WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A MEMORY OF LIGHT and RIVER OF SOULS
This article discusses the origins and symbolism of the Green Man, the foliate being able to make things grow with a touch.
In the Third Age of The Wheel of Time series, the Green Man was the last surviving Nym, an artificial being or ‘construct’ created in the Age of Legends. Another Nym left in the Hearttomb in Shara to guard part of Sakarnen had become a foliate head (River of Souls). Nym
were sentient beings with the ability to utilize the One Power for the benefit of plants and all growing things. As a nameless scribe in Paaren Disen wrote, “Where a Nym touched, all manner of green and growing things thrived.”This is a ‘mundane’ or ‘rational’ explanation of a being who has remarkable abilities and is the subject of legend, both in the real world and the Wheel of Time world.
- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time
From Nym to Nymph
While Nym is the name of a character in Shakespeare’s Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor, he has little in common with the tree-like Nym.
Jordan probably derived the name Nym from Nymph, the divinities in Greek mythology associated with various features of nature. They were either immortal or incredibly long-lived and could be gentle and loving or else of a wilder, more destructive nature. The nymphs most similar to the Nym are the dryads, the nymphs who tended and guarded the forest. The Nym were very long-lived, longer than even the Ogier. They were gentle most of the time, yet the Green Man was able to destroy Balthamel even when mortally wounded himself. The Green Man was guardian and nurturer of his locality, as a nymph was supposed to be.
Hamadryads were nymphs tied to a particular tree, usually an oak, and died if their tree died. When the Green Man died, an oak tree grew to mark the site.
Dryads and Nym had different appearances however: nymphs were portrayed as having (female) human form, unlike the Nym, who were far more tree-like or ent-like.
The Nym have similarities to Tolkien’s ents: their longevity, large size and tree-like appearance. The Green Man was:
a man-shape of woven vines and leaves, green and growing. His hair was grass, flowing to his shoulders; his eyes, huge hazelnuts; his fingernails, acorns. Green leaves made his tunic and trousers; seamless bark, his boots.Treebeard, the oldest of the ents, was described as:
- The Eye of the World, The Dark One Stirs
a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.However, the Nym had different characters to the ents and they were more proactive in their promotion of growth in vegetation – they did more magic, if you like.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The figure most associated with the mystery and magic of the life force, the cycle of life, death and rebirth and the wildness of nature is the real world Green Man.
The Green Man is a real world mythological figure from Europe. He is the god of vegetation; the power of the forest and fertility made manifest. Associated with the sacred oak tree, he is the vitality of plant life in humanoid form. In art and architecture he is depicted as a foliate head, either actually composed of leaves or with the leaves appearing to grow out of the head. As an example of the convergence of myth over time, the Nym/Green Man and the foliate head were different states of being. The Nym in Shara developed into a foliate head, perhaps due to being deprived of light and in close proximity to a type of Shadowspawn that underwent transformation naturally. (The jumara also seemed to have been affected by its long confinement with the Nym, because it developed foliage-like protruberances.)
In The Wheel of Time, the Green Man had the same description and function as that of real world myth: to release and boost the fecundity of the land - and he was able to do this to everything he touched. He could even make the organisms associated with decay grow better, where appropriate, as we saw when the Green Man killed Balthamel.
His power was such that he could even keep the corruption of the Shadow at bay:
“Every turning of years, the Blight strives harder to come inside, and this turn the struggle to keep it out has been greater than ever since the beginning."He was almost apologetic in the extent of his Power and the extent he used it:
- The Eye of the World, The Dark One Stirs
"All things must grow where they are, according to the Pattern," he explained over his shoulder, as if apologizing, "and face the turning of the Wheel, but the Creator will not mind if I give just a little help."The Green Man is legendary in our world, as he is to most people in the Wheel of Time world. A common belief, as Rand shows, is that the Green Man owns Avendesora:
- The Eye of the World,, Meetings at the Eye.
Avendesora. The Tree of Life was supposed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities, but none of the stories mentioned any sapling, or any "they."Yet the Green Man had not rested beneath Avendesora’s branches for two thousand years.
There was only the one, and that belonged to the Green Man.
- The Eye of the World, The Westwood
In our world, the Green Man was revered as the god of the seasonal cycle of plant growth and invoked to ensure all occurred in the proper season. As a being of this cycle of life, death and rebirth, the Wheel of Time Green Man would indeed ‘know an ending when it comes’ (The Eye of the World, Meetings at the Eye).
The real world Green Man birthed a few other legendary figures, notably John Barleycorn, the Green Knight and Jack-in-the-Green. These will be discussed in turn.
John Barleycorn was a mythic figure associated with the growing of grain, and its fermented products (eg whisk(e)y and beer) as this verse from Robert Burns’ version of the ancient folk song about John Barleycorn shows:
They took a plough and plough'd him down, put clods upon his head.During seed-singing, the Nym were able to take the Da’shain Aiel’s and the Ogier’s songs and weave them to make the grain seeds sprout and grow, and give them resistance to all insects and disease. This is the waxing cycle of vegetation. The Green Man was able to boost those organisms responsible for decay (the waning cycle) to destroy Balthamel, even while fatally injured himself and then grow an oak over his own burial site. It did surprise them all, even Aginor, to see the cycle of death and rebirth occur before their eyes.
And they hae sworn a solemn oath, John Barleycorn was dead.
But the cheerfu' Spring came kindly on, and show'rs began to fall,
John Barleycorn got up again, and sore surprised them all.
John Barleycorn also shows the themes of death and rebirth, as does the Green Knight in the Arthurian story of Sir Gawain.
The Green Knight is a Christianised offshoot of the pagan Green Man myth. At midwinter, the Green Man arrives at King Arthur’s court and challenges a knight to strike off is head. In return the knight must travel to the Green Knight’s castle in one year and a day and accept a similar blow in return. Photo at right from fairycolumbine.wordpress.com
Sir Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with one blow. To their surprise, the Green Knight gets to his feet, picks up his head and rides away. A year and a day later, Sir Gawain meets the Green Knight at his castle where the Green Knight tries to behead Gawain. He makes three attempts, but Gawain only received a minor wound due to some magical lace.
Balthamel struck the Green Man a lethal blow from neck to head and expected him to die immediately, but he amazingly didn’t, he was able to kill his opponent first.
Like any fine Knight, the Green Man kept the faith and did the task assigned to him by the Aes Sedai during the Breaking - to guard the Eye of the World - though it ultimately cost him his life. According to Moiraine, he kept the faith better than most of those who gave him the charge (The Eye of the World, Meetings at the Eye).
Jack in the Green
The Jack-in-the- Green is a figure in the folk dance celebrating the spirit or god of the yearly renewal of life. Dancers decked with ribbons and tinsel and with blackened faces prance around a Jack-in-the-Green to the music of simple home-made instruments. The Jack is a man inside a leaf-covered wicker frame who peers through a small gap in the leaves, looking very like the foliate heads representing the Green Man.
Jordan has reverse-engineered (his term) an historic origin in his world for this folk dance; a realistic explanation. He ‘explains’ this May Day dance as a remnant memory of the seed-singing in the Age of Legends, where the Ogier and male Da’shain Aiel sang and the female Da’shain clapped while the Nym danced to their songs and wove them “into the soil and around the seeds.”(The Shadow Rising, The Dedicated). While the Jack-in–the-Green folk dance celebrates the god of the yearly renewal of life (Green Man), the Wheel of Time seed-singing was the actual renewing and boosting of life for the practical purpose of agriculture.
At the dance’s climax, Jack-in the-Green is 'executed' to 'renew the world'. This takes place during the Pagan festival known as Beltane (1st May) and celebrates the coming of spring and the rebirth of the earth. Similar folk customs occur all over Europe. In Jordan’s world, Beltine occurs the day after Winternight at the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere, March 23. In the real world, Beltane, when Jack is executed to release the spirit of the growing season, is on May 1.
The Green Man was killed by Balthamel on May 9, after being warned to mind his own business. He refused to ignore evil, however, and was able to remove one of Rand’s opponents. Thus Rand was better able to defeat Aginor, the Shadow’s army, and Ishamael each in turn. Without the Green Man’s sacrifice (and example) this renewal may not have occurred. Despite the Shadow’s efforts to wound the Land, the Light was able to restore Spring on May 9, only 8 days after May Day or real world Beltane. It was a mighty blow against the Shadow indeed, and the Green Man fittingly played an important part in the Healing of the Land.
Green Man and Goddess
In contemporary Western paganism, the Green Man is also the symbol of male fertility in Nature and he has a close relationship with the female expression of fertility: the Goddess. As is described in the Arthurian myth essay, Moiraine is a Goddess figure, which is why she is so closely associated with the Green Man; indeed she was the only being to find the Green Man twice. Need was the key to finding him, and Moiraine’s need the second time was the hope of the world – the hope and need for the Land to be Healed. Moiraine as Goddess and the Green Man held the Shadow at bay long enough for the Creator’s champion (Rand, the Fisher King) to do just that.
In Norse mythology, the World Tree which supported the Land, was associated with a giant, Mimir.
Mimir, whose name in Old Norse means ‘the rememberer, the wise one’ is a giant in Norse mythology. He guards the "Well of the Highest Wisdom", situated in Jotunheim under one of the three roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and has been since the beginning of time. To drink from the well, Mimir used the Gjallarhorn, a drinking horn of the same name as the musical horn which Heimdall will sound to announce the onset of Ragnarök (the Last Battle). The well contained one of Odin’s eyes, which Odin sacrificed for a drink from the Well in order to obtain wisdom.
Someshta was injured during the War of the Power, and was set guard over the Eye of the World, a well of pure saidin, over three thousand years previously, at the beginning of the Third Age. The Eye also contained the Horn of Valere, which will be sounded to call the Heroes of the Horn to fight at the Last Battle. Far from being ‘the rememberer,’ Someshta had trouble with his memory due to his injury and the destruction of the technology and most of the constructed beings at the end of the Second Age. He is isolated from Avendesora, the Tree of Life, having:
”not rested beneath its ungentle branches in two thousand years.”The foliate head in Shara was a Nym tasked with guarding the cup portion of the sa’angreal Sakarnen (River of Souls). Did Demandred learn wisdom from his mentor Mintel, his battle with the jumara, his ablutions in the River of Souls or his fulfilment of prophecy as the Wyld? Surprisingly, he did learn some, but not the wisdom of letting go of a grudge..
- The Eye of the World, Meetings at the Eye
Contrary to the popular myths in the Wheel of Time world, such as those circulating in the Two Rivers, the Green Man had been dissociated from the Tree of Life (chora trees), and his unhealed wound acquired during the Breaking reflected this. The Nym in the Hearttomb in Shara was cut off from all Light, and furthermore was cooped up with a Shadowspawn for centuries; not surprisingly it had withered into a foliate head. The other Nym died at the end of the Age of Legends, as did all chora trees except for the cuttings the Da’shain had. It is as though the Nym were like Hamadryads in being linked to the chora trees. Or perhaps the Nym needed the peace and happiness that their fellow constructs gave to all. Their co-disappearance and the Green Man’s 3,000 year battle against the Blight shows that the well-being of creatures depends on the health of the Land.
Written by Linda, May 2005 and updated August 2013
Contributors: Dominic, Dark Diggler, NessalThor