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Into the deep, dark woods

Gossip From the Forest: the Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales - review.

Gossip From the Forest: the Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales
Sara Maitland
Granta Books, 368pp, £20

Fairy tales always end well, according to Sara Maitland. The twists and turns of the plot are untangled, the central dilemma is resolved, the characters freed to live “happily ever after”. Everyone knows that refrain. Yet just as likely to stick in the memory are the gore and the poison that suffuse them. They are part of the puzzle of fairy tales, one that lingers into adulthood. What are these strange fantasies for and what do they teach?

Maitland’s book Gossip From the Forest is a playful blend of non-fiction and fable. It is both practical and symbolic, a box of tools and a box of delights. In 12 chapters, spanning a year, Maitland visits a different patch of woodland in England or Scotland. Each has its own special qualities: the beechwood of Saltridge, dazzling green; the giant misshapen oaks of Staverton Thicks; the plantation pines of Kielder; the fragmented Great North Wood in London’s southern suburbs. Each draws out a discussion of the various properties of fairy stories, which, in turn, ends up in the retelling of a familiar tale. Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are all here, recounted chattily, with some nice reverses: Rumpelstiltskin is the hero in this version and Rapunzel’s story is told from the point of view of the “witch” who imprisons her. The sensibility is politically correct, a little hippyish. Sleeping Beauty dreams of the destruction wrought by roads, pylons and acid rain during her long sleep.

This unusual structure sells an idea that would otherwise be quite hard to convey – that the relationship between fairy tales and forests is a symbiotic one. The stories told by northern Europeans came out of the forest, with all that means for character, plot and special narrative devices. The peculiar attributes of woodland, where, because of the lack of long vistas, surprises can be found around every corner, give rise to a particular kind of everyday magic – talking animals and cloaks of invisibility. Trapdoors and underground chambers echo the small-scale mining done in places such as the Forest of Dean. But more than that: forests are seen through the prism of fairy tales and are changed by them. Our expectations and therefore our approach to their management are partly determined by memories of Red Riding Hood, of woodcutters, wolves and gingerbread houses.

They are also determined by some powerful, destructive myths: that, for example, most of Britain was once covered by forest. It is now thought that as little as 7 per cent of Scotland was ancient forest. As a result of mass plantation in the 20th century, trees now cover 17 per cent of it, to the detriment of pre-existing habitats.

Almost as damaging as the thought that woodland could be made to spring up anywhere is the idea that it is best left to its own devices. “Interference” of the kind practised for most of the human history of these islands increases the vitality of the forest. Traces of this culture remain in our language and are sprinkled through the book: pollarding, coppicing, pannage, purpesture. It is pollarding (cutting off higher branches) and coppicing (cutting at the base) that give the oaks such as those of Staverton Thicks their bizarre, hollowed-out, many-branched, many-trunked quality – characteristics I had assumed were entirely natural.

Maitland’s remedy for our alienation from forests and their many delights, beautifully delineated in the non-fiction sections of the book, is to get close to them once more. Her solution unexpectedly brings to mind the coalition’s consultation into the future of forests that caused uproar in 2011. Their management, perhaps their ownership, should be devolved. Primary schools should have a special relationship with nearby woodland. And there is an ingenious proposal: new citizens, whether by birth or adoption, should be matched with an area of forest. “Your own forest-piece location,” she says, “like your date of birth or your zodiac sign, would establish bonds and mutual interests.”

What of her remedy for fairy tales, also misunderstood, if not threatened with extinction? Maitland suggests new citizens receive an anthology, too. Not a bad idea. One suspects she also believes these stories need to be reclaimed from critics who take them too seriously: “A surprising number of them are very silly indeed – they are jokes, elaborate teases, for fun.” The psychoanalytic approach, she pleads, need not be the only one. Nor should we get hung up on searching for universals, when what we can glean about specific geographies and practices is just as valuable. Though she’s right that silly stories exist, they are surely the least significant ones. And to drag Sleeping Beauty back from the clutches of Bruno Bettelheim must be to diminish it. Maitland almost proves the point herself: her best tale, a version of Red Riding Hood, is the darkest, most ambiguous, most discomfiting of the lot. Sometimes, the happy ending is the least interesting part of the story.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture