The Forests of Fantasyland

Unicorn in ForestForests are a staple of the fantasy genre. From Middle Earth to Hogwarts, or the forests of Hansel and Gretel or Red Riding Hood, the forest is a setting that crops up time and again across numerous fantasy worlds.

Sometimes these forests are magical, as in the above examples, and sometimes they are not. A forest can be home to fairies, unicorns, outlaws (of both the dashing and dangerous varieties), secret hideouts, sacred springs and lost shrines.

But why is this? What attracts authors of fantasy, more than other genres, to the forest?

Part of it is the influence of the classic material that we draw upon when creating stories with outlaws or fairies – Robin Hood and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream spring to mind – but I think there’s more to it than that. For a start, what made Shakespeare and his predecessors see a forest as the home of Oberon, Titania and Puck?

Here are a few possibilities:

Antiquity

Since the Neolithic, humanity has been pushing against forests, cutting them back and culling them to make space for the growing human population and for farming. Thus, until such time as conservation efforts sought to expand wooded lands in the last two centuries, those forests that remained, through most of human history, were incredibly ancient; they’d been there since before humanity had reached the land on which they stood.

sunlight

This made them sacred. The Druids of pre-Roman north western Europe went into the forests for their secret rituals, gathering ingredients there and walking ancient paths. It has been suggested that the tall round columns of Greek temples were inspired by the trunks of trees. Forests had a symbolic value in religion, set up in opposition to the sun against which its canopies guarded.

roots

The perceived antiquity of forests comes through frequently in fantasy stories and artwork – gnarled twisted trunks, roots bulging in cracks in the bedrock. Tolkien loved this element of forests: Ents were an ancient people, slow in movement and speech to reflect their long lives. Tom Bombadil lives in the Old Forest, a sometimes sinister, and certainly magical place. In The Hobbit, Mirkwood is also an ancient place, once inhabited by the elves – themselves long-lived – but now overrun by giant spiders.

Untamed Landscapes

A forest, in our imagination, is untamed, uncivilised. Sure, forests have for centuries been managed by humans, coppiced, hunted, searched for truffles and firewood, but there’s still a wildness to them not seen in areas the majority of humans have lived in for the last few thousand years – farms and towns. Farmland is domesticated land. It is measured and marked, ploughed and planted, grazed and grown upon. Towns are even more far from nature – what green spaces there are are carefully managed and manicured.

light

And though forests were also managed and used, there remained the wildness of them. They are used by humanity, but not conquered. What grows and what doesn’t grow, what lives in the forest, is not as a result of human intervention but often in spite of it. Forests marked the edge of civilisation, beyond the reach of culture and human control.

Other landscapes, too, fit this criterion: wastelands and deserts, moors, swamps and scrublands. The places at the edge of civilisation, the places untamed by human hand. And all are used to some extent in fantasy. They represent the other, the outside, what is beyond the experiences of most people – something fantasy frequently seeks to explore.

Vitality

What sets forests apart from these other landscapes is the vitality a forest contains. Deserts and wastelands are almost devoid of life; moors and swamps are damp and green and inhabited by insects, rodents and in the case of the former often sheep too. But forests are buzzing with life – literally. They are home to every type of animal on land, from invertebrates and insects to mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Those animals can be dangerous, like wolves, boars and bears, or they can be a source of food to your characters, like deer, rabbits or pheasants.

mushrooms

The sheer proliferation of life a forest can have is a kind of magic all on its own. It all works together, an ecosystem where each piece has a part to play whether burying seeds, breaking down organic material into nutrient-rich soil, or pollinating flowers.

In this respect a forest can also represent change. A deciduous forest is a symbol of the cycle of a year in a very visual, tangible manner: green shoots and blossom in spring, dark green and full of life in summer before exploding in a symphony or yellows, oranges and browns as Autumn sets in. Finally, in winter, the trees are left bare and lifeless, empty branches reaching towards a colourless sky.

yellow

The forest, in this manner, is a far stronger measure of the seasons and the cyclical nature of life than anything human – fields of crops may grow taller and change from green to gold; lambs in spring bound through fields, grow, are shorn and then build up thick coats once more as winter approaches. But the forest needs no human hand to change or be reborn each spring and stands bastion, forever changing, forever alive.

Amid all that life, who can resist the allure of life or nature based magic, and magical beings resident amongst the leaves?

Obfuscation

Of course, not all forests give the immediate impression of vitality. Some forests are home to tall pines with little underbrush, the trees having blocked what light there might be from the forest floor.

foreboding

There’s an eeriness to that too, the quiet, the dimness. You look up and you can’t see the sun, and so you can’t work out which way is north. As you continue your journey between the majestic trunks, the light seems to diminish, and you don’t know whether it’s your eyes, unused to this perpetual dimness, or whether the canopy thickens above you as you wander deeper into the ancient woodland, or perhaps you have walked into the shadow of a hill, or if the sun is truly setting.

fog

The forest, however full of life it is, can obscure sight. It can leave a wanderer lost, unsure of the compass directions without sight of the sky. It can hide within it anything – bandits, wolves, even an army on its way to attack a castle. And how are you to know what passes by, half a mile away from you, hidden from view?

This is where the Robin Hoods reside, this is how they survive. The forest is a mystery, a danger, and a place of beauty all at once. That makes it exciting, a challenge for your characters to overcome. It is a symbol of both danger and potential, a contrast between the safe and the unsafe, between what is seen clearly under the light of the sun and what is hidden.

fog 3

Where vitality and obfuscation meet, there’s where the possibility really flourishes. In a forest you might see something flit by in the corner of your eye, half hidden by undergrowth and trees. A movement over there, in what passes for the distance within the confines of the forest.

And with all the strange creatures you have seen, the brightly coloured spiders, the strange invertebrates, the odd-looking newts and the vibrantly plumed birds, what’s to say there aren’t any fairies, unicorns, pixies and elves?

Who’s to say the magic of fairy tales, the spirits of the forests, the nymphs and dryads of ancient myth, aren’t lying in wait, watching?

Which fictional forests have captured your imagination? What do you love about them? What do you think makes them so special in fantasy?

For articles on fantasy, ancient history and writing fiction, visit Alice Leiper’s website, Ally’s Desk.

Alice Leiper

I'm an ancient history graduate and I draw themes and ideas from my studies to inform my writing. I prefer low fantasy, without any (active) magic, dragons or elves, etc, instead focusing on how characters act in certain situations and interact with each other. I also write articles about ancient Greece and Roman Britain, which can be found on suite 101 and my tumblr, perpetualpast.tumblr.com. Aside from writing and studying ancient Greece, I also enjoy painting, which I do with my fingers because it's relaxing and creates a very impressionistic style. I also play computer games, including Dungeon Defenders, Minecraft, Left 4 Dead, Portal 2, and Guild Wars.
Avatar

19
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Philip Overby
Member
Philip Overby

My favorite forest is from Princess Mononoke. Just all the creatures and spirits are really awesome and the danger and wonder of it add a lot to the overall story.

Philip Overby
Member
Philip Overby

gethinmorgan I live about an hour or two from there. I have a sort of weird fascination with it.

gethinmorgan
Member
gethinmorgan

For a real live *cursed forest* you need look no further than …

SaraCSnider
Guest
SaraCSnider

A really great post. In all honesty, nothing captures my imagination more than forests in real life. It’s one of those rare places on earth where I feel like magic really exists. I think it’s the untamed nature of it, as you touched upon in your post. A place where the rules of man have not taken hold. 🙂

kcrosswriting
Guest
kcrosswriting

Haha, this was great. I”m totally one of those authors with an eerie forest, but I’ve never thought of looking up all this kind of information, so that was really great to read. Not to mention all those great pictures. 
There’s nothing to create a setting like a good, creepy, foggy forest. Thanks Alice!

sophieelizabethtallis
Guest
sophieelizabethtallis

Another great post as usual!
I must say, anyone even vaguely interested in the fantasy genre who lives in the UK, or those further a field who are willing to travel, really should explore one of the most magical and rarest of forests. Up on Dartmoor in Devon is the ONLY remaining dwarf oak forest in the UK, and one of the rarest sights in the world, Wistman’s Wood. It really is like stepping into Narnia, or actually more like Fangorn, the Old Forest and Mirkwood rolled into one. Apart from the fact that all the ancient oak trees there are dwarf sized, only about 6 to 8 feet tall, with each limb encrusted in lichen and dangling mosses, but beneath the lowered canopy in the dim green light, the floor is a mass of huge boulders one toppled over the other. This means that the woods are damn near impenetrable without breaking your ankles/legs etc. I’ve been twice now, and the second time after an hour of slithering down one boulder after another and getting my ankles trapped in the crevices, I managed to get to the centre of the wood. Magical is hardly a word to describe, other worldly is nearer. Of all the ancient woodlands I’ve travelled to, this one is by far the most fantastical. A must for all lovers of trees and fantasy aficionados! 😀

Karin Rita Gastreich
Guest
Karin Rita Gastreich

Everything Alice mentions in this post is certainly true, but also, temperate deciduous forest is the kind of forest that dominated Europe for much of its history, and since medieval Europe or some variation thereof is the focus of so much of the genre, it stands to reason that this is the ecosystem that appears over and over again in our favorite stories.
I love reading and writing about forests, but there are many other types of wildlands that can also be tapped for their antiquity, untamed landscapes, vitality, and so forth.  It’d be great to see more deserts, grasslands, wetlands, savannahs, and other kinds of wild systems appear in fantasy. And also, different kinds of forests.

Rikka Joe Roxx
Guest
Rikka Joe Roxx

The forests I’ve made up for my first novel /half-published, seekng publisher/ They are /as usually in fantasy novels – ancient, full of life and occasionally some fruit trees. But I also like Mirkwood.

razerclaw117
Guest
razerclaw117

Never doubt the vitality of a desert! While it appears lifeless, any man or woman of the true outdoors can tell you all the wonders of a desert, whether its the snakes and scorpions hidden amongst the rocky sands or the little fish that survive in the rivers that flow and dry with the seasons. But it is a harsh land, a good test of endurance both in the real world and in fantasy for any character!

Dan Bristol
Guest
Dan Bristol

Dorthonion

gethinmorgan
Member
gethinmorgan

Good points all. When Rome invaded Britain, it was said that you could walk from London to Scotland in the boughs of the trees, and never have to set foot on the ground once.   Those HUGE tracts of forest was the reason why most people lived on the coast, or on rivers …
And these were REAL forests, not the friendly, hiking-boots kind. The kind that were impassable with out a machete, invariably full of wolves and bears and ghosts and faries.  And to early Christians, forests were a symbol of all that was evil in nature, being untamed, while pasture and grassland was seen as ordered and godly. 
Ok. All that just came out of my brain after reading this. Inspiration achieved!

wordwalker
Guest
wordwalker

All good reasons to use forests. But I think from a plotting perspective, the most immediate of these is “obfuscation.”
A story needs a place for enemies, outcast heroes, and/or secret powers to hide that explains why the authorities haven’t rooted them out, and forests do that well. (Underground, back alleys, mountainpeaks, and so on have the same effect, but forests’ other advantages usually make them better picks.)

Tracey Ikerd
Guest
Tracey Ikerd

The Enchanted Wood – Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Shawn Enge
Guest
Shawn Enge

Forests are often ancient, having been through so many things, and often hide dark secrets.

Tony Dragani
Guest
Tony Dragani

I’ve always been a fan of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. It’s full of elves, spiders, Radagast, and someone called “The Necromancer.” What’s not to love?

This site uses XenWord.