Wednesday 15 June 2011

Ways of walking through a wood

Re-reading Eddie's poem "Whose Woods These Are", I am reminded of what Umberto Eco says in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods:1
There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. (p. 27)
Eco is not only talking about woods. He is comparing walking through a wood to going through a narrative text. There is a model reader of the first level: he or she wants to know how the story ends; but there is also a model reader of the second level, whose intention you can guess.

Eco might have picked up this metaphor from Frost, who we all know applied walking in a wood to life. Which kind of walker are you?

Both illustrations above are by Gustave Doré: the first depicts a scene from Red Riding Hood and the second, Divine Comedy -- "Dante in the Dusky Woods".

Speaking of Red Riding Hood, Eco mentions an 'alchemical interpretation' of it:
[A]n Italian scholar has tried to prove that the fable refers to the process of extracting and treating minerals. Translating the fable into chemical formulas, he has identified Little Red Riding Hood as cinnabar, an artificial mercury sulfide which is as red as her hood is supposed to be. Thus, within herself, the child contains mercury in its pure state, which has to be separated from the sulphur. [...] The wolf stands for mercurous chloride, otherwise known as calomel (which means "beautiful black" in Greek). The stomach of the wolf is the alchemist's oven in which the cinnabar is transformed into mercury. (pp. 91-92)
However, Eco points out a flaw in this theory, which was identified by Valentina Pisanty. Why is Red Riding Hood still wearing a red hood instead of silver hood when she comes out of the beast's belly?

1Eliot's collection of essays, published in 1922, was titled The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism.

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