Book of the Week: Strange Labyrinth

5 Feb|Will Ashon

Epping Forest, in north-east London, was turned into a national park in 1878

Epping Forest, a bit of woodland on the edge of London, may seem an unlikely place to solve a mid-life crisis; yet Will Ashon, a former music journalist who spoke on the Idler stage at Port Eliot festival last year, treads its paths in the hope of finding himself. Along the way, he encounters punks and artists, like Jacob Epstein and Penny Rimbaud of Crass, who similarly found solace in the forest. Painting a vivid portrait of the area’s cultural history and anarchic spirit, Strange Labyrinth takes you on a journey that is funny and fascinating. In this extract, Ashon ponders the magical powers of forests.

The writer Sara Maitland notes that in the 1857 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, over half of the 210 stories are located in the forest and another tenth of them have forest themes or images. Think of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ or ‘Snow White’, think of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. The American academic Robert Pogue Harrison details the ways in which notions of the forest have fed into and affected Western culture across his magnificent book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. In the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot goes mad in the forest not once but four times. In the ancient Welsh text the Mabinogion, Perceval is raised in the forest in total isolation from humanity. In the Mesopotamian legend of Gilgamesh, the hero travels to Cedar Mountain to kill the Huwawa, the forest demon or guardian (depending on how you look at it). In Shakespeare, lovers wander lost in the forest and forget themselves and who they are, or the forest marches forward and Macbeth knows he is doomed. The Greek goddess Artemis hunted through the forest and when Actaeon saw her naked, she turned him into a stag and watched as his own dogs ripped him to pieces. At Nemi the priest of Diana was always an escaped slave who dared to pull down a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove and then kill the previous priest, himself an escaped slave who had in turn pulled down a golden bough and killed his predecessor. That golden bough was first used by Aeneas—Virgil’s mythical founder of the Roman Empire—in order to gain entry to the underworld, the land of the dead.

The forest has lost none of its power in our own time, though we have forced our fears onto minors. From The Hobbit to Wind in the Willows, it lurks at the edges of children’s nightmares. At Hogwarts, of course, a prototypical Forbidden Forest pushes up on the edges of the school’s grounds, the border beyond which magic becomes not good or evil but wild, savage and uncontrollable. What is it about trees that makes us fear them when they bunch up around us? Size and age must play a part, making toddlers of us all. Stillness, but also movement, the way a wood seethes with activity but never quite in front of you. The lack of clear sightlines, the endless places for people or animals to hide and jump out at you. The disorientation of what can seem like an infinite repetition rather than countless variations too tiny or recondite to be picked up by your eyes. Darkness, shadows, an occluded sun. Does it really need explaining? If you’ve ever spent any time out in the woods on your own you will have felt it, if only for a moment, even in that apparently tame, fake forest where I made my perambulations.

Margaret Dunlop led her husband [the artist Jacob Epstein] here [to Epping Forest], out among these trees, to be bewitched. I don’t mean that the sculptor found the forest enchanting or pretty. I mean that he was taken over by it, caught in a compulsion beyond his control, pulled away from his own vision of himself, a cobbler trapped on a production line making cheap shoes designed only to break, or a fairy-tale prince whose legs won’t stop dancing. Describing his days out in the forest with Peggy Jean in the summer of 1933 Jacob wrote, ‘I would go out with my daughter and we did not have to walk far before seeing something worth painting. As usual with me, what started as a mere diversion became in the end a passion, and I could think of nothing else but painting. I arose to paint and painted till sundown.’ He produced up to one hundred canvases of the trees, then found himself painting still lifes of bunches of flowers, not one or two but hundreds of these as well, less an artistic decision than a compulsion, a curse. These flower paintings and forest paintings signalled the end of any sense that Epstein was a modernist, stripped the last claims of radicalism from him. Ironically, though, by producing something so eminently crowd-pleasing, by packing them from floor to ceiling onto gallery walls, by selling some of them to an American company to be printed onto tablecloths, he confirmed himself to the British press as the quintessential modern artist: an unprincipled fraud.

Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London’s Great Forest (Granta) is out now in paperback. Find out more here