Gossip From The Forest, by Sara Maitland

>> Thursday, August 22, 2013

TITLE: Gossip From The Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
AUTHOR: Sara Maitland

PAGES: 332

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction

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 fairystory.
Maitland's thesis is that fairy tales and forests are intimately connected, with fairy tales clearly originating in forests, told originally by forest dwellers, and uniquely shaped by this. She makes some excellent points when comparing how fairy tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm's differ from traditional stories from other traditions, such as those from desert peoples or peoples who lived by the sea. I was convinced.

Gossip From the Forest contains 12 chapters, each covering a visit Maitland made to a forest, one per month. The chapters start by describing the wood in question and tying that to a certain factual theme, whether it's the history of afforestation (in the UK sense of converting land into Royal Forests), the tradition of Freeminers in the Forest of Dean or the activities of the Forestry Commission. That was all interesting enough (if a bit dry in a few cases), but then the fascinating stuff starts when Maitland begins to bring in fairy tales into the narrative, by relating each theme she develops to a particular aspect of fairy tales, whether it's the role of women, childrearing, or the perception of those who work in forest vs those who don't.

I absolutely loved that, but not as much as I loved the fairy tale retellings that follow each chapter. A couple of them are relatively straightforward, but the best were those in which Maitland takes a bit of an off-beat approach. we see Hansel and Gretel decades after they defeated the witch, still somewhat haunted by those events. We see that, seen from Rumpeltilskin's point of view, he's not the villain of the piece, and the tale of the little Goose Girl is much, much better when we see it retold from the point of view of the King who will then become her father-in-law.

Good stuff!



Barb in Maryland 22 August 2013 at 21:16  

Yay! My library has this and I now have it on reserve. Thanks for the heads up.

Rosario 25 August 2013 at 11:14  

Excellent! I always wonder if anyone will be interested when I post reviews of non-romance books, so glad to see someone is! :)

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