On my fairy bookshelf: ‘The Green Child’ by Herbert Read

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I’d been meaning to read The green child for some time but had thought that it was only available in the original edition of 1934.  Then I realised I could get a modern reprint from my library: I prefer to read a hard-copy book, myself, but you can download it or read it on Internet Archive.

I was attracted to the story because it’s based upon the medieval English story of the Green Children, who were discovered at Woolpit village in Suffolk.  This story (transposed to the early 19th century) is a starting point for Read’s book, but it’s quite a long way from a simple retelling of that puzzling account.

Read was an anarchist poet and art critic.  Probably his 1931 Penguin book The meaning of art is what he’s best remembered for today.  The green child is his only novel.  Given his intellectual background, it’s not especially surprising that it’s a pretty philosophical text.  It may best be compared to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia- probably also on my recommended reading list…

The main character of the story is a man called Henry Oliver, who as a young man leaves his Suffolk home in search of adventure and ends up leading a revolution in a small South American country.  As ‘Dr Olivero’ he becomes head of state and spends several decades establishing a perfect system of government there- it’s a sort of socialist commonwealth free of class and capital.  Eventually, nostalgic for his home and curious about the Green Child, who had appeared just before he departed, Olivero returns home.

The Green Child is still alive but is a homesick alien.  Olivero rescues her from her human husband and they find their way back to her subterranean home.  The last third of the book then describes the perfect intellectual society created by the ‘fairies’ underground.  The relationship between Olivero and Siloen, the Green Child, rapidly fades from view as Read examines the fairy philosophy that structures their culture.

It’s fair to say it’s an odd book.  I read it hoping for a great deal more fairy story and was hopeful that this would be delivered when Olivero and Siloen flee the human world.  It wasn’t to be- and I’m probably content that it was a library book and not one I’d bought.  Nevertheless, if you’re curious, it’s readily available and it’s certainly thought provoking.

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