing backwards. The more he searches his memory the more he becomes convinced. The stream is flowing the opposite direction it did when he was young.

Puzzled, he begins to follow the stream (what was upstream, what is now downstream). Along the way he discovers that quite a few things have changed in the village during his thirty year absence.

At last he comes to a mill-house with an open window. While hiding in the woods he observes a man carrying a dead lamb. The man steps through the window. Olivero cannot resist the temptation to peer inside the window.

"On a bare table to the right lay the lamb; its throat had been cut and was bleeding into a large bowl, over the edge of which its head hung pathetically. In the middle of the room the man stood, drawing back the head of a woman by the hair and compelling her to drink from a cup which he held in his hand." The woman is tied to a chair and has a terrified look on her face.

With some difficulty, Olivero bursts into the room and confronts the man (whom he later recognizes as Kneeshaw, the same small boy who deliberately destroyed a toy train and caused Olivero to leave the village in the first place). The man offers no resistance and Olivero loosens the woman's bonds.

"She remained limp and passive. Her released arms fell like pendulums on each side of the chair; her head remained sunk on her breast. Feeling infinitely tender towards such a helpless victim of man's malice, Olivero lifted one arm and began to chafe the bruised wrist. It was then that he noticed a peculiarity in her flesh which explained her strange pallor. The skin was not white, but a faint green shade, the color of a duck's egg. It was, moreover, an unusually transparent tegument, and through its pallor the branches of her veins and arteries spread, not blue and scarlet, but vivid green and golden. The nails were pale blue, very like a blackbird's eggshell. The faint emanation of odour from her flesh was sweet and a little heavy, like the scent of violets.

"Olvero looked up at the man, who stood glowering against the wall. 'It is the Green Child!' he cried. The man merely stared fixedly, but Olivero knew that his guess was right."

So begins part one, one of the most magical and dream-like pieces of prose I have ever read. The only book that even comes close to the eerie enchantment in this passage is a book which Paul introduced me to: The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay. Suffice it to say that the story grows stranger and stranger as Olivero traces the stream back to its source. The ending of part one left me breathless.

Part two takes place in a magical South American country which reminded me of Candide's Eldorado. Part three takes place underground in the country of the green child. I will say nothing more about this final section except that the culmination involves the study of crystals, which bears a striking resemblance to my own study of a certain crystalline labyrinth with which I fill my spare time. It should be clear by now that his book had an enormous impact on me.

Like Pilgrim's Progress, this book is an allegorical journey. Each part consists of a journey, the first, in a sense, a journey of childhood, the second a journey of manhood, and the third a final journey of old age and contemplation. All three journeys are recapitulated in a recursive sort of way in an ascent through three "levels" that Olivero makes in the final pages. The final sentence conveys the extraordinary beauty of this book without giving anything away:

"The tresses of Siloën's hair, floating in the liquid in which they were immersed, spread like a tracery of stone across Olivero's breast, twined inextricably in the coral intricacy of his beard."