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The Green Children of Woolpit

June 8, 2015

As you know if you’ve been following this blog a while, or have actually met me, I’m attracted to the strange, unusual, and unexplained—and I’m an information sponge, so I tend to remember stories along these lines for ages. The one that I think has stuck with me the most, because it’s just so odd, is the story of the Green Children of Woolpit.

The story goes like this: One day at harvest time, sometime in the mid-12th century, two children were found by a wolf trap near the village of Woolpit. Their clothing was unfamiliar, nobody recognized their language, and strangest of all, their skin was green. The brother and sister were taken to the home of the local lord, where they ate nothing put in front of them except raw beans. Eventually they began to eat more food and lost their green color, although the boy became sick and died shortly after he and his sister were baptised.

The girl (or maybe the girl and boy) learned English and explained that they came from St. Martin’s Land, where the sun never shone, it was always twilight, and everyone was green. She couldn’t explain how they got to Woolpit—they’d been herding cattle when they heard a loud noise and found themselves by the pit where they were found. (One of the historical sources says they followed the cattle into a cave and the bells of the local church lead them out again.)

The girl worked as a servant in the lord’s household until she married and left town. She was reported to be “very wanton and impudent”.

There are several explanations for the story. First, that it was a miracle. Second, that this is a folk tale, since it’s got elements like caves and green people and possible allegories about the Welsh. Third, that this is actual proof of either faeries or subterranean races or both. Fourth, that they were extraterrestrial. Fifth, that they were two sick Flemish kids who lived nearby, and that they’d fled their home when their parents were killed. Every one of these explanations has holes in it, so who knows.

(There’s some interesting commentary here. That site also relates the two original accounts.)

For me, the story has the same sense of “maybe” as so much other unexplained folklore (Nessie, Sasquatch, Roswell, lost cities, hauntings, etc.). It’s the same blending of fact and fiction that draws me to books like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Mythago WoodArthuriana, and the type of urban fantasy that’s more about magic than action or mystery. I like the liminal spaces of fiction, I think, the things that could be but probably aren’t—especially when they’re done well.

Back to the Green Children, I’m pleased to see that there’ve been works based on them, but I’m a bit saddened that there haven’t been more. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since there isn’t all that much to the legend and it’s not like this story is common knowledge the way, say, UFOs are. And I guess if we choose the “faeries” angle, there are a lot of stories that draw from the English fae lore, and I do like those so shouldn’t really complain.

Still, I kind of want to know who they were, how they came to Woolpit, and what their world was like. Guess I’ll have to work them into a story someday.

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