Philip Hensher: Deep in the enchanted forest, a very English sensibility has stirred

Forests are places of dapplement, of light and shade. At the back of everything is Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, turning the social hierarchy upside down

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Sometimes, a mere political question runs up against the buffers of the national psyche.

There may be rational answers to questions involving deep-rooted British symbols, but nobody ever manages to produce them. Any question about the Royal Mail has a tendency to stall long before anyone can seriously answer the question of whether or not this is the best way to get mail around the country. Deep down, it's for one reason; the Queen's head – Mummy! – is on the stamps.

Another instance, long ago, struck even more deeply at the roots of what we feel to be British. Eighteenth-century propagandists planted the idea that in the regular eating of beef lay the superior strength and energy of the British, compared with those snail-eating French. The idea stuck. So when, in the 1980s, an outbreak of BSE led to the banning of British beef from eating or export, some quite profound insult seemed to be offered to the country's soul. Ban mutton after an outbreak of disease, and it is only a local difficulty. Doubt the quality of British beef, and it appears to raise the dander of many Englishmen's inner Hogarth.

So it is, interestingly, with forestry. Probably it ought to be perfectly possible to work out the best way to safeguard British forests. Should they remain in public property, administered by the Forestry Commission, which currently controls 70 per cent of the timber market in this country? Or should some of the forests be sold off to private investors?

No one should have been surprised at what happened in response to the Government's proposals. A strange consortium of access-for-all activists, environmentalists and middle-class Sunday walkers surfaced, and obliged the Government to execute a sharp reversal. Actually, it seems pretty unlikely that, had the proposal gone ahead, forests would have been sealed off to the general public. Access could easily have been safeguarded, and it seems entirely probable that a range of owners would have created a welcome diversity of woodland in England. For years, lovers of the country used to complain about the Forestry Commission's passion for boring conifers. And some of these national symbols were not nationally owned. As Charles Moore was pointing out the other day, A A Milne's Hundred Acre Wood was based on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, owned by the Sackville family. The emotion doesn't seem to make complete sense. But national symbols rarely do that. The forest is rooted deep in the European soul, and when politicians start to discuss questions such as "Who should own a forest?", the response is not going to be rational. The English forest is a place of enchantments and transformation. Behind the Hundred Acre Wood lies the forest in which George Eliot's Silas Marner is changed for ever.

There are Shakespeare's woods, in which lovers lose and find themselves, in As You Like It's Forest of Arden and the Athenian forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. There is Pope's Windsor Forest, the wood in which Alice forgets her own name in Through the Looking Glass, and the one in which the Bertram girls find new lovers in Mansfield Park. As many English writers have suggested, the person who enters an English wood may not be the same person that leaves it.

Sometimes there are dangers in the English forests. Spenser's Redcrosse Knight fights the Blatant Beast in the midst of a forest labyrinth which at first seemed "faire harboure" from the storm. There is the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows, in the middle of which the great and terrifying figure of Pan appears to Mole and Ratty. Elsewhere, there is Milton's fatally alluring Comus, and Tolkien's appalling, endless, lightless Mirkwood. But more often, in the English imagination, the forests are places of dapplement, of light and shade, of open spaces as well as close-growing groves, of transformations, not always unwelcome, and of abrupt alterations and reversals. They are not so different from mazes – Spenser actually calls his a "labyrinth". There is, often, a revelling in the breakdown of order which the forest brings. At the back of everything, of course, is Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, turning the social hierarchy upside down.

How far this conforms to the English character, or, at any rate, the notion the English have of their own mercurial character is an interesting question. Certainly, when you travel to a country where the forests have an equally central role, but quite a different character in its imaginative life, the contrast is illuminating. A couple of weeks ago I was in Thuringia, in Germany, and was struck by the extent, even now, of the forests there. To walk up into the thickly wooded hills above Ilmenau, where Goethe walked into sylvan solitude, is still to have a sense of walking into a mysterious, enclosed landscape. If you left the scrupulously labelled Goethe-Wanderweg paths, you still feel you could get seriously and dangerously lost.

Those are the forest myths of Germany, ideas not of transformation and play, but of a gloomy, secret immensity. A peasant storyteller, Dortchen Wild, told the Grimm Brothers about a pair of children called Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their parents in the woods. The story has a horrible cruelty about it – the fingerbone Hansel holds out to the blind witch to convince her he is too thin to eat; its culmination in the children pushing the witch into the oven. It is, clearly, the sinister product of the northern European forests where the trees close over the head. Or there is Wagner's Sieglinde, fleeing deep into the forests, where a dragon sleeps, where not even the wrath of Wotan will pursue her. Much later, Heidegger erected a personal psycho-philosophical mythology of woodland paths and forest huts which the kitsch image-makers of the Third Reich would make their own. German forests are black in more than one sense, and they produce worse things than gateaux.

The odd thing about the English forest is that, though many of them are very ancient indeed, it seems unlikely they were ever all that extensive. Probably, even at the Norman conquest, it was impossible to walk in a straight line more than a mile or two through any English woodland without coming out into open country. Hansel and Gretel is a fantasy to an English reader; elsewhere, it may represent a real fear.

Talking about the possibility of handing over forest management to private owners, the Government thought, in its rational way, that the historical resonance would be no more than 30 years old. People would consider it as one of many similar enterprises, like Mrs Thatcher giving British Airways into the private sector. But the collective mind has a much longer memory than that. When William the Conqueror took what had been common property into state ownership, offering only limited rights of grazing to the peasantry, it was experienced as a theft. When the Government proposed to take it away from state ownership and sell it to the highest bidder, it was experienced, all over again, as a species of theft.

Any number of examples from elsewhere in Europe will show that forests don't have to be owned by the state to thrive. But there are propositions which will always be answered by a common national dream, or a 1,000-year-old nightmare. We all think and dream about forests; the imagination doesn't wander freely in a corporate possession.

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