In Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales, Sara Maitland writes:
"Forests to the [early] Northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories, one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, evolved. The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and source of these tales....
"Forests are places where a person can get lost and also hide -- and losing and hiding, of things and people, are central to European fairy stories in ways that are not true of similar stories in different geographies. Landscape informs the collective imagination as much as or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination, but this dimension is not something to which we always pay enough attention.
"I believe that the great stretches of forests in northern Europe, with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness. The forest is the place of trial in fairy stories, both dangerous and exciting. Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilising its gifts and gaining its help is the way to 'happy ever after.'
"Now fairy stories are at risk too, like the forests. Padraic Column has suggested that artificial lighting dealt them a mortal wound: when people could read and be productive after dark, something fundamental changed, and there was no longer need or space for the ancient oral tradition. The stories were often confined to books, which makes the text static, and they were handed over to children.
"The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell. Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money.
"The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different catagories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, 'useless' in the sense of 'financially unprofitable.' "
In "Turning Our Fairy Tales Wild Again," Sylvia Linsteadt asks:
"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?”
And in Wild: An Elemental Journey, Jay Griffiths remind us:
"What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied," "It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."
It is indeed.
Pictures: "The Forest Tarn" by John Bauer (Norway), "He Too Saw the Image in the Water" by Kay Nielsen (Denmark), "Lost in the Woods" by Charles Robinson (England),"Thumbelina" by Adrienne Segur (France), "The White Stag" by Helen Stratton (England), "Fairies" and "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham (England).
Words: The quotes above are from Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2013); "Turning Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia Linsteadt (The Dark Mountain Project & Resilience, 2013); and Wild by Jay Griffiths (Penguin, 2008); all highly recommended. All rights to the text reserved by the authors.