From the Forest by Sara Maitland is a search for the hidden roots of our fairy tales. We all know, ‘Once upon a time…’ and off we go on some fanciful story that usually involves the forests and woods. I can recollect my own love of the woods when I was young. We always had good woods across from our homes or when I was older an easy drive, especially on Nantucket when I would escape to the moors and then the hidden forest to find some solitude. Walking in the woods always has more intrigue and adventure than a simple walk on the beach or in a city. Forests and fairy tales have a symbiotic relationship contends Maitland and she sets out from the get go to show and prove this with sound examples and a strong argument. “The forest is the place of trial in fairy stories, both dangerous and exciting. Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilizing its gifts and gaining its help is the way to ‘happy ever after.’” Beyond the classic authors I’m struck by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Tempest particularly and how he use this formula to arrive at a happy ending. Part of the charm of the forest is the chaos they bring to the story, the confusion, and in the end once it is figured out, the path is found, order is restored, but first there is always chaos. There is magic about forests we have always felt and always seem to return to with joy, trepidation, and wonder. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that our cities resemble forests as we imitate our primitive natural sides when we cut them down and build where a forest once was. Once upon a time there was Thumbling.
The book has twelve chapters, one for each month of the year starting with March. Each chapter speaks of a specific forest filled with botanical facts of the trees in each wood followed by a fairy tale.
April finds us in Saltridge Wood where I learned that the beech tree is the best tree to carve in because it grows with the tree and is not overgrown, as it would be obliterated on other trees covering the wound. I also learned that little else but bluebells and ransoms are found in a beech grove because of the root system of the beech tree which is not hospitable top other fauna. ‘Tyranny is like a beech tree; it looks very fine but nothing grows under it.’ The hierarchy of trees has the oak as king and the beech as queen only because it was the tree used by nobles to plant on their estates to provide shade and no groundcover. The real queen of the forest is the birch, which has been relegated to princess. It is the birch that has the connection to the fairy world, as birch was the tree for witches’ broomsticks. The birch has many other aspects as well such as the natural juices, the bark, and its sinewy strength as attested to by Robert Frost in his poem praising the birch. Ironically, there is no defining text or study of exactly what a fairy tale is or how many there are. The author mentions two attempts, the Aarne-Thompson system and the Vladimir Propp morphological approach, both of which are incomplete, inconclusive, and unsatisfying. Fairy tales are oral or written down. Charles Perrault (1628-1703) is given credit as the first ‘collector’ of fairy tales. Then of course we have the Brothers Grimm. So doesn’t Shakespeare fall into this category? He did what the Brothers Grimm did; he altered existing fairy stories and wrote them down. More irony occurs when their walk is interpreted by a hellhound that attacks their dog and creates some angst and puts a cloud over the walk after the bad dog owners retrieve their hellhound and disappear. Once upon a time there was a White Snake.
In May at the height of spring we are exploring New Forest, which has a history back to 1066, when William the Conqueror created the Forest Law that stated all forests belonged to the Crown and the Crown had exclusive hunting rights in all forests. Only the Crown could grant hunting rights to others, nobles as rewards. All others were poachers and harsh penalties would be exacted. In 1215 during King John’s reign the Magna Carta giving the people access to the forests displaces the Forest Law. During the time from 1066 to 1215, the forest became the realm of Out Laws, Robin Hood being the most famous mythical outlaw in England. Forests were places for people to hide from the law and still are today. The author spends much time providing data from the Brothers Grimm about the number of people who use the forest as sanctuary. Of course she spends some time with the Arthur legend and Camelot while Merlin wanders the Great Caledonian forest. Once upon a time there was Rumpelstiltskin.
It’s June so we must be in Epping Forest. Epping Forest is a tube ride from London, which makes it a very public and very visited public forest. It has been public and in the national trust since Queen Victoria. A right good model for what Teddy Roosevelt would do in America soon. Prior to Victoria and as far back as Henry I, Epping Forest was the formal hunting land of the Crown. While wondering the forest our author comes upon a swing that must have taken lots of genius to create because of the height of the limb and the difficulty of climbing the branchless tree. As she reflects of the lack of children, the author ventures off on her own private rant of how children are missing out on the adventures of the forest because of the overprotected society that keeps children in and allows them to become obese and miss out on the spirit of fairy tales, of play, of solving problems in the forest, and of living. She has a point. Once upon a time there were Hansel and Gretel.
Each month for the rest of the year, Maitland visits a different forest or wood, discusses the nature of the ecology and biology and botany of the wood, then explores various fairy stories to complement the science. The connection between woods/forests and fairy stories/tales is obvious as we travel from wood to wood with her and her companions. The major connection is one of ‘secrecy.’ Woods provide a place for secrets just as fairy tales are secrets or are filled with secrets, which are probably why we are enchanted, by both woods and fairy tales. They are physically linked to each other in so many ways, it is hard not to walk on a forest path, fear getting lost and hope to find a house that will provide refuge, safety, and magic. Even her fairy tales that follow each chapter are not the ones we know, they are variations much like what Shelley Duvall did with Faerie Tale Theatre in the 80’s.
This is a fun book and has provided me with a whole new avenue of exploration for my future visits to UK.