Into the Woods: British Forests, Myth and Now

INTO THE WOODS - ON BRITISH FORESTS, MYTH AND NOW Published Independent Saturday Magazine, December 1st 2000


What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7 to 14 year olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land? Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they mug people or protect the Pokemons?) and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut - was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows "sitting on cars", upsetting the countryside's most vital beast: the traffic?

In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets and moors, and know - without bothering to think about it - that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth. In many countries, the hottest national emblem is a native animal. Many coinages - Ireland's, for instance - are stamped with native animals. During the "dingo-baby" trial, thousands of Australians took to the streets to protest the innocence and honour of their wild dog. Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learnt the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry and popular art. "Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree". The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's "Monarch of the Glen".

But that's the way it used to be. We are not a mono-traditional society any more - most kids' traditions centre on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is an unknowable as daffodils to young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj. How connected are we to our own wildlife today? And is the gulf of sensibility between city and country now unbridegable, with urban generations growing up on a dissociated diet of wildlife programmes, safari parks, and American cartoons whose images of nature are radically different from ours? American animals belong in an extreme continent - hurricanes, Death Valley, Rocky Mountains. North Americans expect danger from their wildlife. A Canadian friend of mine rang the council the other day in alarm when a small fox appeared in her London garden. Would it attack the children? Invade the house?

American animals are larger, more glamorous and violent. (No British animal has evolved the protective measures taken by a skunk.) Yet they have taken up happy residence in British imagining of "the country". No one found it odd when raccoons cornered Cruella de Ville in the depths of English countryside for the Glenn Close 101 Dalmations. And rattlesnakes, moose, coyotes and Black Widow Spiders have spectacularly more room to prowl and slither in private through the landscapes where they evolved, and keep their wildness intact. So as the woods, fens and heath which evolved the wildlife of our intense little island turn into fenced-off archipelagos between the suburb and the motorway, what's the state of play with native British wildlife in the new millennium? Not just in landscape: in our imaginations? What's the background story here? How has the relation between what we imagine, and what's really out there, changed? In these essays to come, I shall look at native British wild animals individually, in imagination, art, poetry, and history, but also in themselves, their real-life bodies, species, habitats, now. What's happening to them on the ground we share with them today?


For the ground comes first. Wild animals depend on the landscape that produced them, that got chosen by them. And looming over the history of British and European wildlife, as over the legends and literature which shaped the way we think about wild animals, are the woods. In the beginning - in our beginning - was the forest. Forests once covered nearly all Britain, even the wetlands, in a opulent tide of green, brown, flickery shadow, scattered gold. We share this forest legacy, and therefore our animal sp[ecies, with the rest of Northern Europe. The ancient forests of North Europe were the crucible of folk tale (and so of Disney too). Every European fairy-tale has a forest, for the Queen to send the hunter into to kill Snow White; for Red Riding Hood to meet the wolf in. In his musical Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim picked up brilliantly the spectrum of fantasies that forest represents. The forest is where things happen that don't happen in palace or cottage. Like The Wild Wood of Wind in the Willows, it is a dark confusing place, a fairy-tale tangle of magic, danger and, often, an Angela Carterish sexuality (see the achingly symbolic "forest of thorns" around Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel's Tower); where right and wrong are in disguise, like Miss Riding Hood's Wolf or witches dressed as beggarwomen. Where you stray off the path, or lose it completely like the Babes in the Wood. Where you meet people (charcoal burners, seven dwarves, an elf who grants you three wishes) and face choices you never face elsewhere. Should I fill my starving belly with the gingerbread eaves of this Witch's house, or not? Should I rip the heart out of this sweet little princess? Should I trust, should I fear, should I go this way or that?

Forests dominate mediaeval romances too. In King Arthur stories, damsels get into distress in them, knights gallop into them to save the lady, slay the Green Knight, win the Grail. Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene opens with a Lady, Knight and Dwarf ambling over a plain. They take shelter from a storm in a forest so thick that rain and starlight cannot pierce it. Then they realize they are lost. The forest is so confusing "it makes them doubte their wits be not their own." Most of the rest of the poem takes place in this dream forest, full of castles, bowers and sorcerers. In myth, in poetry, the forest is a place of no horizon where you lose not just your bearings but your identity. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice wanders through a forest with one arm twined lovingly round a fawn's neck. When they reach the forest edge, they remember who they are. The fawn leaps away from her, horrified. "I'm a fawn - and you're a little girl!" Shakespeare's forest is an erotic testing-ground where you forget, misidentify, or carelessly mislay your partner, like the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Where women dress as men, like Rosalind in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Where you learn about love by being alone.

For the figures you meet - witch, hunter, hermit, wolf - are loners, and so, at that moment of being lost, are you. The Forest of Arden is packed with different characters each in "another part of the forest". The forest is the boundless, magically confusing other place; dream, as opposed to reality. When the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream leave the forest, Lysander says uncertainly, Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me That yet we sleep, we dream. It is also, with luck, a place of redemption, where you find what you really are and want. The lovers in A Midsummer's Night Dream belong where they begin and end, at court, but come to know themselves, and their real love, in the forest. The forest stands both at the edge of town, full of brigands and wild animals, and at the back of the mind: European myth's great metaphor for where and how we are in life - alone, uncertain, losing and finding ourselves, each in "a different part of" tangled darkness.

But all this was common to the melting pot of European myth. British forests generated another myth too, all on their own- a political one, the alternative woodland society. Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, "more free from peril than the envious court", is ruled by a banished Duke whose courtiers are "brothers in exile".


This British take on the forest evolved long before Shakespeare, and centred on the "Rymes of Robyn Hood": eighty or so fourteenth-century ballads, full of James Bond fights, male camaraderie, adventures and escapes, but also of passionate longing for a "people's hero". They date from the time of the Peasant's Revolt, 1381. Sometimes Robin is a disaffected Saxon lord who flees to the woods to became a mediaeval Batman, dressing his men in green, robbing the rich to give to the poor. Behind them is the star role of the forest in the politics of disaffection which, kick-started by Norman rule, runs through English history from the thirteenth century on. Outlaws, outside the law, took to the forest which was outside civilization. Yet the law itself was unjust. "They were not outlaws because they were murderers", says T.H. White of Robin's men in The Sword in the Stone. "They were Saxons who had revolted against the Norman conquest. The wild woods of England were alive with them." Forest law claimed most forest for the king. "The king's deer" were protected by Norman barons and their officers, Sheriff of Nottingham clones. It was death for a commoner to kill the deer - yet they did, all the time. They plundered the forest for meat and firewood; they cut down trees for grqzing. Most Robin Hood films begin with a peasant killing deer and Robin protecting him against a Norman lord. Helping the poor, outlawed Robin stands for the hope of better law against corrupt nobles, sheriffs, priests, injustice.

And yet the forest is the base of British dreams for the better, sadly absent, king. The Sheriff has bad King John behind him while Richard Lionheart is away. And the dream went on, tucked imaginatively into key niches of British civil angst. Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Black Arrow, imagines green-clad outlaws during the Wars of the Roses. They call themselves "John Amend-All" and punish wrongs done by the corrupt "Knight of Tunstall". "O they must need to walk in wood that may not walk in town", sings "Hugh Lawless" as he strolls through Tunstall Forest. So the "royal" British forest stands paradoxically for freedom for common men as well as beasts. Freedom to use bodily skills best. Robin's men excel in "woodcraft". They appear and vanish soundlessly; they are a meritocracy based not on birth but physique and the understanding of nature. As one of Robin's men explains to T.H. White's Arthur, "They'm free places, the 'oods. .. Let thee stand in 'em that thou be'st not seen, and move in 'em that thou be'st not 'eard - they'm proper fine places, the 'oods, for a free man of hands and heart."

The forest was also linked with pagan religion, with Druids. Early Christian missionaries crusaded against holy trees and sacred groves: the eleventh-century Church made it an offence to build a sanctuary around a tree. But in some ways it was a losing battle for the stibbornly pagan village psyche. Green branches were carried in Midsummer processions; there were always trees it was "unlucky" to cut down; and May revels were held in the woods. For the British forest, though dangerous, was also "merry", that word which clinches the ideal mediaeval and Elizabethan lifestyle. (Robin Hood's earliest screen appearance was in the British film Robin Hood and his Merry Men, 1909.)

Where there is "mirth", the forest becomes "the greenwood" and that means fun; above all, sex.

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me
And tune his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat?

Robin is the only one of those "merry men" to have sex in the greenwood, because he is also a ritual figure: the mythic Green Man, King of May Day festivals. Marian (always, mysteriously, called "Maid") is his "Queen of the May". May Day forest expeditions were specifically for lovers. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander tells Hermia to meet him,

In the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena
To do observance to a morn of May.

When the lovers are found sleeping on the ground after their adventures, King Theseus (impatient, through the play, for his own wedding night) says - you can just hear him tapping his nose - "No doubt they rose up early to observe/ The rite of May." For though woodcraft skills were a big part of the Robin myth (and male British idealization of them reached a nursery apotheosis in the Wolf Cub movement, redolent of "jungle law" from Kipling's Mowgli stories) the idealizing always had a sexual side. Robin Hood so great at woodcraft skills, is the greatest lover as well as the greatest archer. He emerges from the forest to rescue Marian from the lewd and greedy Sheriff. He is the guy who gets the girl.


Symbolically, our forests are charged with this heady mélange of fantasy, politics, sex and history. But what about the trees themselves? Our countryside does not stand still. It never did, even before the Ice Age. Today nearly all forest, heath, mountain, wetlands and coastline is man-maintained. Americans have got a continent to play with; on an island, land-management is vital. And one of our oldest traditions is the destruction of the forest. This began in Mesolithic times, got a shot in the arm in Neolithic days when stone axes made it easy to fell trees; and Romans, Saxons and Danes carried the tradition on. But the Normans held things back a while. Hunting in the great French forests was the key to cool, in royal Norman lifestyle. The Norman kings preserved the forest by imposing forest law, claiming most forest for the king. They only had the remnants, of the ancient forest; but amazingly large remnants by our standards. In the thirteenth century, a quarter of England was royal forest. Epping Forest is the hangover from the king's "Forest of Essex": which was nearly all Essex.

But forest law was hard to enforce. It forbade felling trees, but commoners grazed animals and stole wood continually, and kings themselves solved cash-flow problems by selling forest off for farmland. Deforestation went on through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the forest lost its wildness. There were few boar and wolves (you were rewarded for killing them, though wolves made it into the eighteenth hundreds, when the last was killed in Scotland). Between 1500 and 1700, woodland was hugely reduced and the Elizabethans were intensely aware of it. Poet-philosophers saw the forest as a place of aristocratic solitude. "O sweet woods, the delight of solitarinesse", breathed Sir Philip Sidney (born 1554). They also mourned a time when (sighed Michael Drayton) "this whole country's face was forestry". Old people remembered when "small boys and squirrels could travel many miles without touching the ground". "In many parts of the country now," said one traveller, "a man can ride ten or twenty miles and see very few trees." Charles I tried to enlarge the royal forest, but at this touchpaper stage in the struggle between king and people an Act of 1641 sternly cut back the area under forest law to what it was in 1625. By the mid-nineteenth century there were only two million acres of woodland in England and Wales; by the beginnng of the twentieth, the percentage of woodland in the UK was 4 per cent, the lowest in Europe. The map was black with places called "Forest" that were forest no more.

Some people saw this as a triumph of civilization. The forest was the enemy: home to beasts, not men. Even Gladstone held tree-felling exhibitions, a last flicker of the idea that felling a tree was a stroke for progress. (When Gladstone visited Germany in 1895 Bismark gave him an infant oak-tree to plant when he got home). But by the late seventeenth century, forests were timber rather than the haunt of beasts, and landscaping ideals counterbalanced any throwback fantasies of the "wild wood". The aristocracy became obsessed with planting woodland in their parks. Woods were no longer the peasants' sexy secret resource but a "heroic" synbol of upper class life. There were huge forestry projects under George III and IV: planting for ornament, as well as timber. As forests shrank, and lost their dangerous animals, they became less frightening. Woods, not forest: romantic, quasi-religious. Gothic architecture reproduced in stone the branching of trees. Woods were primitive churches complete with fan vaulting. And English poets, from Dryden's lament for the lost forests of Polyolbion to Hopkins's elegy for Binsey Poplars, mourned the felling of trees:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun
Are felled, felled, all felled.
Of a fresh and following folded rank, not spared, not one...

And now? A few years ago, a Millennium Forest was mooted, that would re-plant woodland, especially in Middle England. People talked of a million hectares. The planting has started, but no one is talking now of more than a quarter of a million. "That dream", I was told sadly, by the Secretary of The British Deer Society, "has gone very quiet." But the wilderness we have still got is where our native animals evolved. Some species survived the Ice Age, others reintroduced themselves while we were still joined to Europe; new ones were brought in by eager human beings. They adapted to the heath, farmland and towns that took the place of forest over two millennia; some prefer these places to the original forest. All these are the animals with which we have shared our changing landscape through the centuries. For a while longer, at least, they are part of our imaginative, as well as our "natural", history.