Travel literature review: From the Forest

From the Forest by Sara Maitland

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Wayne Murphy

Many of us grew up listening to fairy tales from our parents, enthralled by the perils experienced by Red Riding Hood or the adventures of Snow White and her seven dwarven rescuers. Engrossed by the tales of heroism and villainy that so often feature in fairy tales, few children would pay attention to the frequency with which those heroes and villains live within, work in or haunt woodlands or forests.

Sara Maitland noticed the prominent role played by forests in our childhood tales, and in From the Forest (published in the UK as Gossip from the Forest), and in honour of the 200th anniversary of the first edition of the Grimm Brothers’ collection of fairy tales, she wrote tales of a series of walks she took within forests in England and Scotland. From the Forest is framed around twelve walks, one for each season, and each accompanied by a retelling of one of the Grimms’ classic fairy tales. Her travels take her to Saltridge Wood in Gloucestershire, the Forest of Dean, the New Forest in Hampshire, Essex’s Epping Forest on the fringes of London, the Great North Forest of Devon, Staverton Thicks in Suffolk, Ballochbuie and the Forest of Mar in Aberdeenshire, and Dumfries and Galloway’s Airyolland Wood, Knockman Wood and Glenlee.

Maitland’s journeys serve as a springboard for discussions of many aspects of both forests and fairy tales, and the seasonal and environmental differences between each setting ensure that each chapter has its own individual theme. Maitland’s depictions of forests, be they modern working plantations or ancestral woodlands, are always detailed and evocative, and you can almost smell the scent of pine and mossy oak rising from the pages. Perhaps what makes the book shine most are the twisted modern spins on classic fairy tales, each of which manages to subvert the Grimms’ point of view or theme without losing the distinct flavour of the original tale.

From the Forest is a worthwhile read for those interested in forests, fairy tales or both, or readers who simply want to take one more wander down a woodland memory lane, and remember a time when Big Bad Wolves or gingerbread house-dwelling witches were still the scariest things to be imagined.

Wayne Murphy is a cartographic designer who works in Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office.

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