Enchantment - An Editorial by Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert is the author of two novels, Folk (Bloomsbury 2018), which was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and adapted for BBC Radio, and Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury 2022). Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally, and won prizes including the Costa Short Story Award. At London Lit Lab she teaches creative writing courses on folklore, folk tales, the fantastic and enchantment in fiction. She lives in Kent, where the landscape is inspiring her third novel. In her editorial for SEADOG she selects five books on the theme of enchantment.

Where might we find enchantment? Books are the obvious answer for any reader. But enchantment is not just about escapism from what can sometimes feel like a disenchanted world. Narrative itself is a route to being enchanted; other portals include nature, animist thinking, the music of melody and of language itself. Wonder is a fundamental part of enchantment, so whatever leads us to wonder – be that hard science or magical ideas – has the potential to enchant us.

For me, folklore and tales combine all the portals to enchantment in a heady brew that still works its magic in the modern world. Chloe Timms’s The Seawomen is a wonderful example of traditional lore worked into a page-turner of a novel that also delivers a powerfully emotional indictment of the darker side of human societies. Traditional folk tales famously don’t go in for realistic characters or bother much with settings beyond ‘in a forest’ or ‘on the seashore’. Timms does the opposite, with her gorgeously bleak, windswept island and the troubled young woman Esta, into whose life and passion we are inexorably drawn. I loved this debut.
Folklore is endlessly inspiring, and if like me you enjoy seeing the world anew through the lens of the past or of distant places, I highly recommend Treasury of Folklore: Woodlands & Forests, by Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham. The subtitle ‘Wild Gods, World Trees and Werewolves’ should stir you enough, but what makes this book special is the sheer worldwide range of lore, presented with a lightness and skill that makes it feel warm and approachable. Dip in for Finnish bear worship, North American squonks, Turkish tree spirits or some Czech folk horror. And admire both the stunning cover and beautiful illustrations.
Herne the Hunter naturally features in Treasury of Folklore, but he is also at the centre of my own novel Mischief Acts – though I’d hesitate to call him the hero. This book follows the history and near future of a real forest (the Great North Wood, which used to cover much of South London) through a fantastical lens, with Herne as the wood’s spirit manifest. At the heart of the book, and of Herne himself, is the tension between enchantment and disenchantment, between humans and nature, between freedom and harm. It is stuffed with the folklore that inspired me, and which I hope will inspire you too.
Two classic books I never hesitate to press upon the folklorically inclined are Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend-Warner, and Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland. First published in 1926, Lolly Willowes is a gloriously satisfying story of female self-emancipation that resonates strongly today, garnished with appearances from the devil, a coven and a cat called Vinegar Tom. Maitland’s exploration of twelve forests across the UK illuminates the fascinating ways in which our landscapes shape our folk tales and lore. Each essay is accompanied by a retold fairy tale set in the relevant forest. A rich combination of fiction and nonfiction that will fill your head with sylvan wonder, and of course, enchantment.

Zoe Gilbert, 2022

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