Granta, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, By Sara Maitland

In ancient woods grew tales that we still tell and hear. This fine book leads us back to them

In the first chapter of Gossip from the Forest, the author spends a night camping with her grown-up son in a patch of ancient oak woodland near her home in Galloway. As night falls, she asks him which fairy tales he remembers. "Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White… the one with the swans and the shirts" are among his answers. Then she asks where he learnt them. From you, he says. "School perhaps, I don't really know, I just know them".

Sara Maitland's book is both an exploration of where fairy stories come from culturally and socially, and of the locations where they were born: forests. "Forests to… northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories… evolved".

The question at the heart of this beautiful, thoughtful book is: how did forests form fairy tales and how have fairy tales influenced the way we feel about forests? It mixes social history with natural history, literary criticism with fiction. Each chapter ends with a retelling of a tale – some I was familiar with, others, such as "The Seven Swans' Sister", I hadn't come across before. Her versions don't have the gothic, overblown if thrilling feeling of Angela Carter's take on similar stories, but they are gutsy, and have modern sentiments behind the centuries-old motifs.

In each chapter Maitland also explores a different area of British woodland and through it discovers the themes, rules and uses of fairy stories. She shows how they have been used to teach generations of children and adults (only since the Brothers Grimm collected and edited oral stories have fairy stories have been relegated to children's literature) about stranger danger, hard work, family ties and abuse - and discovers why the forest is such a rich backdrop. It's where people used to work, play, live, hunt. Maitland seeks modern counterparts to these forest-dwellers, meeting the last Free Miners in the Forest of Dean, and woodsmen and wildlife experts.

In a book about stories, it's no surprise to discover that much of what we believe is mythical: but those myths are less about magic and more about modern misinformation. The idea that Britain used to be totally covered in a vast forest is wrong, as is the belief that all woods are totally natural and humans are intruders. "Woodland flourishes under good human management – coppicing, for example, increases the amount of light that reaches the depths of the forest, and so encourages germination and new growth and increases biodiversity."

Maitland is incredibly good at taking us with her on journeys through the woods, as she examines her emotional responses. On the one hand, she explains the fictional forest isn't necessarily a frightening place, although frightening things can happen there. However, in her chapter on Ballochbuie and the Forest of Mar, she writes that: "For me, these forests expose a deep unease, a chthonic fear; Caledonian forests are what Freud called unheimlich – they are uncanny. Inside most of us post-enlightenment and would-be rational adults there is a child who is terrified of the wild wood."

Duality, the feeling that both forests and stories can be two things at once, runs through Gossip from the Forest. As a book celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Grimm brothers' tales, this is a more than fitting tribute. As a follow-up to Maitland's sublime The Book of Silence, it's a worthy successor. As something to read on dark nights as the wind lashes the leaves from the trees, it's damn near perfect.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living