Dalene Matthee’s South African “Forest Novels”

A lifelong advocate for environmental rights, South African author Dalene Matthee is renowned for her “Forest novels” series. These four books, originally written in Afrikaans, present narratives set in the country’s Knysna Forests.

Dalene Matthee’s (1938 – 2005) books have achieved international acclaim. They have been translated into multiple languages, including English, Icelandic, French, and German. More than a million copies of her works have sold.

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Dalene Matthee

More about Dalene Mathee
Photo:  Uitgewers Publishers
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Matthee’s background and the Forest novels

Dalene Matthee, born Dalena Scott, was born in Riversdale in the Southern Cape (South Africa). She studied at the local high school, from which she graduated in 1957.

That same year, Dalene married Larius Matthee. Her studies continued in Oudtshoorn, where she studied music until she moved to the Holy Cross Convent in Graff-Reinet.

Matthee published her first novel in 1970, a children’s story called Die Twaalfuur-stokkie (which translates to English as The Twelve o’ Clock Stick).

This debut wasn’t translated until 1991, with Matthee in charge of the first translation of her work into English. She called English “beautifully reserved” in an interview for The Daily News, saying that she found it important to translate the emotion from one language to another.

In 1982, Matthee published a short story collection called The Judas Goat (Afrikaans: Die Judasbok) and a novel titled A House for Nadia (in Afrikaans: `n Huis vir Nadia). She also wrote short stories for many local magazines, including Huisgenoot and Vrouekeur.

Dalene Matthee’s lifelong love of the Knysna Forest inspired the series of four Forest novels: Circles in a Forest, Fiela’s Child, The Mulberry Forest, and Dream Forest.

The first, Circles in a Forest, was published in 1984. After years of painstaking research in archives and libraries, it launched the series that reflected her lifelong love for the forest and its inhabitants.

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Circles in a Forest (1984)

Circles in a Forest by Dalene Mathee

Circles in a Forest is a story of conservation, following the life of a woodcutter named Saul Barnard. An outcast from his community, he heads into the forest and gets to know the legendary Old Foot – an elephant roaming the forest on the verge of being destroyed.

According to the book’s description, “Matthee focuses on conservation and strongly speaks out against the reckless destruction of the indigenous forest.” Matthee was known for her intensive research, even providing a map of Saul’s route through the forest.

The book’s title is drawn from one of Matthee’s personal experiences. Unsure what to write about, she took a walk through the forest; when she stopped at circles on a walking trail, she also had the core thoughts of the novel.

The book was adapted to film in 1989, starring Ian Bannen, Arnold Vosloo, and Judi Trott.

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Fiela’s Child (1985)

Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee

Fiela’s Child is the second of the Forest novels, starting with the story of Fiela Komoetie who adopts an Afrikaner boy named Benjamin.

Soon the interracial adoption begins a legal standoff, where Fiela is placed on trial and put against an opposing white family – who are convinced that Benjamin is their son.

The book’s tagline is a good description of its storyline: “God forgives many things, but God never forgives us the wrong we do to a child.” Lives are torn apart when Benjamin is seized and forced to live with the van Rooyen family, where he is never quite at home. 

Fiela’s Child was adapted to film in 1988, and again in 2019.

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The Mulberry Forest (1989)

The Mulberry Forest by Dalene Matthee

The Mulberry Forest continues the story of the forest’s inhabitants, telling the tale of immigrant mulberry farmers establishing a colony in the middle of the forest setting. This novel introduces the character of Silas Miggel.

Things don’t go as planned when the mulberry trees refuse to grow in harsh conditions. The story becomes a fight for survival. 

Matthee said that she chose the name Silas Miggel over several days – ultimately choosing the name from the Bible, like many forest inhabitants of the time would have done. The name Silas, she said, translated to “of the forest.”

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Dream Forest (2003)

Dream Forest by Dalene Matthee

Dream Forest is the last book in the series, written two years before the author’s passing. In this book, nature conservation and the preservation of natural resources remain important themes – this time, expressed as a romance that plays out amidst the Knysna forest setting.

The novel follows its heroine, Karoliena Kapp, a beautiful young woman who knows the forest better than anyone.

Karoliena is soon married off to Johannes, a well-to-do man from the city – but she soon discovers that she hates the thought of leaving the forest and everything she knows behind. Karoliena makes a daring escape, fleeing back into the Knysna forest.

This final novel in the series was, like its predecessors, adapted to film, marking South Africa’s film entry for the 2021 Oscars.

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Dalene Matthee big tree - Knysa forest

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Dalene Matthee’s legacy and memorial in the Knysa Forest

Matthee died in 2005. She had donated her life’s work and papers to the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre (NALN).

Her efforts made such an impact that a Dalene Matthee Memorial dedicated to her memory is situated in the Knysa Forest. Also located there is the Dalene Matthee Big Tree – one of the oldest and largest trees still found in this area.

The walking trail in Knysna is also named for her first forest novel, following much of her story’s locations.

With the Forest books, Dalene Matthee forever changed the way people view the Knysna forest, having spent a lifetime dedicated to telling stories that delve deep into nature and human consciousness.

You may also enjoy South African Author Dalene Mathee: A Daughter’s Tribute.

Contributed by Alex Jansen, a journalist, author, and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

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