Probably one of the first things most people envision when they think of fairy tales, myths or even ancient legends is a deep, dark forest. Depending on the culture you might think of other dense pockets of nature too, whether a cave containing treasure, an oasis harboring the fountain of youth, a valley within which lies Shangri-la, or a jungle where intrepid heroes go in but never come out. Sometimes the nature is in a smaller package, it’s a single flower containing the power of the gods, a mythic tree of life or wisdom, an herb capable of granting eternal life, or a single apple promising forbidden knowledge.
Nature is a huge part of the mythic narrative no matter what part of the world you are in. Nature is a strange and mysterious mistress and stories from all over the world show her elements as magical, mythical and even legendary. What follows is a short book list that showcases books talking about the forests of the world in this context in one way or another. These books show nature’s mythical as well as very real abilities and the stories and legends that have sprung up surrounding the natural elements of our world.
While this book is not mythologically focused what it does is alphabetically go through a list of deadly plants and features a short essay about each one. These essays not only touch on the facts of the plant such as what it does, where it is found, and how it is used, but it also mentions any shining moments in history along with any myths or legends a particular plant plays a part in. The organization of the book is strictly alphabetical and not organized by category so if you are only interested in reading about flora in myth you will have to page through every one, but the book is fascinating and very light reading. This is a good non-fiction read for people who don’t like non-fiction and/or prefer their reading in bite-size chunks. Be prepared to become a bit neurotic when it comes to plants after you finish reading it, however.
Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir
In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This books gathers together the myths, legends, and folklore associated with the native Irish trees. The folklore has two main themes: the tree as a marker of important places such as royal site or holy well, and the role of different trees as source of magical power in folk customs and superstitions. Many themes are common to different trees, such as fertility, magical power, and the tree as a link between this world and the spiritual. Along with beautiful watercolors illustrating the different kinds of trees, the book features an Ogham tree calendar based on the early Irish alphabet and the ancient Celts’ lunar calendar that links the trees to the different months of that calendar.
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous
This book is the one I credit with introducing me to forests in myth and legend. The book contains several stories, myths and legends about forests, sacred groves and even specific trees. The stories are summarized into brief, short paragraphs to give you a taste of the tale but there are well documented sources for all of them so it is easy to look up the full length legend if you are so inclined. The author also breaks off and talks about a forest’s magical denizens as well such as sprites, fairies or even witches. The book is not organized in any way so you go from one fairy tale, myth or legend to the next without much cohesiveness. It is a fascinating read though and a great way to be introduced to several stories about the forests of the world all at once.
Myths of the Sacred Tree by Moyra Caldecott
Protecting the earth is a universal theme and it is one that is brought to light in this next book in a very interesting way. In Myths of the Sacred Tree the author highlights myths from all over the world that celebrate the sacredness of nature, often in the form of a single divine tree. There are several page long (but often still truncated) summaries of the myth or legend in question accompanied by commentary picking out the threads that unite all of these stories into a cohesive, world-wide, centuries-old message about the preservation of nature. These myths either show nature being saved, nature being brought back from destruction or nature striking back in self-defense in stories from all over the world.
A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward
My last selection focuses on flowers instead of trees but it’s a worthwhile side trip. The author lists 80 different types of flowers and talks about the various names each has had throughout history, its role in historical events and its practical uses. Each essay also includes name origins, symbolism, its meaning in the language of flowers and most importantly its magical or mythical stories and legends. Probably the best part of this book for a reader like myself are all the quotes and references in poems, literature and mythic writing throughout history. The author quotes work from ancient Greece straight through until Shakespeare and showcases each flower’s literary impact alongside its historical one.
While these books are a great start to forests in myth and legend they are just the tip of the iceberg. I have started a more thorough book list on GoodReads: Forests in Myth, Folklore and Fairy Tales. There you can find great collections of fairy tales, especially ones surrounding nature, like:
Have other recommended books about nature in folklore? Please share them! Especially if the titles are non-Europe centric which I realize is always hard to get away from in Western literature.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a fantastic Norwegian fairy tale. For those unfamiliar with the story both it and Beauty and the Beast are inspired by the myth of Cupid and Psyche and so share many similar elements. A girl is whisked away to a castle with invisible servants. Her husband is a monster in some way or form and she must save him by making him human again through many trials.
What follows is a book list of stories spun off of stories, much like the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a fairy tale spun off from a myth. The first book is the text of the original fairy tale, beautifully illustrated. The next three are re-tellings of the fairy tale, either to expand on the original or to give it a more modern spin. The last book mentions this fairy tale among others in a book a troubled man’s mother wrote and it becomes pivotal to the plot in a story about the power of fairy tales.
East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon by Peter Christen Asbjornsen
A beloved Norwegian folktale, EAST O’ THE SUN AND WEST O’ THE MOON is the romantic story of a bewitched prince and the determined lassie who loves him. It has everything a classic epic tale should have: rags and riches, hags and heroism, magic and mystery, a curse and a quest, wicked trolls, a shape-shifting bear, and finally, a happy ending. Kate Greenaway Medalist P.J. Lynch has created a luminous backdrop worthy of this grand adventure, transporting readers to a world of fantasy and imagination.
East by Edith Pattou
Rose has always felt out of place in her family, a wanderer in a bunch of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him—in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family—she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she loses her heart, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun.
As familiar and moving as “Beauty and the Beast” and yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a sweeping romantic epic in the tradition of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
Blessed—or cursed—with an ability to understand animals, the Lass (as she’s known to her family) has always been an oddball. And when an isbjorn (polar bear) seeks her out, and promises that her family will become rich if only the Lass will accompany him to his castle, she doesn’t hesitate. But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle, which is made of ice and inhabited by a silent staff of servents. Only a grueling journey on the backs of the four winds will reveal the truth: the bear is really a prince who’s been enchanted by a troll queen, and the Lass must come up with a way to free him before he’s forced to marry a troll princess.
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.
Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back — if Cassie will agree to be his bride.
That is the beginning of Cassie’s own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her — until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.
In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig
Thirty-nine, recently divorced, jobless, Benedick Hunter is an actor heading in the exact opposite direction of happily ever after: everything from spending time with his own children to the prospect of dating brings him down. So when he comes across a children’s book his mother Laura wrote, he decides that her life and work–haunting stories replete with sinister woods and wicked witches and brave girls who battle giants–hold the key to figuring out why his own life is such a mess.
Setting out to find out why Laura killed herself when he was six, Benedick travels from his native England to the U.S. in search of her friends and his own long-lost relatives. As he grows obsessed with Laura’s books and their veiled references to reality Benedick enters into a dark wood–a dark wood that is both hilariously real and terrifyingly psychological. It is then that his story becomes an exploration not only of his mother’s genius but also of the nature of depression, and of the healing power of storytelling in our lives.
These are some of my favorite re-tellings of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Are there any that you know of and enjoy? I would love to hear about it!
There are actually a lot of pretty exciting books coming out this winter, particularly of the varieties that I hold near and dear. Obviously that is fairy tale and mythology inspired fictions of all stripes.
First up is Cinder, have I mentioned yet how much I love science fiction fairy tales? I’m pretty excited about it.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl… .
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.
This title will be released on January 3, 2012.
Next is short story collection Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee. Speaking of Cinderella if you haven’t read Lee’s short story re-telling of Cinderella do so now, it’s published in Red As Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.
Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee
Tempting the Gods collects some of Tanith Lee’s fiction from the late 80s to the present, from a variety of venues (Asimovs’, Weird Tales, and Realms of Fantasy). They range in tone from the dark (“Cain”) and Arthurian Legend (“The Kingdoms of the Air”), to Arabian Nights adventure (“These Beasts”) and the just plain weird (“Tiger I”). All stories feature Lee’s carefully crafted language, tight plotting, vivid imagination, and matchless evocation of atmosphere. Not all tales are dark - there’s even some humor, such as the new to this collection “God and the Pig.” Like Bradbury and Vance, Lee is a unique stylist. This collection - the first part of a two part series - is a perfect introduction to her work, some of the best writing in the weird fiction category.
This title will be released on January 10, 2012.
Next book to come out is Everneath a re-telling of the myth of Persephone and Hades.
Everneath by Brodi Ashton
Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld … this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.
Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.
As Nikki’s time on the Surface draws to a close and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole’s queen.
This title will be released on January 24, 2012.
Then we have a lovely girl-disguised-as-a-boy book (I heart those) Scarlet a re-telling of the folklore legend of Robin Hood.
Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen
Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance. Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in. It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.
This title will be released on February 14, 2012.
Finally book two in the Gods and Monsters series is coming out, A Beautiful Evil, that touches on the Medusa myth among others.
A Beautiful Evil by Kelly Keaton
When Ari first arrived in the dilapidated city of New 2, all she wanted was to figure out who she was. But what she discovered was beyond her worst nightmare. Ari can already sense the evil growing inside her—a power the goddess Athena will stop at nothing to possess.
Desperate to hold on to her humanity and protect her loved ones, Ari must fight back. But Athena’s playing mind games, not just with Ari but with those she cares about most. And Athena has a very special plan for the brooding and sexy Sebastian.
Ari is determined to defeat Athena, but time is running out. With no other options, Ari must unleash the very thing she’s afraid of: herself.
This title will be released on February 21, 2012.
Any other cool fairy tale or mythology books coming out this winter that I should know about?
If there is one thing I love to learn more about in my free time it’s fairy tales. To look deeper into these stories that have been told over and over for generations and see the ways they have changed and morphed and twisted to suit each century’s narrative is fascinating to me. And there is no more interesting fairy tale to me than that of Little Red Riding Hood.
The messages about danger in the woods of the world, the constantly shifting symbol of the wolf, and the coming of age of a young girl and what that meant in each century and each society is a very interesting subject to me.
What follows is a short book list of recommended reading for a deeper look at this particular fairy tale along with a few selections that step back and look at fairy tales as a whole, their hidden meanings, and their mysterious pasts.
Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein My first selection is the book that re-kindled my interest in fairy tales, Catherine Orenstein’s Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. In it Orenstein covers 10 different versions of the fairy tale in both historical and social context and talks about the implications each had for the society that told it. She writes in a fun and engaging way and doesn’t get you too bogged down in scholarly text or nitpicking. Her leading message throughout is how the story of Little Red Riding Hood serves as a way to measure and gauge views on femininity, womanhood and women’s sexuality throughout history.
The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood by Jack Zipes If you are looking for a more scholarly approach to Little Red Riding Hood then you should turn to Jack Zipe’s The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. He explores 35 different versions of the fairy tale and takes into account the historical and political culture that brought rise to each version of the tale. His main focus is on the morality and the values attached to each fairy tale retelling and uses the fairy tale as a lens to examine each society’s views on women in general and sexuality in particular. Probably one of the most fascinating arguments he makes in the book is about the rise of sexism. In earlier versions of the tale Red is wily and saves herself from the foolish wolf, in later versions she is naive and is eaten by the much more savvy wolf. Zipes explores why this is and more.
The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar If my first selection was too hot and my second one too cold this one ought to be just right. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar looks at a single version of 25 different fairy tales and includes fascinating annotations and lovely art that shows you just a few of the interesting origins behind several beloved fairy tales. Whether it’s Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, or even The Little Mermaid, she covers a range of fairy tales from all over Europe and has well researched notes, facts and tidbits about each of them. This book is large and is beautifully bound and illustrated. Perfect for “a bit of light reading” for those just interested in dipping their toe into the pool of fairy tale lore and history.
From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner For another, more general, look at fairy tales from a more scholarly perspective you should try From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner. She writes about fairy tales from a feminist historical perspective and explores how fairy tales have been used and leveraged to oppress and exploit women in cultures throughout history in many ways. A must read source for people interested in doing feminist readings of fairy tales. This also takes things one step further and examines the tellers of these fairy tales and their roles throughout and that was interesting to read about as well. Her main thrust though is an examination of women both in the context of the fairy tale and the context of the teller of the fairy tale.
Off With Their Heads! by Maria Tatar In counterpoint to the above selection and in direct response to Bruno Bettelheim’s classic scholarly fairy tale text The Uses of Enchantment comes Maria Tatar’s Off With Their Heads! In it Tatar refute’s Bettelheim’s claims of fairy tales as a direct result of children’s fears (of castration, or of penis envy to name a few) and are instead a result of parent’s fears for their children. Instead of blaming the children and holding them up as the villains in fairy takes Tatar says it is the parents who mistreat the children and who are the, often violent and murderous, villains in fairy tales. I include this book in the list mainly because it is hard to go anywhere in the study of fairy tale lore and not run up against Bettelheim’s often perverse take on the true psychological origin of fairy tales and I believe Tatar’s book works as a nice rebuttal to all his arguments and more.
In the back of my most recent fairy tale related book was a reference to this publisher’s work putting together collections of fairy tales and folklore from all over the world (Italian fairy tales, Norse myths, African folktales, and so on). While the books are going out of print they do seem to be some very nice collections if you are interested in exploring another culture’s fairy tales. I put together a list of as many as Good Reads has in their system and am now sharing the booklist for any one that might be interested.
To finish off my Jack and the Beanstalk binge I wanted to post a booklist. So here is a list of Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tales, retellings and books that provide commentary and analysis.
Arming me with an Amazon gift card is a very dangerous thing. Spent the morning agonizing over book choices and finally decided I wanted to learn more about forests in fairy tales. My search for the One Book that would at least start to accomplish this led me to find many more, and finally I decided to just make a booklist. This is my largest one yet!
In this booklist I have compiled books that talk about forests, trees, plants and flowers and how they are represented in myths, folktales, legends and fairy tales. As for my quest for the One Book, it’s still ongoing but I have tentatively settled on Myths of the Sacred Tree to be my proverbial toe dip into the pool.
Booklist containing titles that are either the original text of, commentary on, or are retellings of East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
After some sleuthing I put together this list on goodreads of books that either provide commentary and analysis on or are a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red.