Once upon a time

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, by Sara Maitland, Granta, RRP£20, 368 pages

Two hundred years ago the Grimms published their influential collection Children’s and Household Tales, and fairy tales have never lost their appeal. Freudian and Jungian analysis and feminist revisionism have reinvigorated the genre; they continue to inspire films, novels and short stories, and to infuse children’s fiction. Sara Maitland’s meditation on the wisdom to be found in both forests and fairy tales is timely but, despite their “tangled roots”, Gossip from the Forest is really a book of two distinct halves that are hard to reconcile.

It is neatly structured around 12 woodland walks in England and Scotland, each taken in a different calendar month, running from March to February (a map would have been nice). Maitland examines “ancient” woodland, former royal hunting forests, Forestry Commission managed plantation and private land. She is scared, lost, exhilarated and thoughtful by turns. At the end of each walk she retells a fairy tale subtly signalled in its preceding chapter.

Along the way she roughs together a thesis on the interplay between forests and fairy tales. Although forests are full of baddies, she notes, they are usually passing through; whereas “those whose livelihood is based within the woods ... are always helpful, kind and useful”. She meets many such, including modern woodcutters and gnome-like miners, but also a “wicked witch” who screams trespass and a savage beast (a biting dog). “I believe the stories took the particular themes they did because their original tellers were living in the forests,” she concludes.

Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places (2007), accompanies her to Epping Forest, where “we were never really beyond the reach of engine noises from the roads”. They take their shoes off and walk barefoot for a while but then “the atmosphere changed”. There is rubbish, graffiti, pathways where too many people “with their shoes on” have tramped. Epping, concludes Maitland, is “a dream or memory of ancient woodland”, preserved by the Corporation of London as a resource for cockneys. There is a slight sense that other people haven’t got quite the same right to be there.

Her observations about classic fairy tales are fascinating: that gypsies never appear; dogs are rare; no one is vegetarian despite the preponderance of talking animals (in fact, keen hunters abound). She observes the operation of magic in the tales, which can be arbitrary and inconsistent. There are no wizard schools, she notes; no one learns magic. More recently, “batty” (but wise) old women have been transformed into men: Gandalf, Dumbledore. Her retellings are bold and enjoyable, occasionally didactic. “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf” gains a terrible, unintended resonance from the recent April Jones missing child case; Rapunzel is told from the perspective of the witch; and Hansel and Gretel have grown up.

However, passages that begin “First he took us to see some selective felling in action” or “Continuous cover is still a new and experimental approach to forestry” raise less enthusiasm. If you want to read about the development of forests from a historical, geographical and ecological perspective, the details are all here, but they sit oddly with Maitland’s more creative musings about the roots of storytelling.

The book doesn’t quite gel, in other words, but nevertheless offers much pleasure and instruction. I did not know that the Romans introduced nettles to Britain, or that the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have deemed “acorn”, “bramble”, “conker” and other nature nouns irrelevant to today’s children. They claim to be reflecting “the fact that Britain is now a multicultural, modern society; but I cannot understand how it makes something more multicultural to eliminate a whole culture,” Maitland writes crisply. Yet the old tales, and trees, have a habit of growing back.

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