As we saw in the history of forests, woodland has been influenced by humans for many a year. Indeed, whilst many refer to the great time of a forested England, in reality, by 1086 only 15% remained wooded. This decimation of our forests would have an important psychological impact on our cultures.
When forests were much more widespread, there was a familiarity with them that started to disappear. People were living in villages, towns and cities and the way of life was no longer connected with the trees for most people. This detachment would have a profound impact on our literature.
Enter the enchanted forest, the fairy tale wood. A non specific place but one which we are all familiar with.
“The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and the source of these tales”
– Sara Maitland
Crossing into the forest
From a practical perspective, travelling, back in the day of fairy tales, often involved going into a forest. When you enter a forest, you are traversing a barrier, crossing a line, moving from civilisation to wilderness. You are entering a different realm. Whilst individual trees in fairy tales tend to be positive characters (in the grimm’s version, cinderalla has a tree which grants her wishes) a wood full of trees may not be…
A forest is darker and colder; this is a different place, a more sinister place. You step from the wide open fields with many choices about how you pass through them into the wood with its designated paths and a sense of something ominous that keeps you to them. You cannot see ahead of you, there are twists and turns and crooked paths and unexpected surprises, be they good or bad.
And dangers there are. There is the danger of getting lost in this dense environment where you cannot see the sky and you cannot see the horizon. They are chaotic places with twists and turns and none of the orderliness of civilisation. If it’s that easy to get lost, then it’s also easy for danger to hide. There are wild and violent creatures – wolves, bears, werewolves, witches, felons and outlaws – all just waiting for you to come along and, in most cases, you will be eaten! Think Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood.
The ease with which these beings can hide also suggests elements of secrecy, disguise and distortion. The forest can hide things from you and show you things which are not there. It conceals and deceives.
The forest of the fairy tale is often a reflection of the character’s inner self, but even if it’s not, forests are places which remind us that we too are animals. We are closer to beast in the midst of the woods.
“Of course you can get lost in the forest, but you can also hide in the forest… Forests are good places to hide. Slip away between the trees, lurk in the greenwood, vanish into the thickets of wild wood: step outside the laws that bind you to the present and you become the out law”
– Sara Maitland
Why would you retreat into the forest? Well you might step in on an errand as with little red riding hood, but you might also be running away from something much worse. Often in fairy tales, this is an abusive family or situation…
For some characters, this retreat into the forest is the start of a reclamation of their power. Or for younger heroes and heroines, a journey which sees them stepping into their personal power.
This place outside of adults creates an opportunity for children to step up to responsibility and to test themselves and their skills. This is also seen in more recent literature such as the adventure stories of swallows and amazons and other tales of self-sufficient children.
“Forests became the pure place of primal innocence where children could escape from their adults, get away from the order and discipline of straight roads and good governance, and revert to their animal origins”
– Sara Maitland
Of course, not all characters enter the woods willingly. We have Snow White who is abandoned by the huntsman who is supposed to kill her, we have Rapunzel who is locked in a tower in a forest as well as Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty who is hidden away in the forest. Here the forest as savage and uncivilised is more prominent. These children have literally been left in the wild by people who are supposed to love them, how much further can you get from civilisation?
Even in those stories where abandonment isn’t a feature, there is a sense of the character feeling abandoned when they get lost or lose their sense of self. There is nothing that can be relied on in the dark, wild forests. Civilisation itself has abandoned you.
Within the forest, magic happens. Whilst this might involve a witch or an enchanted tree, it can also be that marvellously mortal type of magic that transforms who you are and what you think.
With the forest as a metaphor for feeling lost, for depression and anxiety, characters can use their time to find their way, to find ways of seeing the future and ways back to who they truly are. In the dark, tangled woods, where you can’t see the sky or the edges, you can be sure to see your authentic self. So long as you keep going and face the challenges which come your way. They will be hard, but they are not insurmountable. The hero or heroine never die in the forest. It is not a destination, it is a part of your journey.
In the forest, you may find you have to veer from the path, or discover you have lost the path, in order to find your own, unique way through. You will face tests and trials as well as the horrors and dangers of the woods. But this is a liminal state. This is the space you need to grow, to become wiser and stronger and to build yourself back up to all the wonder of your true self.
“Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilising its gifts and gaining its help is the way to ‘happy ever after’
– Sarah Maitland
The type of challenges you face in a forest, tend not to be life threatening ones. Instead they are the sort which stretches you and shapes you and requires you to put in work to get through them. In England where we have no wild animals to kill you, the real threats of a forest are few. But instead, you face horrible things which help to teach you how to cope and that you can cope. That you will get through tough situations and you will come out a better person for it. They build resilience. And our stories of these forests remind us all that “intelligence and knowledge and love allow a person to overcome the worst disasters and be better off for it” (Sara Maitland).
“It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.”
– Roger Deakin
Often, characters get lost in fairy tale forests and this aides the narrative by reflecting their internal state. The heroines or heroes are untangling their own secret selves whilst also untangling the secrets of the forest. And they leave the forest with a strong sense of self and truth and a sense of a path forward.
Within the framework of looking at universal archetypes, Jungian scholars have posed the fairy tale forest as both a place of trials, as we’ve discussed, but also a place for retreat, reflection and healing. When discussing the tale of the handless maiden, Jungian scholar Marie Louise von Franz says:
“She has to go into deep introversion…. The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word.”
Sharon Blackie echoes this duality when she says:
“to enter into any wood is to enter into a realm in which transformation seems inevitable; the particular brand of transformation you’re heading for depends heavily on the nature of the wood.”
She goes onto explain how the woods of northern Europe, often shadowy, dark, dangerous places represent a world outside of human experience, the world where there are witches and monsters and wolves. Whereas the lighter, broad leaf forests allow more light in and tend to be settings for fairies and enchantment instead.
Perhaps the forest is also a reminder that there is space for reflection and enchantment even in the darker places. That there, in the forest filled with fear, the light of your own magic shines brighter and stronger.
Another common theme of transformation is that of coming of age, the forest as part of an initiation into adulthood but I think I’ve already written more than enough for now… Perhaps I shall revisit this topic again one day…
There is so much more reading that you can do but I’m going to include a few links to different forest based fairytales which come with interesting commentary and I highly recommend Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.
- The Handless Maiden
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Sleeping beauty
- Into the woods, Terri Windling’s ongoing series about forests
- Therodora Goss on the heroines journey into the dark forest