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THE FLOWERS OF THE FOREST

Once upon a time ...

Maitland next to the boulder at Glen Trool that marks Robert the Bruce's ambush of the English, after being inspired by a determined spider  in a cave in  Rathlin Island Maitland's friend, author Angela Carter, wrote The Company of Wolves, a fantasy-horror filmed by Neil Jordan in 1984, top, and, below, the English illustrator Arthur Rackham
Maitland next to the boulder at Glen Trool that marks Robert the Bruce's ambush of the English, after being inspired by a determined spider in a cave in Rathlin Island Maitland's friend, author Angela Carter, wrote The Company of Wolves, a fantasy-horror filmed by Neil Jordan in 1984, top, and, below, the English illustrator Arthur Rackham

that's how this story should begin. Once upon a time a woman realised she was scared of the deep, dark woods. The woman was seeking silence. To find it she had travelled to libraries, cathedrals and deserts. But not to forests. Never to forests. Even though they could easily be places of retreat, where the hissing hush of wind-agitated foliage and the odd bird call were the only things that broke the quiet she sought. But, no, she avoided them, detoured around them in her head and on the map.

Why should that be, she began to wonder? What was it about the forest's green silence that bothered her? She thought and thought and the answer was, she realised, because she was a little bit frightened by the very idea of them. "There was something about forests that was scary in my head," she reckoned.

One day, however, she decided to face her fear. She decided she had to go into the trees. And so she travelled to a forest in the north. Glen Affric, it was called. An ancient woodland. A pine forest that had endured despite the encroachments of man through the centuries. It was, she felt, an uncanny place. As she walked through it she noticed the lichen that hung like hair from the birch and rowan trees. A memory stirred in her. A memory of old stories prompted by these strange, eerie surroundings. She began to think about witches.

That's when she came across a very odd notice in the middle of the woods. The notice was short and to the point: "Tress cutting prohibited." She wondered who had put the notice up? Were the witches instituting a ban on chopping their locks?

"In fact, on closer examination it said 'tree cutting'," the woman, Sara Maitland, says. "But I really had this idea of these witches and it not being a good idea to cut their hair.

"What I realised was that the wood made me feel, not exactly ordinary fear, but the kind of scary feeling that fairy stories give you. And since I've always been interested in fairy stories and oral tradition, I thought that was a very interesting thing.

"Why do woods make me think of fairies?" And so she wrote a book to find out -

It's early autumn and on a wet and sunny day Maitland and I (plus Zoe, her dog) are walking in the woods. We are deep in Galloway, not so very far as the bird (or tiny, winged, supernatural being) flies, from where Maitland lives on her own, removed from the world, as is her preference, and not so very far from where she spent her childhood in Kirkcudbright. We are in a small but pretty tract of ancient woodland, the Buchan Wood. Oaks, ashes, birches, the odd sprig of holly. The ground is mossy and green, a verdant, spongy mattress. Almost 100 years ago John Buchan had Richard Hannay get off a train from London in Galloway, not so very far away from where we are now, in his novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. A few decades later Sara Maitland's father sent her and her siblings out with a copy of the book to see if they could discover where Richard Hannay had gone.

Over to the right, through the trees, Loch Trool glitters in the diffident sunlight. On the other side of the loch, Maitland tells me, some seven centuries ago, Robert the Bruce won his first victory after returning from Rathlin Island in the north of Ireland to try, try and try again. His men rolled huge boulders down on top of the passing English army, smashing into knights and horses. There's a boulder at the top of the hill we've just descended commemorating the battle.

This wood, then, is a storied wood. Indeed, this whole area is threaded with narrative. People have written themselves into this landscape. But then, Maitland would argue, we have written ourselves into every woodland landscape.

She says: "I've been very interested for a long time in how geography affects imagination. So I just wondered why we got these particular sort of fairy stories in northern Europe. They're quite different from fairy stories from elsewhere and it is sort of concluded – I'm not sure it's a provable idea, but I think it works imaginatively – that these stories came out of forest, out of forest culture, and that we are fundamentally forest people. We like to think of ourselves peculiarly as Celts, and some of us are, but more of us are actually boring old Anglo-Saxon. Even here."

Let's run with this idea. If you think about it, most of the pantomimes opening in our theatres are not based on Celtic stories. With the odd exception, they're European stories, based on the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm two centuries ago: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Hansel and Gretel.

The question is: what do these stories tell us about who we were and what we thought? And what do they tell us about the forests we have peopled, forests which for centuries we have lived within or alongside, which we have harvested, which have built our homes and our boats?

These are the questions Maitland tries to answer in her book, Gossip From The Forest. Her answer takes in magic, misogyny and social history, takes issue with Freud and his adherents and takes a different route through the trees to the one marked out by Maitland's friend, the late Angela Carter, whose own take on fairy tales is still the first stop for any literate grown-up interested in the stories collected by the Grimms. It also takes a stand on how we treat children today. As we walk through the woods we talk about all these things.

Maitland has been a professional writer for the best part of 40 years (she's now old enough to have her own bus pass). She has worked with director Stanley Kubrick and went to university with Bill Clinton at Oxford. For more than 20 years she was a vicar's wife. Not so very long ago she had unexpected success with her last book, The Book of Silence.

And she has, like Carter, used fairy stories as a foundation for much of her own fiction. "I said to Angela once 'I'm so fed up with everyone reviewing my work as if it was sub-you.' And she rolled with laughter and she said 'it will take them a while but they'll work out that there's a fundamental difference. I'm a sixties libertarian and you're a seventies moralist!' She did not mean it as a compliment. She was deeply naughty. She enjoyed naughtiness. And I've always been more political in my writing. And moralistic actually."

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Maitland should read fairy stories as radical texts. While we have a tendency to cast fairy stories as pre-Gothic horror stories, primed perhaps by the cobwebby uncanniness of Arthur Rackham's drawings, or, in the spirit of Angela Carter, as bejewelled disquisitions on desire (all fur, claws and sex), Maitland has gone back to the original Grimm stories and found something rather different.

"I think they're very political," she tells me, in between ensuring her dog doesn't disappear with every passing walker. "They're much more about the daily reality than our modern reading of them. So, in fact, hard work is good, but the only purpose of hard work is not to have to work. I really do believe that the stories very closely reflect sub-literate, very hard-pressed, rural communities.

"For example, kings never do any kinging. They never have any work to do. They just sit about having parties, go hunting, attempt to manage their children without success, do a surprising amount of gardening and have endless dinner parties. And that is so clearly a view of a king from below. If you ask kings what they had to do, they'd have said 'oh, it's such hard work'."

The stories are also, she thinks, pro-women most of the time. "I see them differently from many commentators, most of whom see them as being deeply sexist and influentially so, that they have nourished the inferiority of women. I don't think that's right. I really think that isn't what happens in the stories.

"To start with, one of the things people get confused in their heads is how few princes and princesses there are. The protagonist is very rarely a prince or princess, it's a poor kid on the make. The proof of having made it is to find a prince or princess. They're definitely heterosexual stories, by the way. That's usually a reward of goodness – which usually just means kindness, to animals, to old women – and a sort of chutzpah.

"So these young women leave the family home, go out on their own and find themselves a prince. I don't think that's a very standard model of passivity. They work. In Hansel and Gretel, the witch is very simply outwitted by Gretel. Very often the little girls are very sharp and take very good care of their brothers, who are stupid. They are very proactive. They're not passive."

That's not the whole story, Maitland admits. At the same time, the girls in fairy tales were often forced to marry men they didn't want to, and their best chance of escape was "to marry a prince who simply outranks your father".

Even so, they're anti-authority in their own way. They don't frown on magic for a start (even though they come from an avowedly Christian culture). And patriarchal figures – kings and fathers – don't come out of them well.

But then nor do stepmothers. "Stepmothers have been terribly read," Maitland believes, citing the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's study of fairy stories, The Uses of Enchantment. "Bettelheim really has something to answer for with his idea of the good mother and the bad mother, that these are stories that are good for children to negotiate the loss of the breast, a way to cope with the fact that mummy stops being completely wonderful.

"I think it's just as easy to say one-third of children at the beginning of the nineteenth century would have been living in households with stepmothers because people died in childbirth. That's not Freudian. It's sociological."

But we are all Freud's children these days. He is the father figure of the twentieth century. His ideas and insights have seeped deeply into our culture, sent out roots that have tapped into our thinking. So much so, I suggest to Maitland, that it's tempting for all of us to read psychosexual motivations into everything, even fairy stories.

"I think so," she agrees. But it's not a necessarily a helpful development. "In exchange for those insights, many of which are very interesting by the way, we lost the sense of straightforward narrative."

Interior narratives took over, she says, and there's really not that much interior about fairy stories "because the characters aren't really characters. They're just people to go through the actions of the plot. They don't have any interior motivation".

Then again, we are entitled to dress up any story with whatever decoration we want. That's what Angela Carter did in The Bloody Chamber (1979), her retelling of traditional fairy stories (one of which formed the basis for the Neil Jordan film, The Company of Wolves). When Carter's name appears in Gossip From The Forest you feel Maitland is writing with a mixture of love and exasperation.

"First of all, Angela was a good friend of mine and I miss her daily. But what she was up to was not really studying fairy stories. She had a completely different agenda, a highly literary postmodern agenda. She took those stories as the narrative framework for highly elaborate, highly literary stories designed for a literate audience. And, because it's Angela, it's about sex.

"I don't think that's in the original. There's singularly little sex. There's not none at all, but what there is often gets edited out. In the first edition of Grimm in 1812, Rapunzel gets caught out by the witch because she starts putting on weight. Turns out she's pregnant, so it's fairly explicit what she and the hair-climbing prince have been up to. But that gets worked out gradually through the text."

Actually, quite a lot has got worked out through the text over the years since the Grimms first collected these tales. Some of the more outre, gory details for a start. Eyes pecked out by birds in the original telling remain unpecked these days. We have grown protective about the stories we tell our children. Far too protective, Maitland would argue.

"You mustn't start me or I'll go off on an extraordinary rant," she says. Go on, I say. Rant away. "We're doing some terrible things to children. We're teaching them that they are infinitely vulnerable, that everyone except mummy, and possibly daddy and granny on a good day, are out to get them. They're going to run them over in their cars, abduct them, hurt them, that if they're alone for 30 seconds they're at risk.

"My generation, people growing up at the end of the fifties and through the sixties, felt deeply, deeply oppressed by our parents. Whether we were or not is a different story. I think we were in some ways.

"So people of my age came to child-rearing with absolute determination that we would do it differently, that our children would be magically free. And so, in honour of our lost selves, these children would always be lovely.

"But that's not what we delivered. What we delivered is this overwhelming tenderness. I know perfectly intelligent people whose 11-year-olds have never been out of the house. I find that shocking. I was talking to a social worker in Manchester recently and she said she thinks a lot of binge-drinking and appalling bad behaviour on the street by children now is because they never had little fears when they were small. They never learnt for their body to say 'no, I don't think you should do that, not safe, bad idea', because they were absolutely sheltered from that."

Her argument is that fairy stories tell our children to do the opposite: to go out and seek their fortune, to take shelter in the deep, dark woods. There are no witches or wolves there. But you might just find some treasure.

The rain has stopped and we head home. Here's where the story ends.

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