Friday, 7 March 2014

If you go down to the woods today

Shortly after finishing Sara Maitland's Gossip From The Forest, which traces both the history of British woodlands and the ways in which woods and their inhabitants are used in Grimm's fairy tales, I decided to watch The Blair Witch Project for the first time. I'm fifteen years too late on this one because I'm not a fan of horror films and thought it would terrify me, but the film is much more psychologically interesting than remotely scary. I'm a little obsessed with forests and with interrupted narratives, and I felt the film could have made much more of its central idea, but one thing that will stay with me is the sheer effort that the three teenagers make to try to get out of the forest, and the sense that the forest is somehow resisting them. Here, the jerky filming and the monotony of the trees plays fully to the film's advantage (whereas the night-time scenes can get a bit repetitive) as the situation feels both familiar and frustrating, and horribly nerve-wracking as we share their dread of what is to come when the sun leaves them again. Maitland thinks that 'few adult novels focus on woods and forests' and, while I suspect far more adult horror films use the forest to effect, this was why I was keen to finally watch Blair Witch; because I love stories set in the forest and find that I read too few.

Maitland is fully willing to engage with the creepiness of forests as well as with their beauty. I loved her description of the movement of pine forests, which as she notes, echoes Macbeth; because Scots pine seedlings need good light to germinate, the forest tends to move across a hillside naturally with it as the new trees grow slightly to the side of the old, rather than regenerating under their own canopy. While she (rightly) has little sympathy with Freudian interpretations of fairy tales such as that of Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, because he reads the tales as intended solely for children rather than being played to a mixed-age audience, she explores the darker implications of a number of these stories, especially through her own retellings of tales like The Goosegirl and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Maitland's retellings, which form an end-piece to each chapter, were a little hit-and-miss for me. I loved her versions of the former tales and of The Wild Swans, a story that has always been a favourite of mine, and which is one of her favourites as well. However, I found the stories where she used overtly modern references as an integral part of the retelling rather than as an aside to be less convincing, such as her use of humour in The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage. My sister tells traditional stories, so I'm very familiar with the use of modern jokes and modern dialogue to communicate with an audience, and I don't think there's anything wrong with doing this. Maitland's retellings became problematic for me when she started to re-interpret the stories from a modern viewpoint, when part of the appeal of fairy-tales is their strangeness. Rumplestiltskin was my least favourite retelling because of this - adopting the perspective of Rumplestiltskin, Maitland has him address his audience with a very post-modern knowingness while simultaneously judging the 'selfish' spinner and king with very old-fashioned morals. For me, this didn't make for a satisfyingly new story or a convincing version of the old.

Outside her series of retellings, the rest of this book falls more easily into the category of nature writing, and I was unsurprised to discover that Maitland is friends with Robert Macfarlane. Maitland writes well on nature, but the sections of the book that dealt with woodlands directly rather than with fairy-tales were less of a stand-out for me, although she fills the pages with fascinating titbits. I loved the exploration of the history of the word 'spinster', the descriptions of mushrooms (did you know that the common inkcap is perfectly safe to eat unless taken with alcohol? What a brilliant murder mystery in the making…) and the histories of forestation and deforestation in Britain, although I was predictably annoyed by her inaccurate assertions about the history of childhood. This book is called Gossip From The Forest, and so its eclecticism fits its title, but I felt occasionally that the project she sets herself in the introduction - to trace the roots of fairy-tales to particular forests - never really comes to pass, and unsurprisingly so, as she confines her travels to Britain. This is a pretty impossible task and she can hardly be blamed for not completing it, but I wish that she had found another framing device for this book. On the other hand, I'm now much better informed about 'ancient' woodland, coppicing and oaks and have a long list of forests to visit. Might just have to put the Blair Witch out of my mind first...

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