Interview: Sara Maitland on how she rediscovered Grimm’s fairy tales in Britain’s woods

Maitland and her remote cottage in Galloway. Picture: Robert Perry
Maitland and her remote cottage in Galloway. Picture: Robert Perry
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In February 2011, the Coalition Government proposed selling off some of the nation’s woods. It provoked a reaction no-one could have anticipated. Middle England rose up in protest.

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales

by Sara Maitland

Granta, £20

Half a million people signed a petition. In the face of a “Hands off our trees” campaign by enraged Tory voters, the Government swiftly backed down.

“That was their first U-turn, they’re getting rather better at it now,” says Sara Maitland, drily. She watched the whole debacle from the safe distance of her cottage in the Galloway hills (since forestry is a fully devolved issue, the controversy applied only to England). What interested her was the strength of feeling. “These were people who had voted in a government to make savings, who were apparently prepared to see our university students pushed up against the wall and cuts to the NHS. Clearly there was a passion, a deep passion. I thought, there’s something going on here, about forests.”

Maitland was already working on a book about woods, Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales, which is now published by Granta. Through history and politics, nature-writing and folklore, she investigates the deepest connections we have with woods. In essence, it asks: what it is that might be “going on” about forests.

We meet on the edge of Galloway, near (but not too near) the remote cottage where Maitland, 62, lives a “semi-hermitical” life. In A Book of Silence (2008) she described her quest to live alone and in silence, for personal and spiritual reasons. And I meet Zoe, the Border terrier she got to keep herself “grounded”, who looks at us both with imploring brown eyes, hopeful of a walk.

Currently, Maitland is compromising her silence to fulfil her commitments to publicise the new book. “Don’t mishear this because it’s fun, and I’ve had a really interesting time, but I would actually rather not be doing it,” she says, laughing her throaty smoker’s laugh. “I like living up my hill in silence.” That said, she is an extremely engaging interviewee, lively, funny and knowledgeable about many things from the policy of the Forestry Commission to the viability of different species of native oak tree and the Jungian archetype in European folklore.

Gossip from the Forest is a hard book to categorise. It is woven around 12 walks in different forests from the sublime Staverton Thicks in Suffolk “quite magical, and stunningly beautiful,” to the altogether darker remnant of Caledonian pine forest near Braemar, “forest at its most frightening and foreboding”. She goes in search of the Great North Wood in the suburbs of South London, meets the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean, visits the largest artificial woodland in Europe at Kielder in Northumberland, and has a spooky experience in a privately owned wood in Galloway (although it should be said she was trying to steal a Christmas tree at the time). Each chapter is paired with a creative rewrite of a Grimms’ fairy tale.

Maitland arrived at forests, she says, by thinking about deserts. She loves deserts, and indeed is just back from Sinai where she leads retreats in exploring silence. She would like to write a book tracing the desert journey of Abraham and Sarah as described in the Bible, but the current politics of the Middle East makes this too dangerous. Meanwhile, the “little book which I was just going to knock off in 18 months until peace had come to the Middle East” grew arms and legs – or possibly branches.

“Thinking about silence and deserts made me think about the relationship between geography, topography and the imagination,” she says. In other words, if deserts give us monotheistic religions, as they seem to do, then forests give us fairytales, and the nature of the tale is shaped by the nature of the environment. The Grimms’ tales – this year marks the bicentenary of their first collection – are distinct from the Arabian Nights stories, or the sea-influenced Celtic tales. They are stories of hiding, surprises and disguises, secrets, journeys and quests: they are forest stories. “What do you gain by saying that there are only six fundamental stories in the whole world?” Maitland asks. “To me, it’s more helpful to see why these stories are different from each other, what’s specific about them.”

Fairy tales have long been part of her life as a writer. As a feminist rewriter of fairy stories, she quickly earned comparisons to the late Angela Carter, who was a friend. “She really did give women a way of engaging with patriarchal texts so that we could re-write the texts. But my retellings aren’t in the least like hers because I’m not as interested in sex as she is. When one of my novels came out I said to her rather crossly that I was tired of being reviewed as a kind of sub-Angela Carter. And she said: ‘I wouldn’t worry about it, Sara, they’ll work it out in the end. I’m a 1950s libertarian, and you’re a 1960s moralist.’ And she was right!”

That was then, when Maitland was a busy vicar’s wife, broadcaster, lecturer and novelist. Her first novel, Daughters of Jerusalem (1978) won the Somerset Maugham Award, and subsequent novels were highly praised. She hasn’t written long fiction since beginning her quest for silence, but continues to write short stories – she was the runner-up in the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award in 2009. She has written eloquently about the subtle ways in which contemplative silence is incompatible with the silence of the novelist who is listening for the voice of their imagination. Are fairy tales a way round the problem? Maitland laughs. “That’s what my agent thinks! It’s good fun because it’s fantastically economical. People know who these characters are. You say ‘Cinderella’, and the whole of the background is in place. So if you want to be ironic about it, say you want to make the prince a total plonker, you don’t have to say: ‘Here’s a joke’. You can write into the gaps because there is very little psychology in the original version.”

Her rewrites are excellent, always fresh, but always sticking to the “facts” of the original: The Four Musicians of Bremen become (very easily) a bunch of grumpy lefties; a middle-aged Hansel and Gretel look back thoughtfully on the childhood adventure that still binds them together.

Having thought long and hard about fairy stories, she says that she believes they are “the stories of the poor”. “Because that’s who the principle characters are. Out of 212 stories (in the Grimms’ seventh edition) there is only one couple where both parties are royalty. And (the stories) are conciliatory, they’re not revolutionary – I’d love to say that they were, but they’re not radical in any kind of political sense. They’re about consolation, which is why they all end up with good meals. That’s really what you’re really after: not having to work so hard, and having enough to eat. And marrying the princess would probably help you in this because her daddy’s got lots of money!”

She writes that both forests and fairy tales are under threat. Fairy tales, because there is now little oral storytelling in families, not so much because of television and the Play
Station, but because we are too busy trying to teach our children to read. “I did that too, I’m not getting at anyone. But I presume, in a less literate culture, people sit around telling stories. I don’t think I told my children stories in that formal sense as much as I would now. When I have my grandchildren I’m going to tell them stories, I’m going to be a storytelling granny, their parents can teach them to read!”

And forests are threatened too? Well, first, we must dispense with a myth: the idea that the whole country was once covered in forest, which our wood-hungry society gradually destroyed. This is poppycock, Maitland explains. Even Scotland was never more than 7 per cent forested. “[Forest historian] Oliver Rackham says there is something about forests which makes people desire misinformation. There is almost something magical about it, that it doesn’t mater how many times you tell people what is true, they will come up with a different narrative.”

That said, it’s also true that we have been less than kind to ancient woodland in the past. These days, we value it more highly, but our policy of forestry conservation and management is still patchy. There are opportunities for change – the ill-conceived hectares of conifers planted under the forestry tax breaks of the 1960s and 1970s are now being harvested – but the future is unclear. One of the problems with forestry is the need for a long-term vision, and the history of woods is littered with what might be called long-term mistakes: oak woods planted after the Napoleonic wars for the building of warships were mature by the 1930s. “When there was indeed a war, but it was not a war for which they needed any wooden boats!” laughs Maitland.

The book is also the story of how Maitland makes her peace with forests, because she was not, until now, a lover of woods. “I realised when I wrote A Book of Silence (in which she explores silence in a range of different environments) that there was this big hole in the middle because I didn’t actually want to go and be silent in any forests! But I think if you write about something you come round to it, there is a real connection between knowledge and love.”

She used to think she felt afraid in forests, but realised fear wasn’t the right word. “It’s not that I was scared as I would be in a storm at sea, where you think you might get hurt. I realised it gave me the same feeling as reading fairy stories did. It’s not panic, although Pan was the god of the woods. It’s much creepier than that. You don’t want to rush away screaming, you want to find a nice pub – and then you can tell funny stories about it.”

• Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is published by Granta, price £20.