Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon

Mushrooms and tree-hugging…

😦 😦

uprootedThe book starts with Lyon being intrigued by the proliferation of the Green Man and other obviously pagan carvings on early churches. Making the point that early Christianity needed to incorporate some aspects of existing spiritual beliefs in order to attract adherents, she then goes on to speculate that worshipping, or at least respecting, the natural world and assuming it has some kind of power is at least as rational as contemporary conventional religion. So she decides to start a sex cult.

There is a vein of humour running through the book, which sometimes works but more often makes it difficult to know exactly how seriously Lyon expects the reader to take her arguments, such as they are. She’s clearly superficially knowledgeable of both nature myths and philosophy, and in the early chapters she uses this knowledge quite effectively. She’s humorous about being unable to find willing participants for her sex cult, but is incredibly dismissive of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. At first, I admired the writing and intelligence, though I felt from a very early stage that she hadn’t really thought through what, if anything, she was trying to say.

As the book progresses, she takes superficial looks at various aspects of things that she seems to associate with paganism or nature cults; for example, witchcraft, shamanism, Alesteir Crowley’s beliefs, etc. Half the time I wasn’t even convinced of their relevance to the argument she seems to be attempting to make – namely, that conventional religion is on its way out and we need to revert to some kind of paganism, a belief in a single consciousness, from which some kind of mystical power does (or perhaps doesn’t) derive. It’s possible that I’m over-simplifying – I did lose the will to live fairly early on – but I don’t think so. It all has a hippy, undergraduate feel – drugs and drink seem to feature quite heavily at the points of her ‘insights’. She cherry-picks the bits of philosophy that she thinks give some intellectual grounding to her rather unstructured rambling, but they really don’t. The whole thing is too sloppy and unfocused to shed much light on anything. And, being honest, I never felt she was convinced of her own arguments.

The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began...
The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began…

I wondered, fleetingly, at the fact that the two people I have known reasonably well who have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders were, variously, raised by academic metaphysicians or philosophy students at the time of diagnosis. Perhaps overthinking makes you mad. Perhaps mad people are merely thinkers.

Ignoring the clumsiness of the sentence structure, this is her reasoning for why people with psychotic illnesses should seek treatment from shamans rather than conventional resources. One wonders if she considered the possibility that, since she’s spent her life in and around academia, she probably meets a disproportionately high number of academic types, perhaps just possibly skewing the results of her in-depth survey.

Partly, the problem is that she makes assumptions to suit her agenda with no corresponding evidence. For example, she makes a big point about how conventional religion has destroyed the traditional way in which early pagans actively joined in with ritual celebrations (though how she knows they did this is an unexplained mystery – time travel? Mystical messages from the great beyond? Perhaps a tree told her…), so that now they tend to be made up of performers and audience, rather than participants. She, of course, sees this as a loss, so much so that she assumes that’s unarguable.

Still from the movie "The Wicker Man" Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on...
Still from the movie “The Wicker Man”
Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on…

But I reckon that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts her assumptions about pagan rituals, lots of people would argue that sacrifices and orgies might not be such a loss, and perhaps our more reserved behaviour is a sign of civilisation – or in Scotland, perhaps just a response to it rarely being warm enough to encourage us to get our kit off outdoors. Also, she frequently repeats that she is an atheist which, therefore, would obviously make her feel like an onlooker at a Christian ceremony. (I’m trying so hard not to say “Duh!”) I’m an atheist, too, but I’m willing to bet that true believers probably feel like participants in their religious practices rather than audience members.

Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. It figures...
Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. Yeah, figures…

As the book wears on, Lyon rambles around England and bits of Europe in a totally unstructured way, going to visit tree-hugging shamans and attending festivals at Stonehenge and other such trite remnants of hippy culture, where she learns that apparently the best way to celebrate life is to get stoned out of your head. When she started nostalgically bleating on about how Ecstasy had been a brilliant thing in the ’90s for bringing young people together in shared experiences, I realised with a twinge of pity that she really didn’t have a clue it’s the youthfulness that achieves that, not the drugs.

In conclusion, good prose style, some averagely decent nature writing, occasional shafts of humour, but the bulk of it is basically twaddle. As she neared the end, Lyon admitted she’d kind of lost interest in her original aim of creating a new Green Man sex cult. She wasn’t alone.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

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62 thoughts on “Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon

  1. Hmmm, sounds like a potentially interesting topic, but perhaps not the best way to tackle it. I did my Ph. D. on religious cults (although ‘new’ ones rather than ancient ones) and did laughingly say I had all the information I needed to become a cult leader at some point. But there are a lot of nuances and differences, a lot of variety in the reasons why people join a ‘cult’ (which is a dismissive term anyway, I prefer the term ‘new religious movement’ – after all, Christianity was a cult too once). Maybe I should write a book about it at some point – although it would probably be crime fiction!

    • Yes, I was disappointed – it was an interesting subject that deserved better, I thought. Did you? That would have been fascinating! I think Lyon’s first degree was in philosophy, perhaps, from what I picked up as I was reading – the subject would be much better handled from an anthropology perspective. And she was kinda conflating Christianity and the Church of England – two institutions without a great deal in common… 😉 You should! That would be a great setting for a crime novel…

  2. I honestly can’t say I blame you, FIctionFan, for losing interest. I’ve not read this myself, so I shouldn’t be judgemental. But from you’ve said, one of the gaping holes here is the lack of evidence to support her arguments. Honestly, with that little evidence, it’s not surprising that she seems to have lost interest in those arguments herself. I also had the thought (again, probably unfair as I’ve not read the book!) that I couldn’t work out what it was supposed to be. Is it intended to be a witty skewering of conventional religion? A real effort to convince readers of the value of more ancient traditions? Something else? Shame it turned out this way for you, because I remember thinking it really looked interesting when you put it on your TBR.

    • It was a pity – such an intriguing subject, but really I came away from it feeling I’d learned nothing. It felt like one of these conservations held late at night in the student bar. One doesn’t like to try and analyse an author too much, but I really couldn’t help thinking she was one of these atheists who’s like to have a spiritual belief system, but just thinks Christianity would be too uncool. She didn’t convince me on either her genuine desire to understand nature myths better, or on her skewering of Christianity – for a start she seemed to be making sweeping statements about the whole of Christianity based on the admittedly rather insipid Church of England variety. Is conventional religion really dying out? Hmm… not the feeling I get!

    • I’m glad to hear that – I do often wonder if I’m just being overly critical, but I didn’t feel I was. Yes, I don’t recommend this one, I’m afraid…

  3. The Green Man chap is sorta interesting looking. Is that two mustaches or two tongues? That’s the question.

    And look here, they can’t be too cold at all. They’re in the sun, see.

    Is that purple or black lipstick?

    • *laughs* “They” say it’s foliage growing out from his mouth but what do “they” know – I much prefer the idea of two tongues…

      Yeah, pathetic Scottish sun! But they’ve got their thermal underwear on and I bet there’s someone behind those rocks just about to bring out mugs of hot chocolate! *shivers*

      It’s probably stain from the juice of some hallucinogenic berry…

      • What’s foliage growing in his mouth for? Gha. Ghastly, that is. Two tongues. Let’s go with it. Don’t you kinda wish you had two tongues? That’d be so neatio.

        They do? Haha. They looked completely naked to me. Maybe it’s 70 degrees. You can’t be sure.

        *laughing lots and lots* Goodness. That’s scary.

        • Ghastly, indeed! He must have swallowed a flowerpot! Two tongues is definitely better – one for catching flies and one for licking ice-lollies!

          I think they’re supposed to look that way but if you look closely you can see they’re actually wearing skin-colour undies… and quite right too! *growls quietly*

          Pah! She doesn’t scare me! *hides behind a tree*

          • Hahahahaha! I didn’t know you tried to catch flies with your tongue! Still, that’s a might business right there. I’m proud of you, I think.

            Well, then. It’s sorta ridiculous. I’m sure the skin-colored thingies don’t do anything against the cold. If it is cold, which I still doubt, don’t you see. *nods* Growl loudly. It’s more fun.

            I’m going to get you a Glock 19 for Christmas.

            • *laughs* I kinda wish I hadn’t put that image in your head now…

              *growls loudly* I do hope you’re not suggesting they should take their undies off, sir!! This is a reputable blog, I’ll have you know! There’ll be no cavorting here!!

              So brutal! Can’t I have a Colt revolver instead, please – and a dinky leather holster? And sheepskin chaps…

            • Hahaha. It’s not that bad of an image! Promise.

              Well…I don’t think they have them. *nods* Isn’t Cavorting dancing?

              Oh no no no, double-no.You must have a Glock. With a fun stick. You’ll love it.

            • I do wish someone would make chocolate flies though…

              *gasps* Sir!! As if I would post a picture of… of… of… well! I just wouldn’t, that’s all!! Yes, but it’s usually kinda wicked dancing… *practices*

              *laughs despairingly* Fun stick?? Do I even want to know what a fun stick is…??

            • You know, I bet there is chocolate covered flies.

              Haha. You might. We can’t be sure about these things. Or getting drunk. It sounds familiar.

              Hahahahaha…probably not…

            • Then you should catch me some!

              *shocked face* You get drunk?!? And cavort????? Now there’s an idea for the Christmas video…

              *laughs* Yeah, probably not… I think our idea of “fun” may be different…

  4. I’ve always liked the green man carvings in Norwich Cathedral or maybe (a bit of googling later) I should call them foliate heads! They are exuberant and mysterious but I think I’ll give this book a miss.

    • Yes, I’d really like to know more about them and the reasons for the pagan carvings on churches in general, but I’m afraid this book didn’t tell me much. Pity – a missed opportunity.

  5. You know, when you stated you were reading this, I think we both thought it might be my kind of thing, and I was disappointed it was no longer on the galley – but, you know what, I don’t think it would have struck much of a chord with me either. Think I’ll stick with Pantheism and the likes of Sharman Apt Russell, who combines science and comes from a Quaker background. I rather like the finding of it all without the need for getting trolleyed!

    • No, definitely not your kind of thing, either – way too woolly and she couldn’t make up her mind if she was treating it seriously or mocking it. She kept conflating things that don’t really conflate – like Church of England coffee mornings standing in as a representation of all Christianity, and the types of people who attend hippie festivals to get stoned being conflated with serious pantheists or pagans. Frankly, I suspect she’s probably achieved the fairly difficult task of annoying philosophers, Christians, pagans and atheists – impressive!

  6. Oh dear, this is such a disappointment! The subject matter could have been of interest to me, had it not been presented in the pseudo-hippy manner you describe. It is always interesting to read different takes on belief and philosophy but she seems to have blindingly missed the point entirely on so many levels! Are you absolutely certain the whole thing isn’t meant to be a parody? It certainly sounds like one 🙂

    • I know – I was interested too, but she lost me pretty early on and then proceeded to make things worse. Ha! I did think it might be going to be a parody in the first few chapters, but I don’t think she could really decide herself. Half the time she was trying to be serious and then she’d lapse into mockery – it was like a conversation late at night in the student bar! Impressive to be able to annoy Christians, pagans and atheists all in one book though… 😉

  7. Perhaps overthinking made this book a meandering bit of psychobabble, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. And never can you pull one over on FF! Well done. 🙂

    Perhaps this was a narrative push towards cannabis legalization? hmmmm…. I’m off to hug my trees and chase butterflies.

    • Yes, I nearly put a sentence in to the effect that if thinking makes you mad, she was probably in little danger… 😉 Haha! I really tried to buy into the whole thing too…

      D’you know, I’d have been much happier if it had been, but I suspect she thinks even that would be too uncool. Mushrooms – legalize mushrooms! And shamanic potions containing rat-spit and frog-spawn…

  8. This smacks of grad student hubris, thinking that whatever one has to say is interesting or funny, especially if one is under the influence of anything other than intelligence. Even if it was meant to be a parody, I think that authors needs to respect their readers and not waste their time with hundreds of pages of piffle. Often times, parodies work much better a short essays.

    • Yep! I believe she had a minor success with a short book on her experiences of magic mushrooms – won some kind of prize. Presumably that fooled a publisher – and possibly herself – into thinking she had something valid to say about a wider subject. But I’m afraid unless she’s willing to be a good deal more rigorous in her research and presentation, she’s always going to sound like a student after a few hours at the bar… or in the field. First rule of factual writing – decide what you want to say before you write the book!

  9. It seems like I’ve waited a long time for one of these brilliant types of reviews!! Sadly I was unlikely to want to read this one so you haven’t saved the TBR but you did make me smile plenty! Thank you 😊

  10. Yikes!!! I was hoping this book would at least have a meaty discussion, since the premise is intriguing. But the only meaty discussion seems to be your book review. Glad I read it instead of this book. 🙂

    • I know – I’d still like to read the book I thought this one was going to be. A real wasted opportunity. Haha! You should have read the first draft before I controlled my anger and got my sarcasm under a bit of control… 😉

  11. Nope, this one’s definitely not for me! Thanks for wading through it so I don’t have to. In fact, her author photo kind of looks like she didn’t enjoy the process either, doesn’t it?!

    • Haha! I got the strong feeling that she was nearly as fed up writing the book as I was reading it! I guess that’s why it’s always a good idea to decide what you want to say before you actually start writing a book… 😉

  12. Has she considered the weather? I mean, if it’s a nature-based sex cult she’s after, presumably a lot of it happens outside. I’m with Granny Weatherwax on this one: the thick flannel drawers are staying ON! 🙂

  13. When I started reading the review, I thought it was a fantasy novel about an actual talking lion that wanted to create a sex cult. I was quite pleased. How that pleasure went away when I rechecked and saw that Lyon is the author’s last name.

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