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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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis