Forests 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.