Monday, April 20, 2015

Monthly Discussion: "From the Forest" with Tales Of Faerie - April

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

APRIL:  Saltridge Wood & a retelling of The White Snake
(see the 2nd part of the discussion at Tales Of Faerie  HERE)
Links to chats so far:

Note: Kristin and I agree the book would really benefit from some lush color photographs because despite the lovely descriptions it’s hard to picture, even when we’re familiar with the trees she’s talking about. without having a ‘sense of forest’ to begin with we both tend to wonder when the relevance to fairy tales kicks in, and then sometimes have to go back and re-read for context once it does.
Birches in morning shadow - photographer unknown
Gypsy: Took me a while to settle in to this chapter, it seemed to meander but I eventually found myself flipping back pages to re-read things she’d mentioned before when I started linking the walk to considering fairy tales.  Eventually I realized this is the chapter where Ms. Maitland starts getting seriously into fairy tale roots - what are they, where are they, would we even recognize them?
European Beech tree

Walking through Saltridge wood discussing beech trees and how pretty they are, but also ‘false forest’ they are, had me recalling “fairytale” (perfect/ideal state of bliss) vs “fairy tale” (wonder tales - ordinary stories with an element of wonder). The idea that beeches are the recognizable “quintessential” or ideal tree that people identify with, versus the fact that they’re not really that useful other than for their looks - and haven’t been considered so, either in history or in tales. Apparently beeches are the trees people plant for that ‘wow factor’ on estates, down long driveways and in cultivating a ‘beautiful woods” feel (as opposed to a real woods feel which is not always beautiful at all). It’s very much like the American use of the word “fairytale” today - like a dream wedding, a perfect romance. To achieve such a thing it’s (usually) extremely contrived, planned, thought out in detail, managed to the nth degree and contained. But it’s not a real state. (To confuse the metaphor, beech trees are actual trees that grow and have a cycle.) The important thing with regard to the woods and places we see them (beech trees) now is that they’re not naturally occurring in those places, even though it may seem that way.

Kristin: That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, is people using “fairytale” as a negative term for something that is an unrealistically perfect ideal, when it completely contradicts the actual facts of fairy tales!

I did find it interesting that the word “book” may have been derived from “beech,” and some of the earliest European books were likely printed on thin slices of beech wood.

Beech trees UK
Gypsy: I’m not certain why she begins talking about birch trees in contrast here, unless it’s because beech are now considered the queens of the forest, whereas the title used to belong to birch, but these trees are like a perfect metaphor for real tales (as opposed to Disney-version/ marketing-contrived ones).

p42 - “Despite their fragile appearance and relatively short life span (seldom more than 80 years) individual birch trees are immensely tough - Rackham (EDIT: Oliver Rackham, not the artist Arthur Rackham) reports specimens that have fallen over collapsing cliff edges, tumbled to the bottom and then simply re-rooted and carried on growing.”

Holy moley - that exactly like fairy tales!
Birch tree close-up

It goes on to say (p42 cont - ) “Recently, birch has been earning the respect of commercial foresters for this reason: it will plant itself, saving time and energy…”

Back at the top of the page it also mentions how “birch pollen is produced in abundance and carries widely on the wind, so birch can appear anywhere - and does.”

Then she gets to the ‘birch in folklore’ part and I’m totally glued to the page wondering what she’ll talk about next.

p43 - “Curiously, beech trees are almost entirely absent from folklore...virtually nothing in the way of associated customs or proverbs. Birches, on the other hand, are magical trees… Birch trees, together with fish, are among the very few items from the natural world that cross over, with their positive magical attributes intact..” (edit: I have to look into fish more now too)

Then she gets into: “the dissemination of fairy stories is at least as complicated as the dissemination of tree species.” which brings me back to what I was thinking about before - how birch trees with their hardy self-planting, growing everywhere and re-rooting capabilities are just like fairy tales.
Birch forest

Kristin: What a cool picture of how tales evolve and spread-reminds me of the charts I’ve seen in Alan Dundes’ “Cinderella: A Casebook” mapping Cinderella variants found all over the world in an attempt to find the tale’s source, much like biologists might map various specimens as they study evolution.

Gypsy: Then there is the sobering point that because of how trees disseminate (along with how they’re interfered with by people) we can’t truly know what the “wildwood” (the original wild and natural forests) really looked like at all.

p44 - I believe the same is true of fairy stories. By the very nature of oral ‘text’ you can only know how it was this time, the time you heard it.
And then this next observation I think is key in understanding what’s happening with fairy tales today too: p44 cont - Field anthropologists have become sensitive to the fact that asking someone in an oral culture to tell you a traditional story will distort the story; the teller will mould the story to the listener’s expectations - at least as far as such expectations are understood. This is not deliberate deceit or secrecy; it is the job of a storyteller to do so.

Then I put this sentence on the next page in a giant box, underlining it twice:
p45 - Many historians believe that memory itself has changed with the shift to literacy - that we learn and remember things in a different way today from how we did in the past.

With the topic of a visual culture currently on my mind, I think this is true. We used to be better at remembering words, phrases, rhymes, charms, blessings and, of course, stories. Now we think in images and advertising, in special effects. People record their days in selfies, Facebook comments and likes and discuss viral memes.
Birch Forest - photographer unknown
Kristin: Yes, I found that part about memory fascinating as well. I’ve read both that fairy tales had to vary widely each time they were told, to the idea that I believe was propagated partially by the Grimms in their inclusion of their female narrator (Dorothea Viehmann) and how she would tell the story word for word each time. People have been suspicious of this and brushed it off, but it actually confirms what I’ve read elsewhere about human memory hundreds of years ago-in native American culture, Powhatan’s messengers could listen to him talk for three hours and later deliver the message, reciting what he said word for word. Memory is a skill that can be practiced (as actors who have to learn lines quickly will attest), and it makes sense that literacy would cause a loss of this skill. And perhaps even more frightening, what does our shift into social and visual media mean about our memories? Will we forget even more and more, losing memories of ideas and concepts and anything that isn’t an image?

Beech forest
Gypsy: I think this is where libraries are really important - a way to hold knowledge in different forms of media, no matter what the current form of remembering. But the great thing about visuals is that they hold a LOT of information. The difficult thing is accessing all the information it holds… *conundrum creases in forehead*

I digressed there for a bit but the author returns to the idea that literary stories have fed back into oral ones as well as the opposite - like trees being “inserted into existing woods”, “altering them in ways we don’t fully understand”.

p47 - “One problem, which bring our fairy stories at least back within the shades of the woods, is that we have no ‘virgin stories’, or true fairy wildwood.”
Ancient beech forest in Germany

This feeds into the idea of fairy tales as palimpsests*: I see this concept come up a bit but it’s the first time relating it to earth and forests for me. (*NOTE: Palimpsest def: a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain./ something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.) I think this may be somewhat true but I think the fact of re-rooting and a birch seeding itself in many places may be closer to how fairy tales behave. Rather than just getting written over again and again, with our understanding relying on the latest “writer”/teller/map, I think stories only spread when some of their “story DNA” remains intact.

It’s a good thing the “DNA” of fairy tales is tough! It doesn’t go away easily, even when advertising, pop culture and giant companies change them to be almost unrecognizable. There’s more to a fairy tale than the visible ‘bloom’ - the roots really are extraordinary. No matter what you do to Red riding Hood, she insists on coming back. (And if you removed her teeth she seems to come back with triple sets!) And it’s yet another reason I love fairy tales. there’s something earthy, vital and tough about them.
Birch forest wallpaper - photographer unknown
Random piece of trivia: the wallpaper in the "Evil Queen's" office on ABC's Once Upon A Time is birch forest. It was chosen for it's black and white, that is, opposites, contrast, with the theme of the space representing good and evil, hero and villain.

We’ll leave the discussion there for you to think about. Tomorrow Kristin will post our discussion on Sara Maitland’s retelling of The White Snake over on Tales Of Faerie.

Be sure to watch out for next month’s discussion in which  we’ll discuss the chapter for May and the author’s walk through The New Forest, as well as  the author’s  retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe birch trees have won their special status in fairy tales because they have recognizable 'eyes' and 'mouths'.