Out of the woods?
Originally featured in the Times Literary Supplement blog | Author: Dr Elizabeth Dearnley
University College London’s event Out of the woods? will take place on Friday 13 to Sunday 15 November in UCL’s South Cloisters as part of the Being Human Festival
Behavioural advice given in fairytales tends to be fairly clear-cut. Be kind, unselfish and willing to weave nettle coats for your 11 brothers, and you’ll probably end up marrying a king. Be rude, greedy and reluctant to help a mysterious trio of men you meet in the woods, and you’ll almost certainly start coughing up toads with every word you speak, before being rolled into a river in a nail-studded barrel. Sometimes, however, the intended moral of the story is a little more cryptic . . . .
In ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, a Bluebeard-type story found in the Grimms’ ‘Children’s and Household Tales’, a beggar asks a beautiful girl for a piece of bread. After providing the bread, which both human compassion and fairytale convention suggest would be the right thing to do, the girl is then captured by the beggar (who turns out to be the wicked sorcerer Fitcher in disguise) and stuffed into his enchanted backpack. The wisest course of action, it seems, isn’t always the obvious one.
The tempting, tangled forest of conflicting advice, life lessons and moral guidance given in fairytales will be recreated in ‘Out of the Woods?’, an interactive maze installation constructed with Liliana Ortega Garza in the South Cloisters of University College London for the Being Human Festival.
Based on Little Red Cap, Hansel and Gretel and other fairytales set in forests recorded by the Grimms, the maze invites you to navigate your way through a woodland environment and create your own story. Each fork in the path presents you with a moral dilemma from a fairytale. You choose which route to take by deciding what you want to happen next; it’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book you can walk around. Will you go directly to grandmother’s house? Will you look after Fitcher’s egg? Will the choices you make allow you to escape the maze and leave the woods safely, or will you remain trapped forever?
‘Out of the Woods?’ has grown out of my research at UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society – where I examine fairytale-like narratives in different media, from medieval werewolf tales to the internet meme Slender Man, and the ways in which these stories can change (in terms of setting, character or ending, for example) with each new retelling – and Liliana’s work in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, which focuses on people’s perceptions of public spaces, and how the act of walking affects their emotional and physical sense of place.
Constructing a maze in the middle of a university has been a new – and frequently surreal – experience for both of us, whether we were figuring out precisely how to make large wood-and-cloth wall panels that also light up (with the help of the staff at UCL’s Institute of Making), or sitting backstage at the Bloomsbury Theatre with a sound technician, trying to decide what type of goblin laugh would sound most satisfyingly eerie. Will people find the experience (as we intend them to) a convincingly immersive one – perhaps imagine, for a moment, that the witch might not be too far away . . . ? After all that intensive work behind the scenes it’s hard for us to say. Why not come along and tell us?