Gossipy woods

Evening in the Woods by Ivan Shishkin

When we were launching what became 'Catch Up' (a literacy programme for eight/nine year olds), one of the realisations was that much of the existing material was gender inappropriate as it relied heavily on 'fiction'. Many of our 'clients' were boys and boys (many of them, especially at that age) are fact obsessed and need literacy support that reflected this.

It was an observation that resonated with me. At eight, I read history and maps. I remember a book by R. J. Unstead on Tudor England and repeatedly pouring over lists of the price of things; and, painstakingly replicating maps of France and New Zealand for a project at Cub Scouts. It was only in my teens that fiction and image erupted into consciousness as ways to think and feel. I recall in my twenties on holiday in France finding, at my hosts, a whole section of her library devoted to the classic literature of childhood and spending a happy ten days with Narnia and Nesbit under an olive tree!

Now, much later, it appears it is time for fairytales. The trigger to this I realise came from a tangential place. A couple of years ago, I was at an exhibition by the English painter, Edward Burra, who notably refused to translate his work into speech about it, and found myself for the 'first time' being aware of what it might mean to think/feel in pictures without the translations of speech (however sophisticated and illuminating), I was seeing anew. It was wonderful and since then has been a wholly deepening, moving sense of what art might be meaning, within its own terms.

At the same time, I found myself reading the fairy tales of George MacDonald and inhabiting them and not requiring a complex intellectual apparatus to justify my liking. I remember my friend,  the artist Thetis Blacker, dismissing the learned interpretations of the eminent Jungian, Marie Louise von Franz, of both creation myths and fairy tales as obscuring their obviousness to hearing (and sight). Stories are of the fabric of the world and live by their telling and appreciation (as art is). They are not matter that stands 'outside of us' in an intellectual space waiting for the sanction of interpretation (psychological or otherwise) which maybe why so much contemporary art, caught in concept and displayed 'out there' in specialised spaces, fails to connect.

I recalled this reading 'Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales' by Sara Maitland. One of the books tasks is to restore the particularity of fairytales to their places of perceived origin and life; and, one of her arguments is that Grimm's tales are Teutonic, of the forest, and we (in England) are Teutonic too. Many of our stories live and breath trees and our forests are acts of imagination. In truth, none of our forests are 'primeval', they have all evolved (in England) touched and shaped by human interaction in diverse ways. But any act of imagination is bound to place as much as it is revealer of 'universal patterns or archetypes' and that walking in the woods might reveal ways in which this is so. So she does. She takes us through a year of walking in particular woods and weaves reflections on both forest and tale together whilst also beautifully re-telling and re-imagining a number of stories.

You learn a great deal about trees (and woods), whilst assimilating story, and realising difference. In the one of the most telling chapters, she delineates the difference in the 'demotic' character of the Grimm's tales in relation to magic from other strands of imaginary literature. If in the Lord of the Rings, or Earthsea or Harry Potter, magic is something that must be learnt through discipline and knowledge and remains (even in the hands of a feminist like Ursula le Guin and J K Rowling) a strikingly male accomplishment, magic in these fairytales is something that simply happens, is there, and is an aid to accomplishment never the core object. Hansel and Gretel may find themselves at the witches door made of 'magical' components but they overcome her through good manners, guile and quick wittedness. The world is graced with the magical, it happens, is navigated but it is not manipulated through it. In a way they are more realistic, down to earth tales, which may betray their origins within the culture of the forest.

This is captured rather beautifully in the title: 'Gossip' (which evolutionary biologist and linguistic theorist, Robin Dunbar, tells us comprises 85% of our speech, even of the 'smart' ones). It is something that often attracts 'bad press' and yet, in truth, is the glue of the human world. It is the way of making and re-making connection (and like any human trait has its light and shadow sides) and story telling is at its heart as is particularity. It belongs to places even when 're-telling' a common story. In an oral tradition, this is inevitable and it is necessary.

For if we are to preserve our forests, we must continue to know and imagine them forward for nothing is conserved to be used if it is not actually loved and known. That this is more likely to spring from the particularity of gossiping than high minded but deracinated theorising is one of the claims of this fertile book and that our stories, woven back into their particular places, is one place to start.


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