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9781847084293

The forests of Britain entwine with retellings of Grimms’ fairytales in Sara Maitland’s imaginative investigation.

This book is definitely for the bedside or the beach, perhaps for life. It offers a long leisurely exploration under the guidance of a sort of wise and informed fairy godmother. Sara Maitland’s tone is authoritative and curiously intimate. Because she is herself present in each of the forests, enjoying them and describing them with acuity and grace, the reader becomes part of a conversational flow, full of information and creativity. In fact, the book covers so much rich, fascinating detail concerning both forests and fairytales that it is hard  let’s be honest; impossible – to do it justice in a short description.

Organised into chapters, each of which deals with a separate forest of Great Britain, Gossip From the Forest explores several themes concerning or connected to those forests, and ends each chapter with a reworked fairytale. For example, in Chapter 4, ‘Epping Forest’, after describing her walk with Robert Macfarlane and the effects of enclosure on forests, Maitland talks about children:

In consequence of both child-raising and educational approaches, I seriously fear we are failing to nourish the beautiful and precious quality of resilience in our children. I mean the simple honest awareness that horrible and dangerous things do happen, but that you can cope; with a modest application of good sense you can not only survive, you can gain from the experience.

Then she looks at the way fairytales are a form of training ground for resilience, and ends the chapter with a version of Hansel and Gretel where they deal, in later life, with the issues of their experience in the forest. Gretel suffers remorse for killing the witch:

I killed our witch. I pushed her into the oven and I killed her dead. She was like a weasel, wild and fierce and free, and I killed her.

This pattern recurs throughout; each chapter contains a lyrical description of a forest with a discourse concerning a particular theme. There is so much information about history, botany, ownership and use of forests, the nature of fairytales, fear and magic, followed by a rewritten fairytale, that it is almost overwhelming.

The tales that Maitland retells are those stories from northern Europe collected by the brothers Grimm and they are all given a more psychological spin than we are used to. (Rumplestiltskin is treated very sympathetically in contrast to the greed of the king and the miller’s daughter.) She calls them Teutonic stories and sees Celtic and Viking stories as subtly different.

Chapter 8, ‘Ballochbuie and the Forest of Mar’, shows the extraordinarily wide range of Maitland’s writing. In it, she talks of the great Caledonian forests, Scottish nationalism, the nature of fear, and the fearsomeness of fungi in particular:

The myth of the immense forests of Scotland has been given additional imaginative leverage by a nationalist sensibility that claims that the trees – those that weren’t burned in Viking raids, or cleared to extirpate wolves and brigands – were ‘stolen’ (like ‘our’ oil) by English entrepreneurs working under the protection of cash-strapped absentee landlords after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This pervasive belief is based on the unfounded theory that fire and logging destroy such woods and they cannot regenerate. In fact, in every location where there is evidence of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century commercial logging, there is still a pine forest in good heart.

… There are surprisingly few direct references to toadstools (for good or bad) in the fairy stories, although I for one am certain that if you wanted to poison half an apple to rid yourself of a step-daughter, a small slice of Amanita muscaria – fly agaric – might work very well.

The story of Rapunzel, from the point of view of the witch, follows. It’s a complex structure, yet Maitland’s skills are such that it is riveting to read.

This book is a real joy, but there were some regrets as I read. Maitland has made clear how fairy stories and landscape intertwine and it saddens me that the stories and legends the ancient Australian land has called forth are not readily available to everyone in this immigrant nation. It will be wonderful when both Australian landscape and Indigenous Australian stories can resonate as widely as the northern European ones have.

As an Australian, these forests that Maitland discusses are unknown to me and although I respond with pleasure as the oaks, beeches, birches, elms and pines are celebrated, I regret that our own trees, except for the ubiquitous gum and wattle, are relatively unknown to most of us. We take our forests for granted to a certain extent. Because many of us have read English books since childhood, all the plants of Europe are in our DNA  but not our own flora.

Maitland’s book is a great pleasure. It stimulates, informs and delights, just as its subject matter, forests and fairy stories, can. I will go on rereading it for some time, as almost every paragraph gives cause for reflection.

Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales, Granta, 2012, HB, 256pp, $35.00

Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.

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