Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Forest - Edward Rutherfurd

I bought this paperback of Rutherfurd's The Forest back in 2001. It's his fourth novel but my introduction to his work. Not being familiar with Rutherfurd's work,  mostly picked it up because of the subject. During my days in college the New Forest had been mentioned several times as an example of how small scale management practices can lead to a very diverse ecology. Rutherfurd focuses more on the history of the place of course, but the two are so intertwined that a lot of what was mentioned in my ecology classes does show up in the text. From then on I have tried to read one of Rutherfurd's books every couple of years. His works require so much research that he only publishes one every three or four years. Currently he has eight novels out, of which I have yet to read two. Maybe I'll try his latest novel Paris (2013) next year.

The Forest describes his history of the New Forest in the south of England almost from its creation as a royal hunting reserve to the present day. William the Conquerer helped himself to this vast stretch of land around the year 1078. Rutherfurd starts his tale in 1099, with the events leading up to the death of William Rufus in 1100. He then follows successive generations of eight fictional families: the Albions, the Puckles, the Tottons, the Martels, the Furzeys, the Prides, the Grockletons and the Seagulls. Each of these families represent different faces of the Forest in different times and often their life intersects with real historical figures. In effect, Rutherfurd is taking the James Mitchener approach to historical fiction.

This novel is the third novel by Rutherfurd set in a relatively small area. His first novel Sarum (1987) describes the history of the Salisbury plain just north of the New Forest. In London (1997) he tackles the history of England's capital. England's history is rich of course but he still runs the risk of repeating himself. As such, this book is slightly more concise than the other two. Both Sarum and London top 1300 in mass market paperback and start in prehistory. The Forest has to make do with just under 900 pages and 9 centuries of history. Although the books are meant to be read individually, Sarum and London in particular have links between them. Given the proximity to the New Forest, Sarum shows up in the pages of this novel several times as well.

The New Forest really is a unique bit of England. Many people would see it as a wilderness, a large stretch of natural forest, bog and heath and Grassland. Nothing of course, could be further from the truth. The land has been managed in a variety of ways, resulting in the landscape we see today. As one fictional ecologist in the final section of the novel points out, the Forest is a dynamic ecosystem where man has played an important part in creating and maintaining certain balances and occasionally upsetting them. What Rutherfurd also shows in the text is that it is constantly under pressure in various ways. Population growth tourism and economic pressures being the greatest threats in modern times.

Although the New Forest was set up as a hunting reserve for the crown, the local population retained a lot of rights for other uses of the forest. They could let their cows and ponies graze at certain times of year, use the underbrush for firewood, turn out their pigs to feed on beechnut and acorn in fall and  to cut peat for fuel to name a few. Many of these rights were linked to cottages or landholdings and have been in effect ever since the founding of the New Forest, although they weren't recorded until the 17th century. Some of them are still in effect, although the system in under threat. These rights gives one an impression of the numerous ways in with the environment was used but that was not nearly all of it.

The New Forest housed large populations of various deer species. In medieval times these were important to keep the royal court fed and punishments for poaching were very harsh indeed. The deer had a large impact on the forest, eating large quantities of saplings and the lower branches of trees. Later on timber became more important. As the English fleet expanded, the forest's oaks turned into a valuable assets. Selective felling of trees and the appearance of enclosures to grow trees for use as timber again shaped and changed to landscape. When you think about it, this piece of England was far more intensely used than may people realize. Of course it is never enough for some. The many uses of the land, the way these uses are governed and the ways in which this government is evaded are the backbone of the novel and in my opinion a marvelous set of themes.

Rutherfurd also weaves a lot of history into his tale of course. He is quite detailed on the events leading up to the Spanish Armada attempting to invade England in 1588, the reigns of Charles I and Charles II and the English civil war, and the Victorian era, when industrialization and clashes with the traditional ways of life in the forest and the emerging recognition of the region as a valuable ecosystem. The author lectures on the history of England and the Forest in various places, especially to bring the reader up to speed on what happened in the periods he skips. Personally I think there is no point to reading Rutherfurd's novels if you don't appreciate this sort of thing but it has to be said that he has gotten a lot better at it in the years since writing Sarum. These overviews of England's history are inserted much more seamlessly.

Since reading this novel for the first time back in 2001 I've read several thousand pages of other material by this author. Books like Russka (1991), Dublin: Foundation (2004) and New York (2009) impressed my but even after this reread, The Forest is a personal favorite of mine. It's not often you find a book that points out humanity's relationship to the environment and landscape in such vivid detail. This combination of ecology and history gives this novel something extra compared to Rutherfurd's other novels. This is of course my own personal bias. I like books that show a certain awareness of the environment or explore the implications of upsetting an ecological balance. In that sense the novel is a wonderful read. It makes me regret I haven't visited the region myself.

Book Details
Title: The Forest
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Arrow Books
Pages: 883
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-09-927907-X
First published: 2000


  1. I know you are also a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, another writer who implements a large number of environmental concerns into his novels. What would you say the differences are between he and Rutherfurd (aside from the obvious historical perspective)?

  2. For Robinson it is a theme that runs through his entire body of work. He explores the science behind it in detail in almost all of his novels and explores our relationship with our environment. His characters are often intensely aware of the fact that they are shaped by their environment as much as they shape it.

    The Forest is the only novel where Rutherfurd pays this much attention to ecology. There are passages in his other novels, set in times when people were more at mercy from their environment than we think we are now. The Forest is unique in the sense that the way it was managed created the environment we think of as the New Forest today. If you read a book like London, he pays much more attention to the economic side of history since that is more prominent in the city's history. The Thames estuary environment doesn't play such an important role although one might argue the city is where it is because of the river. In New York, he examines the history of the city by exploring what each successive group of immigrants added to it. His approach differs depending on what he finds in the history of a place.