The Forest Of Hours Paperback – 4 Nov 1999
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"Unforgettable...The Forest of Hours is an ambitious, learned and intensely imagined novel."
Ekman's central character is Skord, a magical being who is neither man nor animal. The novel begins in the Middle Ages when Skord finds himself in a forest with no memory, no past and no language. As he observes the behaviour of the human beings he meets in the forest, he begins to gradually to understand human civilisation and to learn their language. Although he can pose as one of them, however, he is also able to assume the form of animals and cause things to happen simply by willing them. Skord survives for five hundred years and lives many different lives but, despite his learning, he finds it difficult to resist the call of the forest and returns there periodically to rejoin the band of forest outlaws who live outside human society. He will live to see the nineteenth century and the age of steam, but, by then, he will have discovered that man's supposed cultivation is in fact destructive and the most important thing in life is love - his love of a forest woman.See all Product description
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There are other creatures in the forest, ranging from giants to slugs and snails, two of Skord’s edible delicacies but his main interest are the humans, the children who go from farm to farm begging for food, the villagers, wandering churchmen and aristocrats, robbers and criminals. However, it is the shape and shadow of the forest that dominates this sprawling book.
When we first meet him in the Middle Ages, Skord is young and is seen observing a giant who has become trapped by a falling tree. Although he can reproduce all the noises of the forest, this is his first meeting with talking beings and it is soon clear that, whilst his brain is small and ill-formed [‘Troll brains do not hold many memories. Mostly, their minds flicker and ripple like the glossy water in a forest tarn ruffled by the wind.’], he has a capacity to learn language but largely by a process of mimicry. We see him mixing with the forest waifs and, in particular, with Bodel and her brother Erker, and gradually coming to understand the strange habits of humans, their living in houses, planting and reaping, keeping fires but burning the forest, and killing animals unnecessarily.
With the help of Bodel, Skord is able to pass as a child but over the next 500 years his ageing is irregular. For some time he is seen as a boy and almost throughout his life he retains some boyish elements but by the time the book ends with the railways coming to the north of Sweden, he is exhausted by what he has experienced – his contacts with humanity have sucked the energy out of him as they have disrupted areas of the natural environment.
Although he shares, or learns to share, many human characteristics – enquiry, violence, communication – Skord is essentially an external observer of humans, exposing their corruption and the barriers they create to protect themselves from the tangible and invisible dangers of daily life. Ekman’s picaresque book takes Skorn on a philosophical journey in which religion, alchemy and mesmerism take centre stage. Not all of these are successful – the time that he spends with a medieval Magister, hearing his stories and being introduced to the concept of sex, seemed especially self-indulgent. In contrast, as a non-human he finds a particularly strong link with others who are conventionally outside society – thieves, brigands and those mentally or physically impaired.
As Skord gains insights into humans and the human condition, and takes advantage of our preference for shelter, comfort and well-being, he finds himself susceptible to the troubles of modern life, boredom and indigestion. Unsurprisingly there is a strong transcentental element running through this story and occasionally the poetry of the book is disturbed by a fervour and envangelism that some readers may find disconcerting.
In a Translator’s Note, Paterson points out that Ekman’s text is steeped in ‘words and forms of words rooted in northern Swedish dialect’. She has used a combination of Scots and Old English in her translation and a Glossary is included at the end of the book.
One has the impression that Ekman undertook an immense amount of research but then has viewed the results through a distorting lens. The result is a very spiritual book that is multifaceted and not easily understood on a single reading. As the 19th century approaches, and with it the violent force of technology and engineering, it is more difficult for the author to demonstrate the centrality of the forest and those living in it.
A unique book that is a second cousin to ‘Lord of the Rings’ but poses many more challenging questions, 7/10.
Think: Lord of the Rings, without the portentous grandiosity, nearer to the earth, under the thunderous skies; think: freezing rain, starvation, peasant superstitions, Latin declaimed through a latrine wall; think: grubs for breakfast, a disappeared girl, a village on fire, the creation of a new, shining metal; think: a forest that stretches to the sea, hiding under a wagon in warfare, then finding your horse with her belly cut open - and finishing her off with love. Stories of wonder, privation and delight, far too many to hint at, a richness of imagination deeply embroiled in Scandinavian history and folk tale.
A novel that draws on the legends and myths of Sweden and Scandinavia, this book has a language both of charming naivety and of visceral earthiness. While that is of course attributable to the writer, the translator who has had to translate much that is not readily translatable into English must also be praised for her remarkable achievement. I love books that draw on the Northern mythology, which remind me of the wonderful novels of Elizabeth Boyer.
This is an intriguing book, a story wound with mystery and imagination, sprinkles of magic, and a fair dose of brutal human reality. Skord's travels take him over the course of five hundred years; the world changes, and so does Skord, but he always remains a creature outside. Definitely one to read, and think about long after you turn the last page; the humanity may leave your thoughts, but the magic never does.