Into the Woods, 2: The Gift of Wonder
Into the Woods, 4: The Dog's Tale

Into the Woods, 3: Tales of the Forest

The Forest Tarn by John Bauer

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.

He Too Saw the Image in the Water by Kay Nielsen

"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.'

Lost in the Woods by Charles Robinson

"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.

Thumbelina by Adrienne Segur

"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?”

Fairies by Arthur Rackham

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.

Catskin by Arthur Rackham 2

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.


A perfect balance of text and picture Terri. Beautiful. The works of Bauer, Nielsen and Rackham in particular ignite fires in the imagination!

Took the words I would like to have said straight out of my heart. Thanks

Those words have a wide echo in me, Terri.
I think this message can be easily related to the one on fears.
It was a time when men found shelter out in the woods, a time when they spoke and tell around the fire to keep the darkness away, as well as explaining it. As time goes, men were leaving the forests for cities, and shaped themselves against the forest, the wildness, the unknown. Because they forgot, because they were afraid. So here we are now, civilized.
We should step out our comfort zone and walk the wild once again to learn how to live and die.

If the advent of electrical lighting and the widespread printing of books led to a diminished vitality in the fairytale tradition - capturing the living oral form and fixing it on silent paper much as a lepidopterist might fix a butterfly - then how much more damage has been done to the tradition by the digital age with its flashing images and overload of artless noise?

This morning I rose at 3.30 am to head out into the forest. I went with one purpose in mind: to listen. Learning to listen deeply is as vital a part of the storyteller's work as it is that of the ornithologist's. How can we tell what we haven't heard?

Our world has become very noisy and, as with Pavlov's famous dogs, we have been trained to respond to any number of digital bells: from cutting off conversations to answer the text alert to waking in the morning to an electronic beep (I leave my window open and the curtains, too, so that I wake naturally with the rest of the non-digital world).

A corollary of this change and increase in noise and the digitalisation of our communication - even, shockingly, between friends physically present in the same room - is that we have forgotten how to listen and even when we do we do not understand what we hear.

It's astonishing how many people can watch a three-hour movie in rapt, unbroken attention but struggle to listen to an oral tale, however well told, that takes but fifteen minutes to tell.

And while I acknowledge that distinguishing the voices of a reed warbler and a willow warbler in the dawn chorus may require some expertise, I'm always surprised by the way that so many people can't tell the song of a robin from that of a blackbird as these birds are common and audible even in the urban environment.

So, learning to listen.

And the forest, both that greenwood in the outer world and that tangled forest of the soul, are great teachers in the art of listening. Once we begin to rediscover the art of listening we may find that, despite the thoughtless noise-trivia that pervades our modern lives (how anyone could tolerate having a television is incomprehensible to me), we have something once more worth saying.



I'm reading a book by Sara Maitland, sounds like the same book but with a different title here in the US, I wonder? I like the UK title better, here, its "From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales." I love this book! So important for a woman living in the forest, telling stories in words and images.

Beautiful images today... as ever. Inspiring weekend to you, Terri!

When my kids were younger, we used to have a "story stick," a sort of magical wand I'd made out of a stick, a small starfish, some pretty yarn and wire and glass beads. We'd often pass it around and tell stories together, each contributing our part when we held the stick. We haven't done that in a while. I think the stick broke. But today, you've motivated me to make a new one. I think I'll keep it in a vase on the kitchen table.

Terri, you are amazing. Thank you for this Into the Forest series from the bottom of my heart. The quotes you have chosen (and I am SO honored that mine is among such incredible company!!!) are so close to my own soul it aches, so close to my longings and my loves in this world. Blessings upon you!

My favorite kind of illustrations, revered when I was little and could not read and still powerful and
beautiful. Magic is alive. Also about fears from the ancients; I notice I sit against a wall with a view of the door wherever I go and it occurred to me that is what we did when we lived in caves. Except there were
no doors then.

Oh I love this. Wish I'd thought of it when my children were little. Around three to five
they became little bards, creating stories, poems and songs. I wrote down as many of
them as I could. Also it was helpful to me, making my poems more quirky and simpler.

I'm reading that one as well; copyright 2012 w/ photos by Adam Lee. Wonderful.

In light of this you might be interested in the following: My husband has been playing the BBC Tweet of the Day to his ICT classes at school. He teaches some very disaffected teenager inner city kids. They have been following each one with rapt attention, discussing the birds with him and finding just a little bit out about their world. They have also spent the weeks following the Nottingham Peregrines, fascinated by the fact these incredible birds are above their heads every time they get off the bus in town. Nature matters.

Austin, have you read David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous? (I can't remember if we talked about this before...there are so many books we talked about over cups of tea at Weaver's Cottage.) It's all about this very subject, and was quite a formative book for me when it was first published in 1996.

Yes, same book. And to you too, Valerianna!

a friend laid a trail of virtual breadcrumbs and sent me here...i'm glad i came

I live in East Oakland California- where hip hop meets Salvadorean Polka on a Saturday night. I miss my woods. Yesterday I woke up very early and went for a walk down my street and heard a trip trip trip and who should be walking beside me- a doe! All soft eyes and relaxed- Hmmm chica you are far from home. Terri I don't know why your piece put me in mind of something I was talking about with a wildlife biologist friend of mine- There are wolves living 40 miles outside of Milan. They live throughout Southern Europe- not many, but they still live there- and the northern people went crazy thinking about wolves. I wonder what in our stories couldn't let us live along side them?

That's a good question, Lisarose. Examining the animal folk tales and sacred stories of a society can probably tell us a lot about the relationship between humans and animals in that particular culture. (I'm thinking of the tales of many different Native American nations, for example, in which animals are regarded as the First People, different from humans, and sometimes dangerous, but equally worthy of respect, as opposed to the "evil" wolves of so many northern European folk stories.)

It's interesting to note that folk tales sometimes change over time to reflect a culture's changing attitudes towards animals. This comes from an article I wrote a while back on Animal Bride & Bridegroom tales:

"The three motifs common to Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories are...marriage to (or cohabitation with) a mysterious non–human figure; the breaking of a prohibition and subsequent departure of the magical spouse (or suitor, or lover); and a pilgrimage to regain the loved one and achieve a more lasting union....

" 'Just as marriage between two people unites their families, so marriage between a person and an animal in myth and fairy tale joins humanity with nature,' writes folklorist Boria Sax, noting that changes in the tales as they pass through the centuries have reflected the changing relationship between man and the natural world. The oldest known Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales are generally those limited to the first part of the story cycle: the romance and/or marriage of human beings and animals (or other nature–bound creatures). Tales of this sort include ancestral myths such as the Chinese stories of families descended from the marriage of humans and shape–shifting dragons, or the lore of Siberia shamans who trace their power and healing gifts to marriages between men and swans. Such tales evoke an ancient world view in which humans were part of the natural world, cousin to the animals, rather than separate from nature and placed above all other creatures.

"Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories that go on to the second part of the cycle — ending with the loss of the animal lover — arise from a world view in which sharper distinctions are made between the human sphere (civilization) and nature (the wilderness). In such tales, humans and their animal lovers come from distinctly separate worlds, and any attempt to unite the two is ultimately doomed to failure.

"Stories that move on to the third part of the cycle, like [the Scandinavian tale] East of the Sun, West of the Move, end with the lovers reunited and the transformation of one or both. Such tales, notes Sax, express 'an almost universal longing to re–establish a lost intimacy with the natural world.' "


Thanks! There is a great Italian story the She Bear which has the twist that the enchanted one is the princess...

That's wonderful, Charlotte. It would be great if he could contrive to take them on a field trip, too.

Oh yes, Terri, you introduced me to it way back and it has been and remains one of the most powerful influences on my thinking about the relationship between language, consciousness and experience. It is not only thought-provoking and scholarly but also a beautiful book. I would recommend it to anyone and frequently do recommend it to everyone !

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