Reading Henry Treece’s The Green Man, which climaxes in a long spasm of apocalyptic violence — death by sword, buildings on fire, women eaten by pigs, that sort of thing — it’s startling to remember that the author lived out his professional life as a well-liked schoolteacher and after his retirement gave history lectures to children. “He was such a stimulating person to talk to,” commented one librarian less than a month before his death in 1966. Green Man is a mash-up of Hamlet and Beowulf, drunk, savage, breathless, even laughing at its own atrocities, a strange and little-known book.
Treece was a poet before he became a fiction writer. He authored the first lengthy critical assessment of Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies — Thomas called it, “This stinking book”) and in the late 1930s co-founded an amorphous Romantic movement named the New Apocalyptics. “The New Apocalypse, in a sense, derives from Surrealism,” he wrote in the movement’s manifesto. It was his awareness of Surrealism — a writer’s movement as well as a painter’s, although that’s not how it has been popularly remembered — that lent his historical fiction its air of alien authenticity and strangeness.
It gave him a standpoint from which he could look with equanimity at ancient Europe’s faith in portents and signs. In Treece’s first published novel, The Dark Island, a Belgaic warrior sees his brother shot in the throat, and, unable to comprehend this sudden horror, he believes that a raven comes down from the sky, screaming, “Caradoc, he is calling for you! The blood is coming out of his mouth!” This combination of old imagery, modern shellshock, and Romantic Surreal dreamshock is a bridge Treece would often use to bring his contemporary readers into sympathy with ancient peoples whose mindset would otherwise seem inexplicable. They were human too, he suggests; they understood things differently but their ideas seemed as valid to them as ours seem valid to us.
He has empathy, even, with the dead. In The Great Captains, one corpse “stared up at the sky, pleasantly, as though trying to weight up what sort of day it was going to be. He seemed to have died thinking of the last barley crop … Medrawt noticed the broken nails of his hand, a hard-working hand …” and we go on to speculate on this man for half a page, not because he, personally, is a vital part of the story (he isn’t; we don’t even know his name) but because he is human, he is there, part of the world, and it could have been one of the named characters, the ones we like, staring up at the sky, seeming to think about barley crops or “a new milch cow he had bought in the market last week.” Medrawt wonders over him, looking at the marks scratched into his bracelet, considering the possible nationality of his wife (foreigner or native?), and we learn something about the composition of Britain at this point in its history. The idea of Treece as a history teacher, a pupil’s favourite, makes sense when you read passages like this.
His characters are everything a reader would want them to be: tough yet too intelligent not to be weak sometimes, loving or cruel, curious about magic and about the gods (Christian or pagan, which to choose — his Vikings pragmatically dole out a bit of worship to everyone, just in case). His prose voice holds to a backbone of slight bardic formality that seems appropriate to the books’ subject matter without ever descending into thees and thous and other bits of cod-Ye Olde slang. He was always a better author than a poet. His poetry is mannered and outdated for its time. He was fighting against the forces of T.S. Eliot and modernism and the fight hobbled him, leaving him unable to move either forward into the future, or backwards into the past. Prose was his native medium.
He is dead, however. His books are not often reprinted. One day he will be forgotten: at one with the dead Jutes, the lost Picts, and the barley crops of history.
Read Henry Treece’s essay, “Notes on Perception and Vision.”