a-fairytale-forest

Maitland, S. (2012) Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales Granta ISBN 9781847084293

In Gossip from the Forest [Sara Maitland] journeys, fairytale-like, deep into the woods, taking 12 walks in 12 British forests (one a month, over the course of a year). As she travels around the country, wandering the rides of the New Forest, hunting down relics of ancient woodland in Dulwich and meeting the last surviving Free Miners in the Forest of Dean, she muses on fairytales, using them as a way of understanding the mysterious space forests occupy within our psyches.

This is a bushy, sprawling book, as perhaps it should be. It roves busily back and forth through time, unpicking the complex history of British woodland from the Neolithic period to the present day. Maitland rejects the myth of an island covered in uninterrupted forest, revealing instead a history of exploitation, enclosure and artificial reconstruction. Likewise, she tracks “our robust and lovely fairy stories” through the centuries, observing how they shift emphasis in different eras, becoming increasingly pruned and pious.

Olivia Laing in The Observer 28.1.2012

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A walk through the woods with Sara Maitland offers more refreshment than a thermos flask of tea. […] The writer explores our woodland’s common roots with fairy tales, a tangle of magic and mystery growing from the same rich ground. Taking a path that leads past gingerbread cottages and woodcutters, she also encounters the industrial revolution, the laws of hunting and the secrets of etymology, a wide-ranging cultural forage that finds fruit on every bramble and mushrooms under every tree.

Victoria Segal in The Guardian 21.07.2013

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The fear that forests engender in us is a healthy kind of fear, Maitland argues, associated with magic, wildness, and strangeness, and in arguing so, she gives back to forests a sense of their power over us as well as the allure they have for us.

Lesley McDowell in The Independent 01.07.2013  

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On her walks in the woods Maitland explores the human and natural history of the landscape alongside the more fantastical narratives of folklore: so a trip to the New Forest in bluebell time, during which she encounters a small adder, leads her to a consideration both of the habits of adders, and of the role of snakes in fairy tales, where they appear rarely and often decline to engage with humans.

 Maitland punctuates her richly digressive text with mildly subversive retellings of familiar fairy tales: Rumpelstiltskin gives his side of the story, Hansel and Gretel become middle-aged, the seven dwarves acquire parenting skills, and so on.

Jane Shilling in The Telegraph 31.10.12

They say that if you go down to the woods today, you’re likely to find some literary type in the undergrowth in search of narrative. A host of modern writers of outstanding prose – including Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane  – has found inspiration in the wildwood.

Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest has added to the burgeoning genre with an enchanted spinning wheel of a book, turning the world around it into golden threads, into anecdotes, stories and tall tales. It’s lyrical, imaginative and gorgeously well written.

The premise is simple enough, Maitland sets out to walk twelve ancient forests, one a month, over the course of a year. Each walk closes with a retelling of a classic fairytale, often from an oblique angle.

Critically however, there’s also a quiet campaigning going on too, with the writing taking on an engaging earnestness derived from Maitland’s concern that children no longer play in woods, particularly without adult supervision; that they don’t know the names of trees and leave blackberries rotting in the hedgerows. This state of estrangement from the wild, she argues, is troubling both for conservation reasons (it’s hard to preserve what one doesn’t know) and also for human health (the average child, she states, has already lost an hour a day of outdoor play this century). What’s more, she believes, a lack of free, wild play means children are missing out one of the essential lessons of the fairytale: that harm and danger can be survived and make a person more robust.

“I seriously fear,” she writes, “that we are failing to nourish the beautiful and precious quality of resilience in our children.”

It’s one of the most poetic call-to-arms I’ve read.

Fairytales are one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, and forests one of our most ancient and primal landscapes. Both evoke a similar sensation in us — we find them beautiful and magical, but also spooky, sometimes horrifying.

In this fascinating book, Maitland argues that the two forms are intimately connected: the mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forests were both the background and the source of fairytales. Yet both forests and fairy stories are at risk and their loss deprives us of our cultural lifeblood. Maitland visits forests through the seasons, from the exquisite green of a beechwood in spring, to the muffled stillness of a snowy pine wood in winter. She camps with her son Adam, whose beautiful photographs are included in the book; she takes a barefoot walk through Epping Forest with Robert Macfarlane; she walks with a mushroom expert through an oak wood, and with a miner through the Forest of Dean. Maitland ends each chapter with a unique, imaginitive re-telling of a fairy story.

Written with Sara’s wonderful clarity and conversational grace, Gossip from the Forest is a magical and unique blend of nature writing, history and imaginative fiction. Goodreads Review

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