Into the deep, dark woods

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

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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.