Last Wednesday, I hopped on the train and made my way to Melbourne Uni for the ‘Into the Woods’ symposium run by History of Emotions. You can find their program here.
It was a full and wonderful day, focusing on the forest in literature, fairy tales, poetry, contemporary culture and ecology. Unsurprisingly, I’ll focus on the fairy tale presentations I saw. If you’d like an abbreviated version, I tweeted my notes over here. I didn’t make it in time for the keynote speaker, but caught morning tea, and met the lovely Caitlyn, who, coincidentally came down on the same train, from the same town! We live less than 5 minutes away from each other. A lovely way to start the day.
And so, onto proceedings. You may want to read each speaker’s abstracts in the program for a clearer idea of what they spoke about. I’m working solely from my scribbled notes here.
Victoria Tedeschi spoke about the idea that, while we think of the forest as a dangerous place, “Fairy Tales’ most arduous trials take place inside (in the human realm), not in the forest itself.” The forest is actually a place for fostering identity: a place for growth and change. It is in the human domain that danger lies. In the beginning of the industrial age, cities became dirty and full of squalor, and so the first public parks were created… while the ‘wild’ forests were thought to be unruly, even ugly. They were seen to be in the way of agricultural progress. The ‘wild’ fairy tale forest was a place to lose oneself, and find a new identity. It is a means of escape.
I got most excited about Victoria’s reading of Hansel and Gretel. In the beginning of the story, Gretel is completely reliant on her brother. She’s helpless, relying on him to lay (unsuccessful) trails of crumbs and stones. However, after their trek through the woods, and entrapment by the witch in her candy house, she find the power to defeat the witch (by kicking her into the oven) and is the one to lead them home. Hansel, after being caged by the witch, is now lamenting the helplessness of their situation. Gretel, through her time in the forest, has formed a connection to the environment, and even enlists the help of a duck. She finds their way home, pockets full of sweets and jewels, in this way also ensuring her own financial independence. Totally blew my mind. Thanks Victoria!Next up we had Rebecca-Anne C. do Rozario with Agony! Misery! Woe!: An Excess of Love in the Forest. She spoke of the forest as a place of exile and refuge, and also, apparently, full of princes! She discussed the women writers from the court of Louis XIV. They often wrote of exile to the forest while they themselves risked the danger of exile to their country estates if they displeased the King. Not the worst danger they could have faced, but it certainly met social death. Rebecca-Anne discussed Catherine Bernard and Madame D’Aulnoy, particularly D’Aulnoy’s celebration of the male body. D’Aulnoy’s The White Hind explored the idea of a beautiful old woman, much different to the old hag we usually read about in fairy tales, and also the disturbance of the usual heterosexual pairing, with a strong female friendship at the heart of the tale.
D’Aulnoy’s story Le Mouton, features a metamorphosed sheep dripping with splendid jewels, and speaks of him in sensual terms, which leads me to my favourite quote from the day, (from Patricia Hannon): “The indolent sheep is the creation of the female libido.” Don’t you love it? I want it on a coffee mug. Anyway, female writers of the time often led sexually adventurous lives themselves, and didn’t shy away from writing about female desire in their writing.
Back in the forest, Rebecca-Anne discussed Marina Warner’s view of the wolf: he is symbolic of desire itself, and a counterpoint to the old crone, or witch in the woods. The prince too, is an artifice of desire. He is chasing, not the princess in particular, but desire itself.
Athena Bellas spoke next, on An Escape to the Forest in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. She discussed the film and its representation of gender, resistance and space; and also the relationship between the film and the Red Riding Hood stories by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. There is a strong focus on what comes of straying from the path, physically and socially. Interestingly, Athena also discussed the idea of horror being in the home rather than in the wild forest (I’d really like to cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post): In the film, Ringing Hood is escaping her abusive father, and the forest is a marginal space. Through lighting and framing, it is represented as a freeing space for her. Athena has a particular interest in the voice over, where Riding Hood is in control of her own narrative.
She also discussed the differing German and French ideas of the forest in Grimms’ and Perrault’s stories. The German forests are dark and foreboding, while the french are manicured and relatively tame. A place of looming fear vs. a place of wonder.
Amazingly, all the above (and more) was covered in an hour. In the next session we started with Sarah Bartels discussing the the symbolism of the devil in 19th Century English Woodland. She pointed out some of the many plants that were named after the devil, for the simple reason that they were poisonous, spiky, or even just unpleasant to the taste. Sarah looked at the relationship between the natural world (plants and animals) and the supernatural one, and how the balance between the two was negotiated in the beliefs and superstitions of the time.
I then snuck into the other seminar room (multiple presentations make for some very difficult decision making!) to catch Jessica Hancock‘s paper on The Question of Experience and Fiction in Regards to Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. She discussed the postmodern idea of whether the artist can be divorced from the work they make – is the connection important? There is an expectation that when an author writes about a place (even in historical fiction) they should have been there, and the belief that with the physical experience of a place it becomes part of the story, not just background. Stef Penney wrote about the Canadian wilderness as if she had lived there all her life, and people believed she had… until it was revealed that she lived in London, was intensely agoraphobic, and did all her research at the library. Should that make us read her story differently? Many people believe so, and it is hard to keep it out of mind while reading the book, even unintentionally.
David Haworth spoke next on Silence, Speech and the Unruly Forest: From Fairy Tales to Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, where:
‘Nature is silent in our culture (and in literate societies generally) in the sense that the status of being a speaking subject is jealously guarded as an exclusively human prerogative’- Christopher Manes.
In fairy tales, the forest is loud with (non human) voices, where in The Bluebird Café, the forest is forced into silence. Speech is an expressive of an internal self, a gift bestowed on the forest in fairy tales. In Red Riding Hood we are unsurprised to hear the wolf speak: he is the seductive danger of the forest: His voice is seductive, as is his ability to spin words. David spoke of semiotics as the ‘other’ of language: Not language itself, but entwined with it. In The Bluebird Café the forest has encroached on the town, taken over it. The town and the missing girl are both ghosts, both silenced. Even in flashbacks the girl is mute. The speaking human has privilege in Western cultures, but Bird’s novel makes space for the non-speaking Tasmanian forest in her narrative.
And… break for lunch. Phew. Our brains were overflowing, but the next hour was a wonderful chance to meet several people I heard speak: Sarah Bartels, Victoria Tedeschi and Rebecca-Anne were all fantastic to chat to, and I’m glad to have made their acquaintance. Working away from my keyboard in a relatively small town means I tend to forget that there are real people out there, talking and thinking about the things I’m interested in. And I can talk to them, in real life. I’m so grateful to the organisers of the symposium, and all the wonderful presenters. I haven’t covered all I sat in on, but these were the most relevant to my work, and this blog.
Many thanks to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Melbourne University, and whoever the caterers were, for the very delicious lunch.
You can follow Victoria, Rebecca-Anne and Athena on Twitter.