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?”

What, indeed.

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.


40 thoughts on “Woodcutter

  1. I have a very small collection of old wooden printing blocks. They are now very frail, so I wouldn’t use them to produce images, however I love to handle them. They sit so comfortably in the hand – unlike modern reproductions. These were made to use and be used time after time.

    Interesting story about the woodcutter. Do you have wood cutters in your forest?

  2. How much wood could a wood chuck, if a wood chuck could chuck wood: We must turn to Wall street journal, and the experts to know the answers:

    Woodchucks Chucking Wood

    The amount of wood that woodchucks would chuck on a given day varies greatly with the individual woodchuck. According to a Wall Street Journal article, New York State wildlife expert Richard Thomas found that a woodchuck could chuck around 35 cubic feet of dirt in the course of digging a burrow. Thomas reasoned that if a woodchuck could chuck wood, he would chuck an amount equal to 700 pounds.
    Some say it depends on three factors:

    Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_wood_would_a_woodchuck_chuck_if_a_woodchuck_could_chuck_wood#ixzz1YlwjCufL

    I’m so much more educated on the matter now that Richard Thomas, and the Wall Street Journal have explained this whole process so eloquently.

    Well, my day is starting off great at least, by reading YOUR interesting article. Apparently, the wallstreet journal is out of material.
    God Bless You

    1. Wow, Paul, you are quickly being lined up with my friend Pseu as one of our best commenting researchers! I don’t even know what a woodchuck looks like! better follow your link to find out! Have a good day….

      1. ‘The woodchuck goes by several names in the United States. The most famous of these is groundhog, under which name all the legends about the animal’s hibernation have accrued. In the Appalachian Mountains the woodchuck is known as a whistle pig. The word woodchuck is probably a folk etymology of a New England Algonquian word that is, English-speaking settlers “translated” the Indian word into a compound of two words that made sense to them in light of the animal’s habitat.’


        Well there you go… one of my favourite films featured this animal, in ‘Groundhog Day’

        I didn’t know that, but Edward Woodwood would have done.

  3. Wood carvings can be very beautiful, but I’m not speaking of printing blocks, I mean as art on your wall! From all accounts, Roman Polanski would fit right in with the devils and demons in your story.

  4. From wooden blocks to linoleum blocks . . . to rubber stamps. We’ve come a long way, baby.

    We’ve got a gaggle of woodcutters here cutting down all the Australian Pines on the far side of the lagoon ~ the community’s short-sighted solution to too many roosting birds.

    I wish your little man would show up and advocate on behalf of the remaining trees.

    1. Maybe its time for a postcard to Estonia to get him over, Nancy. Once they’re gone we can never get them back and they leave a gaping hole. Hope you get the tree balance right at yours.

  5. I’m with Tooty; your writing is so much more entertaining and educational than the fusty old textbooks.
    I am sad to read (on Denise’s blog) about your dad and wish him a very speedy recovery, Kate.

    1. Thanks Cindy. We’re all heaving a bit of a sigh of relief because they think it’s gall stones. They’ve sent him home and they’re scheduling an op, but he’s safe and sound. Gave us all a bit of a turn. He’ll be back in the ‘sphere shortly 🙂

  6. I’m just going to say that I agree with Tooty…curriculum, yes! Where’s the book, Kate! I need to find a way to print your posts for easy reference on my way to the library. I always think I’m the one with the eclectic/encyclopedic interests, but my list of “things to read about” grows longer by the day reading your fascinating posts! My next trip to the Getty will include a longer pause at the Wood Cuttings! Debra

  7. these woodcuts and your accompanying narrative remind me of the film “cave of forgotten dreams” by werner herzog in which he explores chauvet cave in southern france where the earliest paintings (certainly a form of writing itself) were discovered to date back 18,000 years and perhaps even earlier.

    thanks for sharing!

  8. History is one of my favorite subjects, especially history told with a sense of the real through the funnel of the fairy tale.

    MTM and I have a woodcutting that intertwines the letters of our different last names. It’s used on a letterpress to print stationery for the old fashioned thank-you-cards I still insist upon writing. But, the wood cutting itself is a work of art. It’s the perfect rendering of our union.

    Peace to your Dad, Kate.

    1. There’s something so warm about wood carved, and to use it to create something, over and over again: well, that’s just magical. I envy you that beautiful woodcutting. Thanks for the well wishes: looks like it was gallstones, operable and non-life threatening. Phew.

  9. Very glad you linked to the Ninth Gate, which I’d forgotten. You see, I adored the book, The Club Dumas, but was rather reluctant to watch the film adaptation. Fascinating, woodcuts and their magic and mystery ~

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