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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform