In his madness he ran into the forest and must have died there of hunger, for no one has ever either seen him or heard of him again.1
The author Sara Maitland, in her wonderful book ‘Gossip from the Forest’, observes that one of the central aspects of the central European fairy story is that it takes place in a forest. Over half (116 out of 210) of the stories in the 1857 edition of the collection of stories from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm explicitly mention forests as some part of the story and at least another 26 have very clear forest or woodland themes or imagery. Many of these tales exist in other forms in other cultures, so tales in the Grimm collection can be found in similar stories from 1001 Nights, or as Chinese or Indian folktales for example, and in these cases may well have different settings. Just as the folk tales a people tell themselves helps shape the collective psyche of that people, the land that those tales are told within helps shape the tale itself. But in landscapes where forests and woods were deeply important to the people telling tales, it is of no surprise that the forests themselve come to have a significant role to play in the stories.
In the folktales of Europe the forest is often a dangerous and harmful place. The stories are full of warnings. But the stories also remind us that harm and danger are encountered as part of life and that to survive them make us stronger. Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment2, a Jungian psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor, had observed during his time in the concentration camps that, “the children who had heard the true Grimm fairy tales had been prepared for the fact that someday a wolf may come to your door, and some day you may be thrown in an oven, and someday you will be lost in a forest. But, if you keep walking forward, you will discover the courage to find your way. And there will come mentors and allies and friends, and you will not only survive, you will thrive.”
It seems that so often when I start to research a topic, I’m drawn back to ancient Mesopotamia and the epic of Gilgamesh. In the Epic of Gilgamesh3, the Cedar Forest is the abode of the Gods, protected by the demon Humbaba4. Gilgamesh, in a fit of pride and wanting to establish his name as a hero and might warrior, declares his intent to enter the forest, the home of the gods, and slay the demon.
Hear me, 0 elders of Uruk-the-Town-Square!
I would tread the path to ferocious Humbaba,
I would see the god of whom men talk,
whose name the lands do constantly repeat.
I will conquer him in the Forest of Cedar:
let the land learn Uruk’s offshoot is mighty!
Let me start out, I will cut down the cedar,
I will establish for ever a name eternal!
But Humbaba is no random demon, he has been set to protect the forest by Enlil, the king of the Gods, and has great magic at his disposal, and is said to have seven layers of mystical armour, and so Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu have to enlist the assistance of the god Shamash. Eventually, they defeat the demon Humbaba, but not without the intervention of Shamash who raises winds from 13 directions to immobilise the demon. As he lies at Gilgamesh’s feet, he begs for mercy, but Enkidu goads Gilgamesh on to kill him, and in his dying moments Humbaba curses Enkidu to die before Gilgamesh
‘May the pair of them not grow old,
besides Gilgamesh his friend, none shall bury Enkidu!’
So, in our earliest recorded epic mythology, the abode of the gods is a great forest, guarded by a powerful demon set to protect it by the king of the gods himself. Other tablets discovered more recently fill in our picture of this haven of the gods as a place of rare beauty5, as the epic describes how the chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony that daily entertain Humbaba. There are suggestions in the tale that Humbaba and Enkidu (our archetypal wild man, now tamed and civilised in the story) were acquainted in Enkidu’s earlier life, which hints at the forest as the abode of the wild, of nature, as well as the Gods. If you are not familiar with the story of the taming of Enkidu, I suggest that you go back and list to or podcast on Wild Folk.
The idea of a forest guardian is one that persists throughout the ages. Brazilian folklore tells of the Curupira, documented by the Jesuit priest José de Anchieta in 15606. The Curupira is variously described but is generally small with the distinguishing feature of having its feet turned backwards, heel facing forward. It seems to have had the role of ensuring reciprocity in hunting… whatever was taken from the forest had, for the sake of balance, to be returned, and José wrote that the indigenous occupants propitiated Curupira with feathers, arrows and fans. One story7 tells how a hunter feeds Curupira and is rewarded with an arrow that will give him whatever he shows it, even without shooting it, but he must tell no-one his secret. Unfortunately, his wife is curious about his change in luck as a hunter, and becomes so insistent that he tells her about the arrow and next time he tries to use it it changes into a serpent and disappears. In common with other forest guardians, the Curupira is wont to lead people who offend it astray and lose them within its forest.
Forest guardians are capricious and unpredictable. While not evil, they are not human and do not partake of human morality. Their actions cannot be judged by human standards. The mythology surrounding them varies and sometimes we see them referred to in the singular, as if they were a single tutelary deity and sometimes as a collective, as if they were nature spirits. The slavic nature spirit associated with the forest is known variously as a Leshy8, Lesha, Lesnik, Lesovik and other variations, with some of the euphemistic titles granted to fairies in celtic folklore such as honorable or righteous one of the forest. One Russian folktale tells of how a Leshy abducts a young woman, a priest’s daughter and how she is rescued from the forest by a hunter9.
In Māori mythology, Tāne is the god of forests10 and the son of Ranginui and Papatuanuku the sky father and the earth mother. His name, Tāne Mahuta, means Lord of the Forest. It is the trees themselves that separate the earth and the sky, having their roots in the sky and their heads in the heavens. This relationship that the forest has as a key arbiter of cosmological forces informs indigenous thinking at every level. The creation mythology11 tells of how before light existed in the world, Ranginui and Papatuanuku were bound together as husband and wife, but their children were caught between their bodies in the perpetual dark.
One day, out of frustration, Tāne Mahuta pushed upwards with his powerful legs and pushed his father away from his mother forever. The earth and the sky wept and cried, but as Tāne held his father up in the sky with his shoulders, the light was allowed to come into the world, and new life began to burst forth all around his feet. Tāne Mahuta helped to foster this new life, clothing his mother with vegetation. The birds and smaller trees in the forest are considered Tāne’s children. And thus the world as we know it came into being.
Forests have also had a long reputation for housing and hiding the outlaw, the rebel, the warrior. Vladimir Propp in The Historical Roots of the Fairy Tale suggests that “the fairy-tale forest and the forest that figures in initiation ceremonies are very closely linked”12, that the forest is the scene of trials since time immemorial and that these trials are embodied in the forests of our folktales. This sense of the forest as a place of trial ranges from tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Vasilisa the Beautiful, through to the Irish legends of the Fianna, the English Robin Hood, medieval chivalric legend and so on. In the Irish tales of the Fianna for example we are told that successful application to join the war bands requires completion of nine tasks13 including both
- Picking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed, and
- Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush.
Whether or not these tasks are historically true or not is irrelevant. It is the idea of the requirement of initiation that is important.
In the ballad of Tam Lin14 again we can see the forest as the scene for trial. In the Scottish Border tale, Janet is charged with releasing her lover from the enchantment of the fairy folk who have abducted him by pulling him from his horse as the fairy horde passes by at midnight in the centre of the forest. The fairy queen, furious at being about to be robbed of her prey, transforms Tam Lin into a number of horrifying forms in Janet’s arms, but she must hold true and not let go of her one true love in order to release him from the spell. She succeeds of course, but the form of the trial is classic.
The trial in Hansel and Gretel takes a different form. This is a tale that disturbed me greatly as a child, as the children are abandoned deep in the forest by those who should be most expected to protect them, their father and stepmother (in later versions, stepmother). This, of course, is something that children who read these folktales quickly learn. All too often, those who one expects one should be able to rely or depend upon are weak or morally frail. Of course, these tales are thought to contain a horrible historical truth, referring to the Great Famine of 1315-17 when parents were often forced to abandon their young children as they were unable to feed them15.
In the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the children’s mother persuades their father to take them into the forest and leave them there, but clever Hansel, having overheard the plot, gathers pebbles that he leaves as a trail to find their way back. The second time, their mother bolts the door so Hansel cannot gather pebbles, so he drops breadcrumbs, but the birds eat them and they two children are unable to find their way home from the centre of the forest. As they wander lost around the forest, they come across a house made of gingerbread, cake, candy and sugar. While they eat this vision of deliciousness, they are surprised by an ugly old woman who lures them into the house with promises of warm beds and food. It turns out, of course, that all this is a pretence and that she is in fact an evil witch who wants to eat them.
The witch puts Hansel in a cage and tries to fatten him up, but being half blind is easily fooled by the boy, until, impatient, she decides to eat him anyway. While heating the oven, she decides to eat Gretel as well, but Gretel pretends not to understand her instructions and fools the witch into showing her what to do, at which point Gretel pushes her into the oven and slams the oven door shut. The witch dies a horrible, but well deserved, death and Gretel frees her brother. The two children fill their pockets with the witch’s treasure and return home to their father, their mother or stepmother having died in the meantime of some mysterious cause.
The forest of Hansel and Gretel, of Tam Lin, of the northern European traditions, have always struck me as dark and dangerous places. You can imagine making your way into them as the light starts to fade. Large enough to lose yourself in, certainly, though you tell yourself that if you push on in the same direction you would eventually come out the other side. And the deeper you go, the more the sense of isolation, the greater the sense of a closeness to another place, the more intense that experience of liminality.
And of course, you remember the stories you told each other as children, to scare each other as night drew in. You didn’t quite believe them,but…
The smell of damp leaves. Leaves underfoot and the occasional crack of twigs. Birdsong and crow cries. CRACK… and a murder of crows take off a-calling and a flapping. Your heart jumps.
Deeper. Denser. Darker. Pushing your way through branches reaching out at you. Toward the centre. What may you find at the centre?
If you were Vasilisa the Beautiful, you might encounter Baba Yaga the witch. If you were Red Riding Hood, you may find a wolf, of course16. Or in earlier versions of the tale, an ogre or a werewolf. Often, the trials to be encountered in the forest seem to particularly threaten young women, and there is a rich source of symbolism for exploration there for a future article, for every generation tells the tales in such a way as to communicate their cultural values to the next, and as girls grow into womanhood, the predatory nature of the dangers within the forest can be seen as metaphors for the fears that parents have about the risks that they see their children face as they emerge from girlhood into womanhood. The level of such an exploration goes beyond the subject of this episode and may well be better suited to a different voice than mine. It is not given to every teller to tell every story.
The forest is also a place of retreat as well as a place of trial. To some, it offers sanctuary as well as adventure or danger. Back in our episode on Wild men and Wild women we discussed how characters such as Myrddyn Wyllt, the antecedent for the later Merlin, driven mad by grief and trauma, retreated to the solitude of the forest where he dwelled for 50 years. Outlaws and rebels such the legendary Robin Hood and the Saxon resistance to the Norman’s known as the Silvatici were thought to have made their homes in the woods and forests of England. The English archetype of the outlaw in the greenwood, of whom Robin Hood is the best-known exemplar, may have begun in the 11th century following the Norman invasion of England, with the rise of the rebels in the forests, fighting for their land.
There are some who have argued that the potent symbol of the Green Man, that mysterious face peering through, or often appearing to be made from, leaves often found in medieval art, is a politically charged representation of that guerilla resistance movement to the Normanisation of Saxon England17. Here, the forest is a symbol of freedom. The very wildness that in other contexts poses danger, creates the context for freedom. The forest, when one has made of it a home, is a protector. When its dangers are known and understood, it becomes a source of strength. In the medieval tales of King Arthur, the Welsh cycle of the Mabinogion, the forest is the place of the hunt. The trial becomes the challenge. We have a symbiotic and ambivalent relationship with the forest, both dark and dangerous, but giving and beneficent at the same time. But the forest is also a liminal place, a threshold between this world and the otherworld. The first branch of the Mabinogion, the medieval cycle of Welsh myth, starts in the forest with Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, out hunting when he encounters the supernatural spectral hounds of Annwn overtaking a stag and bringing it down. He chases the hounds off and sets his own on the stag, thus causing offence to the hounds owner, Arawn, the King of Annwn, or Lord of the Otherworld. This act, and Pwyll’s atonement, in which he is to swap places with Arawn for a year, is to set the scene for every action that follows throughout this branch of the tale.
There has always been a tension between these two positions in the more recent European folklore. Pre-christian cultures with more animistic worldviews tend to have a different relationship with forests portrayed in their folktales. We’ve already mentioned how the indigenous people of New Zealand describe how the forests were responsible for the separation of sky and earth. The Japanese also have a creation myth that describes the origin of the forests. The Nihon Shoki18 (the Chronicles of Japan, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history) describes how one day, Susanoo-no-mikoto, the deity who founded the culture of Japan, plucked one of his beard hairs and transformed it into a cedar tree. He then plucked one hair from his breast, one from his buttock, and one from his eyebrow, and made each of them a cypress tree, a black pine tree and a laurel tree. And he ordered his children to spread these trees in order to cover the land with forest19.
It is worth remembering that in the early days of civilization, our cities and towns were built on land that we could only ever claim to have borrowed from the wild. Fences and barriers would be erected in order to keep the wildness and chaos out, so that order could be maintained within.
I started this post with a quote from Bruno Bettelheim and I’ll end with one. “Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.”20 The Grimm tale The Hut In The Forest starts “A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and three daughters in a little hut on the edge of a lonely forest“21, Vasilisa the Beautiful’s stepmother moves them to an “old house standing alone at the edge of a dark forest”22. The proximity to that boundary sends us a message, tells us that we are on the borders of that dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious that Bettelheim refers to. Since the dawn of civilization, the forest has represented the uncivilised world, the natural wildness beyond the boundaries of the world we have tamed. Whether it be the otherworld of our unordered, unstructured and wild unconscious mind, or the otherworld of the untamed and uncivilized wilderness of the natural forest, we enter it for better or for worse, at our peril. We try to destroy it, or to civilise it, at great cost, but we learn to live with it, and within it, at great benefit to ourselves.
- The Two Travelers, from the Grimm brothers’ collection Childrens’ and Household Tales.
- Bettelheim, B. (2011). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh, Translated by Andrew George, Penguin Classics, 1999
- George, Andrew & Al-Rawi, Farouk. (2014). Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš.
- Dean, W. (1997). With broadax and firebrand: The destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic forest. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Almeida, L. ., Portella, A., & MacDonald, M. R. (2006). Brazilian folktales. Westport, Conn: Libraries unlimited.
- Canepa, N. L. (1999). From court to forest: Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti and the birth of the literary fairy tale. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press.
- Bettelheim, B. (2011). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.