Saturday, October 23, 2010

Speculative Fiction's Fascination with Green Beings

I have always found our collective fascination with "little green men" to be, well, fascinating. Not so much the "little" part, but the "green" part. The meme of green aliens permeates science fiction, but also appears in other forms in folk tales and ancient mythology. Why are we so enthralled with this idea?

For the purposes of this post, I define "alien" very broadly, because I believe the basis for this fixation goes deep into time and into the human psyche. Humans have always had a feeling of strange "aliens" in their midst. The idea of aliens being intelligent life forms from another planet is rather new. Humans have envisioned other sorts of aliens, like fairies, spirits, gods, and monsters. Sagan discussed this concept in his book The Demon Haunted World. I hardly have space here to consider the huge idea of why we invent strange aliens in the first place, but I do want to briefly ponder why they are so often so specifically green.

Most cultures throughout history have noted the obvious, common color of green in nature. So it is not surprising that many cultures have placed the same meaning and symbolism on green, including birth, growth, sustenance, the cycles of nature, and then rebirth in the afterlife. These processes were full of mystery to the ancients (and to us, still) and so green became not only the color of the natural, but also the supernatural. For example, worship of the Egyptian god Osiris is recorded as early as around 2400 BCE. Osiris, the god of nature, rebirth and the afterlife, was often depicted with green skin.

This is a particularly strong symbol in Anglo, Saxon, and Celtic cultures. The forest fairies were green, and certainly the Green Man mythology centers around this symbolism. Originally, this green color was considered good - wild - but good. The pagan religious that grew up around it believed the green forest denizens were protectors and guides of the natural world. There is a theory that suggests it was Christianity's arrival in the Celtic world that changed green from a more positive, natural symbol into one that was just as often malevolent and demon related.  The early Church took a negative view of the color since honoring and worshiping the green folk and their ilk was decidedly against its ideology. So eventually in the Isles, green colored creatures also became something dangerous and evil, such as twisted wild fairies, pernicious monsters like goblins, and green-skinned witches. These ideas were in place by 1400 CE, as indicated by tales such as "Gawain and the Green Knight" where ancient tales and symbols meld with Christian ones.

As the known replaced the unknown, places like forests became less mysterious. But we humans simply moved our "aliens" to the next strange frontier such as distant islands, deep jungles, and the bottom of the ocean. The birth of modern science made it seem as if humans might eventually be able to replicate all the processes of nature - and one result was the quickening of the genre of science fiction with Shelly's Frankenstein in 1818. Frankenstein defies nature and creates life from death, piecing together his monster in a way that echoes how Isis pieced together the body of Osiris.

Into this new genre stepped authors like Verne and Wells, who had visions of travels to distant lands, and even distant planets. By 1880, Schaparelli had already named the major features he observed on Mars as "continents" and "seas".  That same year Greg published Across the Zodiac, where a traveler finds small humanoids populating that planet. With the 1899 Green Boy of Hurrah, and Burroughs' 1906 A Princess of Mars, amongst other stories, the small alien humanoids in the public imagination were nearly universally green.

As science fiction continued to explore its love for green aliens, high fantasy was born with Tolkien between The Hobbit in the mid 1930's and The Lord of the Rings in the mid 1950's. It was out of the mix of the symbolism of the Isles that Tolkien drew the heart of his Middle Earth, especially his creatures, including goblins, orcs, elves, ents and entwives, and dwarves. The elves, associated with the green forests, were mystical, ethereal, powerful, immortal, and generally good. But the green skinned orcs (apparently once elves) were twisted, violent, malignant, and evil. This is a striking parallel to the clash between pagan and church ideas in the old Celtic lands.

From that point, it isn't so hard to see how the trope or meme continued to expand. Today our speculative genres are filled with green creatures. Whether science fiction, fantasy or horror, there are little green men from Mars, green orcs, and green creatures from the black lagoon. We remain fascinated with the greenies. I, personally, trace it all back to that first green connection with the mysterious. We paint green those creatures who we, as authors, want to have a mystical, supernatural, or hyper-scientific power over nature, over life, and over death.

This is hardly a scientific study, merely my own thoughts presenting one possible reason why we fixate so strongly, and even adore, our green aliens. I have a species of green aliens in my sci-fi universe, too. And overused meme or not, they are there to stay. What are your thoughts?

Bryce

Image Credit: Best 2 Out of 3 by rmj7 on deviantArt.com

My comments: This art depicts characters from the newly released book Prossia by Raphyel M. Jordan. I envy the ability to actually draw the characters in one's writing, let alone create visual art.

The artist says: "Aly and Catty come from a race of people that are very combat-oriented and like to spar in their spare time. Here we catch the two after Round #2...ya think Catty's probably up for a Round 3?"

2 comments:

Andy said...

I wonder if there's also an element of mammals vs. reptiles in there somewhere-- there are no green-skinned or green-furred mammals (that I can think of, anyway), while it's common (prevalent?) among reptiles. So a green skin on a humanoid already signals something "other" or alien.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Interesting idea - certainly there are plenty of green-lizard like aliens friendly or malevolent, in speculative literature. I wonder how that plays with the idea of green also being plants or plant based. Lizards eat plants :)