Thursday, March 26, 2015

Monthly Discussion: "From the Forest" with Tales Of Faerie - March (Story)

Kristin & Gypsy discuss
UK Title: “Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales”

MARCH: Airyolland Wood & a retelling of Thumbling
(see the 1st part of the discussion at Tales Of Faerie HERE)
Note: Welcome to a new monthly feature we're beginning, in cooperation with Tales Of Faerie! Kristin and I are both reading one chapter of this book each month, discussing our thoughts on both the chapter portion and the story/retelling at the end, then sharing that on our blogs. Each month we will swap discussion parts. This month Kristin started things off by posting the main discussion of the chapter (Part 1) and this is our chat about the story (Part 2). We will alternate who posts Part 1 and Part 2 each month and link to each other's posts so you can follow along. This is the first time for both of us reading this book, so you're getting our thoughts right out of the oven! Enjoy. (I'm putting the jacket summary below for this first round, only, to help you orient yourself. The story discussion is below.)

Jacket summary: Forests are among our most ancient primal landscapes, and fairy tales some of our earliest and most vital cultural forms. In this fascinating and illuminating  book, Maitland argues that the two are intimately connected: the mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forests were the background and source of fairytales. The links between the two are buried in the imagination ad in our childhoods.

Maitland journeys in forests through a full year, from the exquisite green  of a beechwood in spring to the muffled stillness of a snowy pine forest in winter, explaining their complex history and teasing out their connections with the tales.

There are secrets in the tales, hidden identities, cunning disguises, just as there are surprises behind every tree in a forest; there are rhythms of change in the tales 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 to self-knowledge and success. The forest is the place of trial in fairy stories, both dangerous and exciting. Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, using its gifts and gaining its help, is the way to “happy ever after.”

As a fiction writer, Maitland has frequently retold fairy stories, and she ends each chapter with an enchanting tale, related imaginatively, to the experience of being in that specific forest.

Richly layered, full of surprising connections, and sparkling with mischief, From the Forest is a magical and unique blend of nature writing, history and imaginative fiction.

On “Thumbling

SOURCE: Grimm’s Household Tales
SOURCE TALE SUMMARY: Childless couple have teeny miracle child; never grows bigger than mother’s thumb. Growing up is a hazard & still, he wants to see the world. Tricks & fast thinking help him escape disaster, death & circuses, to return home, no bigger but much wiser.
FROM THE FOREST THUMBLING SUMMARY: The classic fairy tale is retold from the mother’s perspective. After longing for a child, she gives birth to and raises a tiny son. As he grows, he begins to long for adventure and love. His parents agree that they need to let him go and experience life on his own, and despite their worry he returns home safe and happy, and the family continues on as before.
Thumbling by Kiri Østergaard Leonard
GYPSY: It wasn't... as absorbing to me as I expected when it started, because I was completely touched by the beginning. The story was told almost entirely from the mother’s point of view, which makes sense when you remember it came out of the author talking with her own son in the forest to start with (and telling him a tale).  It even fits as a “Mother’s Tale” choice in this instance,with Thumbling being so very small and the mother feeling like she has to be an “UberMother” - someone who has to do more than usual to care for and protect her child. I’m sure the situation in the forest, camping, feeling the weight of the forest in both actuality and metaphor at the same time, amplified that feeling for Sara, the author, so Thumbling was a natural choice of story.

The problem for me, is that I was ultimately left dissatisfied.

Initially, I loved hearing about Thumbling growing, the challenges of caring for him, how he was protected, how the village reacted and the couple grew together as people and as a family (and as a community too) during this time. But then, after a certain point, specifically when Thumbling went “adventuring”, it felt that there was no point to the story anymore, because all three main characters returned to a previous point in their lives/understanding/comfort zone and nothing really changed. They lived their lives afterward exactly the same way as they did before. Actually, no, not exactly the same way, with less “life” than before.

Artist unknown
Did the mother not learn anything about letting go? Or about anything at all after a certain point? What about the need to encourage her son into the forest? How does that fit with the beginning of the story in which she was at first over protective and then realized she had to let him go? When he comes back, she’s.. what? - relieved she doesn’t have to deal with reality? It felt odd. Didn't the mother find her own stories/freedom/adventure, just like she was talking about having done in the process of learning tales and exploring the woods? It seemed to me during the main portion of the chapter that this is the very thing the author was explaining to her son, Adam, and that she was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only was she helping her son, but he was able to add to her learning and journey (specifically with the fungi story) as well. While reading the main chapter I was most interested in this aspect of their conversation, and how his input ultimately informed hers. To the author’s surprise, she had a moment of realization that her son had matured enough to be teaching her as well as her teaching him. It’s like evidence that you’ve done your job as a parent, that your child can do this.

I guess I expected that to be reflected more in the story but instead it seemed like the opposite is what happened: keep him in the pretend forest forever and ever more. I know the Thumbling story was supposed to be partly about coming back home but I felt it started well and developed well then it just ended up being sentimental, without a good reason for coming home except to escape reality. The impression I’m left with is that he’ll be cared for and coddled the rest of his life now and never be encouraged (let alone forced) to experience the world as a mature person, and build his own future, add to the world and his village etc. (At least, until his parents die and he’s left with having to deal with that. Then what will he do? Yikes.)  I should state this is my immediate impression only. I wrote my initial notes straight away specifically as I felt it resonated while the words were still in front of me. I have a feeling there is more to my disquiet with the resolution (or lack of from my perspective) with the story but it would need some more read throughs and more reflective time to nut that out.

What were your impressions Kristin?
Illustration and text taken from "The History of Tom Thumb" from the Mary Bell's Series published by Peter G. Thomson of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Tom went with his mother to see a dun cow : The leaf of a thistle he took for a bough ; He sat down upon it, but, shocking to tell, The cow seized the thistle, and Tom Thumb as well. To the cow's upper jaw Tom manfully clung ; He kicked her front teeth, and he tickled her tongue. The cow could not ask him what he was about, So she opened her mouth and she let him out.
KRISTIN: I thought it was a sweet story (for most of it), I liked the theme of the importance of communicating well within a marriage and underlined a couple of quotes there. Then I liked the mother’s sacrifice in letting her son go and experience freedom, which I thought reflected the sacrifice every mother has to go through-but like you I was surprised by the ending, it seemed sudden and unrealistic that Thumbling would never again yearn for a normal life, or as an adult have increased conflicts with being dependent on his parents.  It missed the fact that letting go is an essential part of being a successful parent, in most cases, although it did remind me of many of the families I interact with who have children with disabilities (although this didn’t apply to the author…) because for them, their children grow up physically but never quite become independent. In a way it can be comforting because the parents know they don’t have to worry about their children rebelling and getting into sex/drugs/etc., but that ideal happy family life doesn’t stay that way forever. Even with people with disabilities, eventually their parents are going to get too old to take care of them but those individuals have to keep on living, so letting go and moving on is even part of parenting for those cases.
The Birth of Tom Thumb, illustration from Our Nurses Picture Book,
engraved by Kronheim and Co., 1869, a painting by Horace Petherick.
GYPSY: I think you nailed it: that fact about letting go is an essential part of being a parent. Especially with this being almost completely from the mother’s POV, it didn’t matter as much what Thumbling’s journey and arc was as hers, but her maturity as a parent didn’t happen. She didn’t fail either. She just… continued.
I like the parallel with disabilities. I never thought of Thumbling as having disabilities before! I can totally see that being a great metaphor, but even when children can’t become fully independent there is usually an effort to help them be as independent as they can manage and to live as vital a life as possible, including giving back to the community if they can. (That’s my experience anyway.) I would have like to see that type of development - or “shift” in thinking - toward a sustainable future for Thumbling beyond the natural life of his parents. Or the opposite - a complete “fail” in which the failure to encourage thriving becomes apparent. (But I’d prefer the happy ending please because that’s just me!)

KRISTIN: Absolutely, a healthy goal for people with disabilities is to point them towards as much independence as they are capable of (worked at a group home briefly)-in household tasks, getting jobs, etc. The ending of the story almost seemed like a creepy version of a mother’s desire to keep her kids innocent and childlike and with her forever, which was weird especially since she’s there telling it to her adult son. It almost seemed like we’re not supposed to take it seriously because it’s so obvious that any lessons learned were completely undone? The ending contradicts everything else in the story, maybe it was just a convenient way to wrap up and end it?
Different Toms: From Our Young Folks, Vol 1, No.1, An Illustrated Magazine (artist unknown); The National Nursery Book (unknown); The Beacon Second Reader (Edna T. Hart)
Come back next month to see Kristin & Gypsy discuss “April - Saltridge Wood” and Sara Maitland’s retelling of “The White Snake”.

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