Byatt views fantasy as an alternative to mundane life rather than as an escape from reality. Many of her stories blend fantasy with Realism and Naturalism. Realism as a movement (nineteenth century) was concerned with how the times, place, and people affect life; Naturalism, on the other hand, is concerned with how an individual’s biochemical makeup shapes his or her emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, is also a novelist, and the two sisters have disagreed on how to portray their mother in fiction. Students might make note of the theme of mixed perception as it relates to “A Thing in the Forest.” Do they believe it is important to have background information on an author in order to understand her writing? Ask students to identify elements of fantasy, Realism, and Naturalism in Byatt’s story.
Beginning in 1839, the British government initiated plans to evacuate civilians—particularly children—from urban areas that might be likely targets for German air bombings. Some plans involved moving children to grand country estates and rural communities until they could be placed in foster homes by local volunteers. The caption for the photo reads: “Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home.” September 1940. Source: British National Archives, photo #NA 306-NT-3163V.
The experiences of separation from their parents and moving to unfamiliar locations (very strange compared to their urban environments) had profound psychological effects on children of the period.
Byatt’s description of the “thing” that Penny and Primrose encounter in the forest draws on English folk legends about giant “worms”—dragon-like, malevolent creatures that terrorize villages, kill people and livestock, poison wells, and destroy property. In many versions of these stories, the worms are difficult to kill because when they are cut or wounded they regenerate. In most legends, a valiant male warrior eventually kills or subdues the worm, but only after it has dramatically affected the inhabitants and landscape and cursed its vanquisher. The image depicts the Lambton Worm. Illustration from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s book, English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890). In the Pforzheimer Bruce Rogers Collection of the Library of Congress.
As students do a close reading of this first paragraph of the text, you might stimulate their discussion with these questions: What do these details tell us about the children being evacuated? What is the effect of describing them in the aggregate in this way? How does the description emphasize their similarities to one another? Are there indications of individual differences? In what ways do the children seem vulnerable? In what ways do they seem resilient? Do you notice any similarities between the description of the children as a group and the description of the Thing that Penny and Primrose will later encounter?
Students’ immediate reactions to the story may introduce responses to the fairy tale elements or psychological impact on the women. Ask students to describe the tone of the story. What kinds of feelings does Byatt invoke with her descriptions of the countryside and the return of the adult women to the forest? Encourage students to recognize that the story has a haunting, almost tragic, feeling and that it raises issues of credibility due to the tension Byatt creates in the coexistence of the real and the fantastic. Point out to students that the women’s career choices are paramount: Penny is a psychotherapist who deals “professionally in dreams,” while Primrose works as a storyteller in the oral tradition.
Put students into groups of three to four and assign a current event to each group. Each member of the group will collect one newspaper or magazine article on the designated event. Make sure that students within the same group use different resources. In groups, students will compare the ways in which that current event is portrayed, depending on the publisher and intended audience. How are language, images, and style used to affect the reader’s understanding of the events? Each student should develop a short paragraph of three to five sentences summarizing the findings derived from his or her work, and together the group should formulate a concluding paragraph on the value of this activity.
This is one of several independent writing activities offered in addition to those on the LitWeb site and in the Instructor’s Manual . Historically, Byatt’s story relates to events surrounding World War II and the evacuation of English children to the countryside to protect them from city air raids. The “thing” in the forest becomes a fictional embodiment of the terror from which the children are being sheltered during wartime. Historians have noticed similar trends in other cultures; some have argued, for example, that the Salem witch hunts were really based on the people’s fears of Native American attacks, which were then translated as a fear of local witches conjuring evil spirits to terrorize them.