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  • From the Forest
  • Sara Maitland (bio)

Forests to the northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories (or, as they are perhaps better called in German, the Märchen), 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 the source of these tales.

Modern scholarship has taken a number of approaches to this material, which presents a delightfully insubstantial and tricky body of work. Two approaches that I will mention here have been a Jungian psychoanalytic approach (arguing that the tales resonate for children, and adults too, because they deal in archetypes, in universal experiences, usually sexual ones), and a global ethnographic approach, which finds tropes from the tales in every culture everywhere; both these and other ways of looking at the stories are illuminating, but tend to lose the specificity of place. What is interesting to me is not the ways in which the tales of the Arabian Nights or of the Indian subcontinent or of the indigenous Americans of the Great Plains are the same as the stories collected and redacted by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and published initially in 1812, but the ways they are different.

The fairy stories from, for instance, the Arabian Nights do demonstrably have many of the same themes and narrative sequences as those in the Grimm brothers’ collections, but they are not the same stories. One of the great services that the great Grimm expert Jack Zipes has done is to show how “site specific” fairy stories are. To put it at its most basic, in the Arabian Nights the heroes do not go out and get lost in the forest, or escape into the forest; this is because, very simply, there aren’t any forests. But it goes deeper than this—they do not get lost at all; the heroes either set off freely seeking adventure—often by boat, like Sinbad the Sailor—or they are exiled, escape murder (rather than poverty), or are abducted. Children do not get lost in deserts; if they wander off, which they are unlikely to do because of the almost certain fatal consequences of being lost alone in deserts, they can be seen for as far as they can roam. Children get lost in cities and in forests. As we know, forests are places where a person can get lost and can also hide—losing and hiding, of things and people, are central [End Page 7] 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.

It cannot be by chance that the three great monotheist religions—the Abrahamic faiths—have their roots in the desert, in the vast empty spaces under those enormous stars, where life is always provisional, always at risk. Human beings are tiny and vulnerable and necessarily on the move: local gods of place, small titular deities, are not going to be adequate in the desert—you need a big god to fill the vast spaces and speak into the huge silence; you need a god who will travel with you.

It cannot be simply accidental that Tibetan Buddhism emerges from high places, where the everlasting silence of the snows invites a kind of concentration, a loss of ego in the enormity of the mountains.

It cannot be totally coincidental that the joyful, humanistic polytheism of the classical Mediterranean—where the gods behave like humans (which means badly), and humans may become gods, and heroes (god-human hybrids) link the two inextricably, and metamorphosis destabilizes expectation—arose in a terrain where there was infinite variety, where you can move in a matter of hours from mountain to sea shore, where islands are scattered casually, and where one place is very precisely not like another.

Less certainly, but still suggestively, the gods of the Vikings, far north in...


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