Deep in the Forest

Unwrapping primal fears through folklore myths and tales

Text by Christopher Stocks

Illustrations by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

Night is falling. Hunger is setting in. If only you had listened to your grandmother's tales all those years ago. You lost the path a while back and, is it imagination, or are the trees closing in the further you walk? That parcel of food was consumed long ago, and any trail of crumbs long vanished. Deep in the forest the silence is unnerving. It is as if something, or someone is following your every step. Wait. Did something move there just then, right on the edge of peripheral vision? And what are those strange, muffled noises? An insistent scratching…

It is an instantly recognisable scenario. The locus of so many stories; an archetype lodged deep in our unconscious. The stuff of memories, dreams, of nightmare and fairytales. But why do forests affect us so? What is it about them that wakes such primeval fears - and also answers such a primeval need?

From the Brothers Grimm to J.R.R. Tolkien, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to the second act of Wagner's Siegfried, from Little Red Riding Hood to The Blair Witch Project and Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, forests have proved a wondrously fertile and persistent theme for fiction and fantasy. They haunt our imagination, their darkness simultaneously repelling us and drawing us in. Forests are the stuff of dreams and nightmares, an archetype that lodges deep in our unconsciousness. But why do forests affect us so? What is it about them that wakes such primeval fears - and also answers such a primeval need?

The mother figure may loom larger in Freudian psychology and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but in the natural world, only the sea comes close to equalling the forest in its symbolic complexity and metaphorical depth. In his Dictionary of Symbolism, the German lexicographer Hans Biedermann characterises the forest as standing:

"[I]n many traditions for an exterior world opposed to the microcosm of arable land. In legends and fairytales the woods are inhabited by mysterious, usually threatening creatures (witches, dragons, giants, dwarfs, lions, bears, and the like) - symbols of all the dangers which young people must deal if they are to survive their rites of passage and become mature, responsible adults…

"In dreams, the "dark woods" represent a disoriented phase, the realm of the unconscious, which the conscious person approaches with great hesitation. The light that in fairy tales often filters through the branches symbolises the yearning for a place of refuge. The forest itself, nature in the wild, devoid of human order, is felt to be unsettling and dangerous; in our imaginations, it is often peopled with savages and sprites, but also with fairies who can be benevolent. For a contemplative person, on the other hand, the forest can offer some seclusion from the hustle and bustle of the civilised world. Hermits do not fear the dangers of the woods: they are protected by higher powers."

This is a perceptive enough description, yet Biedermann doesn't sufficiently explain why forests have such a hold on our imagination. Of course, the answer should be obvious. It could be that this is programmed into our DNA from an early age. Once upon a time, far away and long ago, great trackless forests stretched from coast to coast right across the northern hemisphere. Dark, unmapped, impenetrable, their shadows haunted by bears and wolves, they were not to be entered into lightly.

This was the forest in which our ancestors lived. Smoke rising from a few huts in a clearing, laboriously hewn out from the thick, enclosing trees around them. Its darkness always surrounding them and hiding who knows what dangers, what enemies, what fears.

It is this forest, surely, that inhabits our deep unconscious; that spooks us in our dreams. The archetypal shadowland in which we lose our way; the dark, dark, dark we all go into. This is the gothic, fairytale forest of Sleeping Beauty and little boy lost, a place of forlorn children, of witches and druids and big bad wolves, where the ordered, everyday world is left far behind and things are rarely what they seem. Yet although these myths may seem universal to us, they each have their own history, which often turns out to be more complex than you might initially expect.

The most striking example of this is a geographical, or topographical one. If you follow the main forest stories to their roots, something very interesting starts to emerge. The scary stories, by and large, originate in the Scandinavian sagas or from German and Russian folk tales, many of which were collected together by the Brothers Grimm.

But of course there are benign forest legends too. Robin Hood may be an outlaw, but he robs the rich to give to the poor, and his followers are nothing if not merry men. Shakespeare's forests belong to his comedies, not his tragedies. The protagonists in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream may get lost, make fools of themselves, fall in love with the wrong person or even grow asses' ears, but there is rarely anything that would rate more than a parental guidance warning of "mild threat".

The element all these essentially comic stories have in common is that their origins are English, not continental. This is where geography comes in. Despite a still quite widespread belief to the contrary, Britain almost certainly never had continuous forest cover, and its relative lack of trees - roughly 13 per cent of its land area compared with a European average of around 20 per cent - dates back far longer than many people imagine. Most English woods had attained their modern outlines by the 14th century, and recent research suggests that large areas had already been cleared even before the Romans arrived, long before our earliest legends begin.

Unlike the forests of central Europe, Russia, Canada or even New Jersey, Britain's forests are too small to get dangerously lost in, too domesticated to be really scary, and it is this difference that grants British myths their sunny, sylvan quality. England has been densely populated for so long that there isn't a single inch of woodland or forest that hasn't, at some time, been altered or managed in some way by the hand of man, whatever any romantically inclined conservation outfits may claim.

So it is ironic that by far the most successful of modern myth makers, in whose books forests play such an important part, should have been not Russian or American but English. Although born in South Africa, J.R.R. Tolkein was staunchly British, but it was precisely because English legends lacked the punch of their continental counterparts that Tolkein was inspired to look to Norse sagas and German folk tales when he came to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Few things demonstrate the transformative power of the imagination better than the fact that the vast, magical Old Forest in The Fellowship of the Ring was actually inspired by Moseley Bog, a small, though somewhat wild-looking nature reserve behind Tolkein's childhood home in suburban Birmingham.

Still, it would be a shame to dismiss England's forest myths as, in E.M. Forster's words, having "stopped with the witches and the fairies". Robin Hood is surely one of the world's great mythological creations, right up there with Odysseus, Brünnhilde and Superman. Like a longbow-wielding Lord of Misrule dressed in Lincoln green, Robin presides over a world turned upside down. An outlaw with a heart of gold, who from his forest fastness presides over his own court and alternative universe, where the law is an ass and its upholders - King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham - are as conniving and corrupt as Robin is principled and brave.

It is a very appealing fantasy and is easy to see why, over the centuries, this dream of escaping from conventional mores and morality should have lodged so firmly in the collective imagination. Growing up on the edge of Sherwood Forest and going to school with its dark line on our close horizon, I was closer than most to the source of this myth - even though Sherwood, today, is a tattered patchwork of conifer plantations, mining villages and ghosts of aristocratic hunting estates.

Yet its forest fantasy power persists. And it continues to retain a tenuous hold on the area. In the early 19th century, by a stroke of fate that seems almost too coincidental, the most celebrated social and sexual outlaw of his day, young Lord Byron, came to live at Newstead Abbey, in the heart of Sherwood Forest. A hundred years later, author D.H. Lawrence was born nearby. From adolescence, he sought refuge in the forest, and Sherwood provides the backdrop to the novel that was once itself outlawed, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

And what of today? The age of chivalry may be dead, but Sherwood still draws our own contemporary outlaws in. They might not be as appealing as Robin Hood and his merry men, but the forest offers them exactly the same promise of sanctuary and freedom - as well as a frisson of danger. Dogging, that humorously inelegant pursuit of conducting anonymous outdoors sex in and around parked cars, is all the rage. And until recently, Nottinghamshire's most popular spot was a car park in the grounds of Byron's old home at Newstead Abbey, deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. In a striking demonstration of the timelessness of forest fantasy, who should chase the doggers away but the present-day sheriffs of Nottingham's police force.

  • Deep in the Forest