[13 November 2012]
Sara Maitland’s From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales is as magical as many of the stories it discusses. Maitland takes readers on journeys through European forests and classic fairytales and, in doing so, creates a book that is both whimsical and thoughtful.
Each chapter takes place over the period of a month (the book starts with March and ends with February) and includes a section on a wood or a forest and a revisioning of a fairytale. And each chapter blends cultural criticism, history, memoir, and fiction.
The sections on the woods always involve Maitland actually journeying to and through the woods. The book opens with Maitland and her son camping in the Airyolland Wood. They eat baked beans. They talk of stories and where her son learned them. He can’t really remember, but he knows them all: Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Snow White, “that one with the swans and the shirts”.
Maitland puts a little bit of herself into each section. Often it is mention of her (or her friends’) dogs that enjoy the woods with their human companions—sometimes it is a reference to a hobby such as gardening or a fear (Maitland is terrified of snakes). But there is always something, a small part of her on each journey through the woods.
Each section also contains history—perhaps of a tree or fungi, perhaps a mention of the forest in King Henry’s day or Queen Victoria’s time. And of course, each section talks about fairytales. Somehow, perhaps it’s part of the magic, everything fits together, and just as one wonders how a discussion of deforestation can have anything to do with princes and princesses, talking animals, or houses made out of candy, Maitland provides the connection: “Now fairy stories are at risk too, like the forests” and then goes on to describe the decline of the oral tradition, the static nature of the tales once they are “confined” to books, and the dangers modern technology brings to traditional storytelling.
In the Epping Forest, Maitland goes barefoot and expresses joy over finding a swing: “Apart from the pure physical delight of swinging on such a long rope, it felt like a sign that there are still children in the forests”. But these flights of fancy lead to a very different conclusion—that “adults are selfishly letting our fairly imaginary fears deprive our children of opportunities to enjoy something that adults continually report as one of the most pleasurable memories of our youth—times of being outside, alone, or with our siblings or friends”. Not surprisingly, both forests and stories can help solve this problem. Maitland describes fairy stories as “training grounds for resilience” and notes that while horrors often await children in fairytales, the children’s hard work, ingenuity and cool thinking usually save them.
The sections on the woods could be a book in and of themselves. On their own, these sections are thoughtful, educational, and charming. But each is partnered with a fairytale—most with familiar names—Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel. The stories themselves are not as familiar. Sometimes they are simply more honest—the husband in Thumbling is described as “a decent man, if a little dull” and boredom is now a major component of the tale.
Other retellings seem more about “fixing” the stories. Maitland appears particularly displeased with the original Rumpelstiltskin. After all, Maitland notes, in it the king is greedy, the miller’s daughter is “boastful” and “ambitious”. The miller—“selfish” and “mean-hearted”. Yet, they are the heroes, not the villains of the story. Rumpelstiltskin, Maitland claims, violates the rules—the rules of fairytales where the queen is “gentle and kind and good as well as beautiful”, where “hard work is rewarded”, where “the old, the ugly, and the weak” are respected and where “promises must be kept”. Which brings Maitland to her question about Rumpelstiltskin: “why is the funny little man the villain, and the greedy king and the spoiled queen the heroes?”
Then there is Maitland’s Hansel and Gretel which is not really a retelling or revisioning—it’s a continuation. How do two children who suffered as Hansel and Gretel did live happily ever after? Do they live happily ever after? In Maitland’s version they are all grown up; one is married with a child, the other lives a more isolated life. Both think back to the candy house and the witch and wonder what is true and what might have been a dream.
The book ends with February—on the surface an odd choice—something that is perhaps seen as neither a beginning nor an end. Maitland herself calls it “the bottom of the year, the dead time”, but by the end of this section she realizes “The wood is not dead, just sleeping; it is turning now, waking up, beginning again”.
Maitland contends that the only way to “know” the woods is to go to the woods and that if “we want healthy children in healthy forests we need to get the children out into the forests”. It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But Maitland describes her own experiences in the forests with such clarity and detail that readers might almost feel like they are in the woods—and most likely From the Forest will make many want to experience the woods for themselves.