March 27, 2014

Book Review Column, By Lissa Sloan (From the Forest and Opal)

Into the Woods: In which I review books about the woods and set in the woods (From the Forest and Opal).

From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales by Sara Maitland

In From the Forest, Sara Maitland provides an in depth look into the connection between forests and fairy tales. Maitland theorizes that the landscape a group of people live in heavily influences their culture, including their fairy tales. For instance, characters in Middle Eastern tales do not go into the desert the way European characters would go into a forest, because the desert would only cause their deaths. They find their adventures travelling to other places or at sea. Whereas while European characters could get lost in a forest, they could also hide, find adventure, and find themselves once again. Therefore, Northern European fairy tales are tightly bound to the countryside of Northern Europe, especially its forests. Over the course of a year, Maitland records her visits to twelve British forests as she thoroughly explores the way forests influence fairy tales. Each chapter finishes with her retelling of a Brothers Grimm tale, which often touches on themes from the chapter.

Throughout From the Forest, Maitland examines forests and fairy tales in a variety of ways. She looks at natural history, and the way humans affect the land they live in, remarking that even humanity’s efforts to preserve a forest in its natural state has an effect, just as attempting to record a previously oral story in print makes the story static, freezing it in a moment in time. She uses events from British history such as “afforestation” (a monarch claiming any land he/she likes for personal use) and the Enclosure Movement (the monarchy forcing the original landowners to buy back their lands, and then the nobility barring the commoners from using it) to explain why kings come out so poorly in fairy tales. Doubtless the tellers of these tales took great pleasure in the subversive message of common people using their wits, good manners, and bravery to rise out of poverty and end up on top, often outwitting a king in the process. Speculating that the originators of Northern European tales lived and worked in forests, Maitland spends some of her forest visits meeting modern Free Miners and foresters.

Maitland has a conversational style, and the non-fiction section of From the Forest makes for a fascinating read. But her re-told fairy tales are equally appealing. Many tell the tale from a different point of view, commenting on the story along the way. Maitland’s style is simple and graceful, making her stories a pleasure to read. Her tales seem to just keep getting better as the book goes along, but standouts for me are the poignant "Dancing Shoes," which tells "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" from the point of view of the soldier, and "Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf," the story of Red’s wolf-like woodcutter. I found it curious that, as Maitland is especially focused on differences in fairy tales from different geographical areas (rather than the similarities most scholars focus on), that she uses Grimms’ tales, rather than specifically British tales such as "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Mr. Fox" to go with the British forests she writes about. However, From the Forest is a completely absorbing, thought-provoking read, which anyone who loves not only reading fairy tales, but reading about fairy tales is sure to enjoy.

Opal by Kristina Wojtaszek

When her mother dies, Opal is taken to her father, who she has never met. But Opal is no ordinary girl. She was born a snowy owl, and spent her early life in the wilds with her mother. Now she must learn her history as part human, part Fae, a people with a strong connection with nature who can take animal form, and take her place in the world. Opal is told through two narrators, the title character, and Androw, a young prince who forsakes his cruel father and enters the woods, where the Fae are said to live. He also seeks a white hare, with black tipped ears and red eyes. The hare is a character from a fairy story, but Androw is determined to find her nonetheless. Together Opal and Androw tell not only their own stories, but that of Eira, a half-human, half-Fae princess who cannot survive among humans and finds peace in the woods with The Seven, who take the shape of animals to guard their precious charge.

As an alternate version of "Snow White," Opal is one of the most unique fairy tale retellings I have come across. Author Kristina Wojtaszek does not use many parts of the original tale, there is no wicked stepmother, for instance, only a very loving one, but the elements she does use are intriguing. Despite a simple plot, I found the use of two narrators, telling their stories from different points in time was disorienting for a while. However, I continued to be drawn in by Wojtaszek’s introspective characters and compelling world. Opal is an intimate, very personal book, and reading this it gave me a strong sense memory of the complete escape I enjoyed curling up with the Patricia McKillip books I loved as a teenager. I found myself wishing it were a full length novel so I could delve deeper into it.

Lissa's avatar, by Lissa
What atmosphere or setting says “fairy tale” to you? Join the Enchanted Conversation and share your thoughts. Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website,, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan. 


Gypsy Thornton said...

Thanks for these reviews! I've been aware of these books but not known much about them. The Sara Maitland one I've almost picked up a couple of times but now I definitely will. Thanks Lissa!

A.L. Loveday said...

I read Maitland's book last year and wrote a few words on it myself ( and one of the best things about it for me was that she talks about the area of London I grew up in!

I didn't find it too curious that she used fairy tales that weren't exclusively British, as she talks about how Europe shared the same landscape for thousands of years, which would have inspired the same mythologies. And it's possible that if we hadn't have been fighting 2 wars against the Catholics in the 16th century the monarchy would not have sold off or felled so much of the woodland, and our land would look a lot more like Germany's. Good news recently for British forests: they're on the increase again, at last!

Thanks Lissa!

Lissa Sloan said...

Yes, Maitland did mention a shared landscape and cultural "Teutonic" heritage in Northern Europe. And perhaps she felt the Grimms' tales are more universally recognized.

Her book definitely made me add to my list of places I'd like to go next time I make it to the UK. How exciting to be familiar with one of her locations! Great news that British forests are looking up:)

Laura B. said...

Fascinating column. I love the image of the forest in fairy tales. One of my storytelling friends used to call it 'the deep, dark woods.' He is telling stories to angels now but I still remember his voice.