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14 January 2014

British Forest Myths and Fairy Tales

Forests have long been held in the national psyche as mystical places of misadventure. Children’s fables and songs back this up, think ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’. Center Parcs, who have mastered the forest holiday, think these tales are great and thoroughly love hearing new versions. They have compiled a list of four of their favourite forest fairy tales and deciphered what message they deliver about the forest. They are:

Jack And The Beanstalk – Jack and the Beanstalk is a fable that is basically about the opportunities people must take for self-improvement. Jack and his mother live an impoverished life, surviving on the produce of one dairy cow. The cow stops producing and so Jack is sent to sell it at market. He meets a mysterious man in the woods on the way who trades him three magic beans. These eventually become the giant beanstalk and create his path to unthinkable riches.
What does this say about the forest? The forest serves as a mystical place of opportunity where other worldly goings-on occur. It’s no coincidence that Jack receives the beans in the forest. The story portrays the forest as a valuable and abundant resource where great riches can be found.

The Teddy Bear’s Picnic – So this may strictly not be a fairy tale but it’s definitely a song that is sung to young children regularly. The story starts on a cautionary note warning children to “beware of a big surprise” on entering the woods. It turns out that really the only thing to be cautious of is the teddy bears having a picnic.

What does this say about the forest? The message of this rhyme seems to be double-edged. On the surface this tale seems to be quite terrifying and certainly was the cause of anxiety for me as a youth. The image of bears romping round the forest picnicking on anything that stood in their way was enough to deter shy little me. On the other hand you realise these are actually just teddy bears, the plaything of young children. An image of a young girl hosting a tea party for all her dolls springs to mind and instantly the intimidating image disappears. This song then seems to warn young children of the dangers of playing in the forest but only to a certain extent. On growing older the forest is no longer to be feared but actually enjoyed as an area of play.

Goldilocks And The Three Bears – This is another cautionary tale for young children. It warns them not to play in the woods alone. Goldilocks is often portrayed as being very headstrong, whose only saving grace is her beautiful mane of hair. Impatient with her mother cooking dinner she dashes off alone in the forest. She breaks into the bears’ house and uses or breaks a lot of their possessions. When confronted by the bears she is terrified and runs off home, learning to never play in the woods again.

What does this say about the forest? The message here is quite an obvious one and teaches children not to play in the woods alone. They can be a dangerous place, as many places are for young children. It’s in the description of the bears that we see the tale’s true feelings towards the forest. The bears are often portrayed as homely and loving. Perhaps then the message we can learn from this tale is that in the forest there are many different animals living in harmony. As a person, entering the woods and disturbing their day-to-day life can land you in trouble. Treat the forest with respect.

Robin Hood – The renowned outlaw is as famed for his charitable ways as he is for residing in Sherwood Forest. His acts of gallantry, fighting against the dreaded Sheriff of Nottingham often start from his forest hideout. Robin’s merry men also live with him in the forest.

What does this say about the forest? Robin Hood has its roots in the medieval period where England was often lead by ruthless Kings or Queens with little regard to the common man. The people needed to band together and create their own heroes away from the prying eyes of civil society. The forest works well for this, as the people that work this land every day will know it better than any King or Queen could dream of. The forest then in this tail acts as a blanket masking all the deeds of the common man, united under their self-appointed hero Robin. It also acts as a safe place where the ordinary person can live a life uninterrupted or pestered by the landed gentry. The forest becomes an open society where each man has worth and is respected for his actions and not for his lineage.


These tales tell us a lot about our own attitude towards the forest. On first glance you may think that the over-arching message is to avoid the forest. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think there’s more to it. I think the forest is portrayed as a risky place, yes, but a place of opportunity. It’s a place where people can reconnect with nature and most importantly enjoy themselves. 

What does the forest mean to you? 
Were you scared of it as a child?

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  1. The fairy tale that made me fearful of a forest is Hansel and Gretel. You get witches and all sorts in a forest!

  2. My back garden is right next to a forest/wood area so I was never scared of it as a child and I loved going to centre parks as a child too x

    Heather | Of Beauty & Nothingness


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