Forests: Fables, Folk Stories and Fairytales

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I grew up with a forest fascination. My mother’s side of the family are Polish, so there’s always been a tradition of folk stories; I remember one in particular about a little girl whose stepmother demands roses in midwinter, snowdrops in summer and so on. She hides down the well and meets twelve mysterious figures who each provide her with what she requires in order to appease the wicked stepmother.

The forests I grew up exploring were, in actuality, smaller areas of woodland. Deciduous woods with a wonderful variety of fungi, berries and flowers. Streams and silver birches, oaks and sycamores, sweet chestnut and ash. Occasionally we’d go hunting pinecones in the fir plantations near the local reservoir, but we generally spent most of our outdoor tree time in the leafy woods. Ferns and wild garlic in the spring, conkers and rosehips in the autumn. The kind of woods you see in those old Ladybird books.

But now we reside in Scotland. The north of Scotland, to be precise: the Hebrides. Most of our woodland here is of the evergreen variety; pine and spruce. Real fairytale forests, where the light is dim and the ground is soft and velvety with mosses and deep, deep layers of dropped needles. There’s a kind of silence that’s very particular to a pine forest. The low boughs and thick carpeting deaden any outside noise. All you’ll hear is the odd crack of a breaking branch or the call of a bird. There’s an atmosphere very specific to this type of woodland.

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It’s easy for the imagination to run wild when you’re standing alone in a pine forest. Everywhere looks the same, like you’re surrounded by mirrors. It’s dark and suggestive and strange shapes manifest themselves; wind whispers eerily through the branches. It doesn’t take much to envisage hungry wolves weaving stealthily past or goblins hiding in the roots of fallen trees.

It may be a subliminal thing, but recently my reading of choice (from the library) has been all about the woods. I just finished Pollard by Laura Beatty, a novel about Anne - a girl who doesn’t ‘fit in’, subsequently leaves her family and takes up permanent residence in the woods near her home. It’s set in the present day and makes for a wonderful read. In turns brutal and whimsical, the story is told both through the eyes of Anne and the ever-watching trees.

Next up is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest promises many evenings of indulging my love of fairytales and forests by exploring the relationship between the two.

Some of my all-time favourite stories are set within the woods, from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series to Hansel and Gretel. Likewise, my favourite parts of stories are those where adventures unfold amongst the trees: The Wind in the Willows springs to mind. And who could resist the beautifully-illustrated storybooks of childhood? Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, Winnie the Pooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Some of the most evocative writing I’ve ever read is by Angela Carter, in the opening pages of The Erl-King (one of the short stories in The Bloody Chamber). The dank foreboding of a secretly inhabited autumnal forest, explored alone, is described beautifully. You can almost feel the damp, still air and smell the dying vegetation as it slowly collapses back into the ground.

So here we are. Those pine forests which looked so enchanted just a few short weeks ago, snow-covered and twilit, are now hosting signs of life. They’re beckoning. It’s time to find a little-used, winding path and follow it into a secret world where talking creatures, witches and magic might just exist.

MusingsSarah Hardman