So an old Estonian tale has a humble woodcutter going out into the forest to chop trees.
You wouldn’t think he would have any problems: except that in this old tale, replete with strange Eastern European imagery, the trees can talk.
So he prepared to chop down a stout oak tree, when an oaky voice pleaded with him:”Please spare me: not for myself, you understand, but for my acorns and their future. If you fell me now, no green grove will grow up around me.”
The woodcutter was a soft-hearted soul, the story goes, and the tree’s plea went like an arrow to his soul. He spared the oak and went off to try his luck with an ash tree.
The ash tree took one look at the axe and started to campaign vociferously. “Woodcutter, spare me: I only just got engaged yesterday and what will my beloved do without me?”
The woodcutter relented and tried the beautiful maple. But its golden tones found his soul once more. “Woodcutter, please spare me,” the maple pleaded, “because I have not had time to teach my children a trade yet. They will surely perish without me!
And so it went on. Every tree had a sob story, and the woodcutter’s heart was as soft as molten gold. He couldn’t cut a single one down, which was a concern when his resume had Woodcutter writ large at the top.
“What am I to do?” the Woodcutter fretted. “I had no idea these trees could talk: and now that I know, I can’t hurt them. I would gladly leave the forest empty-handed – but what will I tell the wife when I get home?”
For the Woodcutter’s wife was a tartar. Her tongue was sharp and her performance in combat daunting. You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
Lost in his reverie, he did not, at first, notice the squat little man in the shirt made of birch bark and the ash pants.
He explained his plight and the little man warmed to him immediately. He handed him a golden bar and told him his fortunes were about to change for the better: because whatever he waved the bar over, three times, would do his bidding. The cooking pot would cook a stew from nothing; the ants would build an entire barn; bees will make plentiful and fragrant honey.
The rod did as the little man had said it would. It built barns and cooked meals and even turned his wife’s beating on herself. He never again knew a day’s unhappiness.
You know the fairy tales of Eastern Europe well enough to know that the rod’s story doesn’t stop there. But there we will leave the woodcutter, who gave up woodcutting and enjoyed the fruits of his gold waving in return for his kindness to the trees of the forest.
The character of a woodcutter often finds himself in our fairy tales. Look at little Red Riding Hood, where he rushes in to take care of the wolf. They tend to be as honest as the day is long and have hearts as true as oak.
There is another kind of woodcutter, one that can absorb and draw us back centuries with a few carved strokes in a block of wood. This craftsman carved out woodcuts to print images on paper.
Woodcuts started out a very long time ago, possibly in Egypt and definitely on cloth in China, in Byzantine times. But through the exotic Islamic world, woodcuts found their way to Spain and Italy by the end of the 13th century.
They were used for the stuff of mediaeval life: religious images if you were heaven bound: the woodcutters were called ‘Jesus-maker’ or ‘saint-maker’. If you preferred vice you still needed the woodcutter’s services, for they printed the playing cards with which it was possible to gamble one’s life away.
As the woodcuts became more sophisticated, whole pages, pictures and text, would be used to create block books.
Captivating, the immediacy they hold. The mystery and magic were trapped on celluloid in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, where a set of woodcuts formed an ancient code which must be cracked. Etched in rough black lines, suffused with movement, the pictures of this age bring the fifteenth century to us with all its unfamiliar detail.
The engraving above comes from a time when demons were a real possibility and darkness must be dispelled. These are witches: even a cursory glance at the woodcuts of the time will show a belief system far, far removed from our own. The cuts are replete with superstition and darkness and story. Each one has a tale to be told.
We gaze at their work as it were in a glass, dimly; and their lines lead us back through centuries.