Once upon a time, it was all forest, and we were all forest people. Hard to picture if you are surrounded by concrete and traffic, but not so hard to feel it. All it takes is a solitary walk in your nearest woods (which may not be that near, but make the effort), and within minutes you will experience a tangle of primitive emotions which Sara Maitland describes as ‘a strange brew of excitement, recognition and peril, with more anticipation or even childlike glee than simple “terror of the wild” because of the other sense that this is somewhere I know and have known all my life.’ You will hear invisible creatures and glimpse things which may or may not be there. Is that an oak or a house on chicken legs? Does that warty toad remind you of someone? If you lie down on the moss-carpeted floor and close your eyes, will you dream desiringly of bad sad wolves and wake up a hundred years later?
Well, you might, says Maitland in her spell-binding Gossip from the Forest, because even if we are no longer physically dwelling in the forest, our myth-making imagination is still rooted there. In fact, the forest and the European fairytale grow from the same turf, and have nurtured each other symbiotically through the ages, transcending time, fashions, and the Brothers Grimm’s pious nineteenth-century adjustments. She explicitly locates her cultural tradition, and like the landscape, the tradition is northern European. It is embodied here by the Brothers Grimm Märchen or fairy tales which represent what Maitland sees as a common Teutonic sensibility that Britons share with Germans and other northern Europeans. Interestingly, she sees this as distinct from the Viking mythology and further questions the assumed universality of folk tales by looking at the Arabian Nights. The stories there spring from a flat desert-like landscape as opposed to a verdant mountainous one, and the adventures are therefore more about setting off on the seas, like Sinbad the Sailor, and less about hiding and getting lost, like Hanzel and Gretel.
This internalised geography has laid, in her view, the very foundations of the northern Europen collective psyche, including psychoanalytic theory (we all know a witch and a cruel king) and it feeds into our ideas of what is justice, truth, beauty, and love, especially romantic love – the great themes of fairy stories and indeed all stories.
An example: in the fairy tale, those who make a living in the forest are essentially good characters – the dwarves in Snow White, morally and existentially linked here to the Free Miners, the last of whom Maitland meets in the moving Forest of Dean chapter, because ‘what defines a dwarf is that he is a miner’; the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood from the wolf; and of course all the talking, telepathic birds and animals who save the protagonist from misfortune – think of the talking horse’s head in Little Goosegirl, or the animals who help the gormless but kind hero of The White Snake.
If the forests have given us our fairytales, Maitland argues, the fairytales give us the forest back, both the vanished forest and the still-standing forest which we have forgotten how to enter and enjoy. This simple and compelling idea gives the book a solid, though never rigid conceptual backbone. Having thus outlined the lay of the land, Maitland sets off on a series of woodland adventures, one for each month of the year – starting in March in Galloway’s Airyolland Wood, ‘a little fragment of what was once a far more extensive forest and we are lucky to have it still’, and ending again in Galloway in February, ‘the bottom of the year, the dead time’ – a pleasingly organic structure in unison with her subject.
Forest by forest, fairytale by re-imagined fairytale, and with an infectiously Maitlandish verve for magical discovery, she goes after our collective ‘dreams of wildwood’. In Britain’s physical and mythical undergrowth, curious things lurk.
Did you know that witches’ brooms were traditionally made from birch, a magic tree, and that ‘silver birch’ was coined by Tennyson? That coniferous plantations take more than a century to grow. That frogspawn feels both lumpy and slimy (I tested this in the nearest puddle); that goats in stories speak more often than any other animal; that in the nineteenth century, despite the 300 English deer parks, the ‘gentlemanly’ way to kill a deer was to go to the Highlands (plus ça change); and that the Gypsies don’t have a place in northern European stories though they are central to Eastern European and Mediterranean folklore?
Did you know that, although the tradition of ‘bringing the forest into the home’ is ancient, the Christmas tree tradition, in existence in the Baltic region since the fifteenth century, was only brought to the rest of western Europe by ‘assorted German princesses marrying widely across the continent’? In the book’s most arresting episode, Maitland goes looking for her own clandestine Christmas tree in Galloway’s memorably named Purgatory Wood where there was once a leper colony, only to be shocked by a hunter. Prompted to reflect on different kinds of fear, she concludes that fear of the forest is essentially fear of ‘stranger danger’ – and this fear is well covered in fairy tales. Robbers, marauders, and general dark forces dwell in the woods, never mind that the greatest damage is likely to come from your step-mother (Snow White) or your own father (Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin). She contrasts this with the ‘uncanny fairy-tale shivers’ she experiences in Glen Affric and the Cairngorms. I must admit that, if only for reasons of a childhood spent in the Balkan mountains where you hear wolves howl at close quarters and see bear prints on the forest paths (or at least you did in the 1980s), I found Maitland’s forest terror more enviably thrilling than I can hope to feel in a British forest. Though there has been talk of re-introducing wolves in parts of the Highlands, so there is potential…
But one thing I have always felt to be true, in all the forests of my life, and Maitland elucidates it brilliantly on her walk in the poignantly named Great North Wood which is neither great anymore, nor north. Many fairy tales are about the separation of true identity (often found in the forest) from a false identity (often found in a castle). The forest, therefore, is the home of your secret true self, perhaps because it is such an ancient self. Where else but in the forest can you relish the mirrored duality of our ‘ruined past and lively present’, where the ruined walls of a house and ‘the wicked grinning fungus’ live side by side with ‘the magnificent ancient tree’ and the ‘cloud of butterflies feeding’?
I was also strangely reassured to read that the great Caledonian Forest is a bit of a fairytale itself, and apparently no more than 7% of Scotland was ever covered in forest, thanks to grazing wild animals and later farm animals. ‘Once upon a time the whole country may not have been all forest,’ Maitland concedes at one point, and it is this unprejudiced spirit of quest, this purity of inquiry, that makes her such a engaging narrator, ‘but there was certainly forest where now there is not.’ Once upon a time here translates as the last glaciations, and the process of deforestation began some 5,000 years ago when people moved northwards with the ice caps, following the forest. Contrary to what I thought – as someone who lives in an intensely beautiful area of the Highlands where every week a massacred native forest is replaced by pylons the size of the Eiffel Tower – the greatest devastation of forests in Britain occurred not last week, but in the wake of World War I, thanks to which there is precious little ancient woodland left. It looks as if the Scottish Government would like to finish it all off, in the service of the brave new pylon schemes, which are sold to the public as ‘bringing power to the people’. I fear that all they are bringing is lots of money to a few. And so in the shadow of this War of the Worlds film-set, we shall live unhappily ever after. Maitland herself has written on the visual torment of the wind-mills in Galloway in an incisive essay in Aeon magazine online.
If the substance of this book lies in its natural and historic exploration of woods, its greatest delight is the re-telling of fairy tales in Maitland’s own playfully subversive style. Red Riding Hood is just a secondary character in a dark story where the wolf is a tortured soul. Rapunzel is told by the witch who wants to possess the beautiful girl. Dancing Shoes belongs to the sad king who will always be the sad kid at the party. There is huge fun to be had here, balanced by Maitland’s more sober, but equally impassioned plea.
Forests, like the spirit of fairytales, are endangered, because our sense of freedom, adventure, and time for contemplation has been cut down by artificial living and a sanitised culture, both physically and imaginatively. It is time to reclaim all of the above, and to rediscover the magic of forests by experiencing them, knowing them, and imagining them for what they really are: ‘beautiful and savage, useful and wasteful, dangerous and free.’
Come to think of it, so is the subject of Maitland’s earlier Book of Silence, which you will find just as full of secrets and surprises as this one.
Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
Granta, PP354, £9.99, ISBN 9781847084309