why forests are essential to good stories

the seduction of going into the woods


Stella and I are reading The Emerald City of Oz together, and I have to admit the first half hasn’t gripped me like, say, Ozma of Oz did. The gnome king is not an engaging villain; the illustrations of him are really odd; and to top it all off, the plot progression on the whole is dull. Much of the beginning follows the gnome king’s general as he visits weird evil creatures such as the whimsies, who have small heads so they wear fake big heads like masks. In alternate chapters, Dorothy and her friends tour similarly weird communities, such as Bunbury, where a lot of talking pastries reside (though I do find the idea interesting of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry finally moving to Oz–this happens at the start of Emerald, meaning Dorothy never needs to go home again to Kansas). Anyhow so I wasn’t gripped with this book until p. 180, where something very, very exciting happens: Dorothy becomes lost in the woods.

“Wandering through the woods, without knowing where you are going or what adventure you are about to meet next, is not as pleasant as one might think. The woods are always beautiful and impressive, and if you are not worried or hungry you may enjoy them immensely; but Dorothy was worried and hungry that morning, so she paid little attention to the beauties of the forest, and hurried along as fast as she could go. She tried to keep in one direction and not circle around, but she was not at all sure that the direction she had chosen would lead her to the camp.

By and by, to her great joy, she came upon a path. It ran to the right and to the left, being lost in the trees in both directions, and just before her, upon a big oak, were fastened two signs, with arms pointing both ways. One sign read:


and the second sign read:


“Well!” exclaimed Billina, eyeing the signs, “this looks as if we were getting back to civilization again.”

“I’m not sure about the civil’zation, dear,” replied the little girl; “but it looks as if we might get SOMEWHERE, and that’s a big relief, anyhow.”

“Which path shall we take?” inquired the Yellow Hen.

Dorothy stared at the signs thoughtfully.

“Bunbury sounds like something to eat,” she said. “Let’s go there.”

As a reader–and also as a writer–I love it when characters enter the woods. The woods are often transformative: things happen to you in there. There are choices to make: do you stay on the path, or do you stray from it? Do you go to the right or to the left? Do you follow the advice you were given? Do you take the path with very few footsteps or do you go the way everybody else did? In the daylight, the woods may seem friendly enough, but in the night, or in certain dark sections of the woods where very little light shines, the mood changes to one of danger, fear, expectation, and nervousness. At the basic level, there is something archetypal and very old about the boundary between what is outside the woods and what is inside them, and what will happen when you step over the threshold.

The woods, of course, are central to fairy tales, and while enjoying Philip Pullman’s strong translation of the Grimm tales, I began to make a list of the different types of forests appearing in these stories. The translations below are Pullman’s; I have multiple examples of each type but I’ll list just one. 

The forest of loneliness (from “The Goose Girl”)

Once upon a time there was a very old woman who lived with her flock of geese in a lonely place among the mountains, where her little house lay surrounded by a deep forest.

The scary forest (from “The Robber Bridgegroom”)

One day the prospective bridegroom said to her, ‘You know, my dear, we’re engaged to be married, but you’ve never paid me a visit. Why not come to my house? After all, it will soon be your own home.’ ‘I don’t know where your house is,’ the girl said. ‘It’s out in the forest,’ he told her. ‘A beautiful situation, you’ll see.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to find my way there,’ she said. ‘No, no, you must come on Sunday. I’ve already invited some guests – they’re looking forward to meeting you. I’ll make a trail of ashes, so you can follow it through the trees.’ On Sunday the girl felt an awful foreboding; she’d rather do anything than set off through the woods to the bridegroom’s house. She filled her pockets with peas, to mark the trail in case anything happened. At the edge of the forest she found the trail of ashes, and after every step she threw a couple of peas to left and right. She walked almost the whole day till she came to a part of the forest where the trees grew so thick and high that it was dark underneath them, and there, right in the heart of the woods, she found the bridegroom’s house. It was dark and silent and seemed to be deserted; there was no one inside but a bird in a cage, and he was no comfort either, because all he could sing was: ‘Turn back! Get out! Go home! Take care! This is a murderer’s house! Beware!’”

The forest with paths (from “The Two Traveling Companions”)

After they’d been traveling for some time, they came to a great forest. There were two paths that led through it to the capital, but one of them took two days’ walking and the other took seven, and they didn’t know which was which. They sat down beneath an oak tree and talked about it. Should they carry seven days’ food, or only two?….It was as quiet as a church under the trees. There was no breeze, no murmuring brook, no birdsong, and not a single sunbeam found its way through the dense leaves.” – two traveling companions – the gallows are right outside the forest

The forest as prison (from “Rapunzel”)

When she was twelve years old, the witch took her into the depths of the forest and shut her in a tower that had no door, no stairs and no windows except one very small one in a room right at the top.

The forest as punishment (from “Hansel and Gretel”)–interesting how only children become lost in this forest

But no matter which way they went, they couldn’t find the way home. They walked all through the night and then all through the following day, and still they were lost. They were hungry, too, terribly hungry, because all they’d had to eat was a few berries that they’d found. They were so tired by this time that they lay down under a tree and fell asleep at once. And when they awoke on the third morning, and struggled to their feet, they were still lost, and with every step they seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the forest. If they didn’t find help soon, they’d die.

Forests thankfully are still being used to spectacular effect in modern literature too. Tana French via In the Woods places the woods in the center of her novel’s mystery. She creates one of the most haunting and creepiest forests I’ve encountered.

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle. In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves….They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?

In Far, Far Away (Tom McNeal), one of the Grimm brothers is narrating the story, which has the lovely and dreamy feel of a realistic fairy tale. When the characters finally enter the woods toward the end of the novel however, a huge disturbing plot twist reveals itself there, and the story transforms into a nightmare.

Ginger turned to the baker. “So how far is this cabin, anyhow?” “A ways yet. It’s a beautiful spot, close to a small lake, deep in the woods.” The baker’s voice was as kindly as ever, but at the mention of deep woods, a dim note of alarm sounded within me. Wald, Forst, and most especially, im tiefen Wald—in deep forests— were the words that wrapped black tendrils around a story and foretold ghastly creatures lying in wait or children losing their way. But those were the forests of fairy tales, I told myself, not the ordinary pines of everyday life.

In Wild Life (Molly Gloss), the heart of the story takes place in an ancient Oregon forest in the early 1900’s which is in the process of being logged. Bad things have happened in this forest too, but the narrator does eventually find beauty there (though only after she lets go of some of her human-ness).

We followed the margin of the creek into the primeval forest until the trees standing about us were giants thick as the Washington Monument and surely standing well grown when Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Such trees as these were common  around Skamokawa in my childhood but long since gone to lumber, and I suppose I began to suffer a bit from a feeling of puniness and anxiety, which much be the human response to such supernatural forests. We have become too domesticated–imagining a forest should resemble a park, with a few judiciously spaced trees whose dead branches have been pruned away, flowers in weeded beds, grass neatly mown. Here, the shrubbery was meager from want of sunlight but great carcasses of windthrown timber lay about in unequal progress toward decay, with infant trees shooting up Indian file along the nurse-logs; and in damp, dark hollows yellow flower spikes of skunk cabbage were all abloom, which gaudy brilliance in the gray light served, contrariwise, to darken my mood more than raise it. There is something about those great fleshy leaves and spathes that always has struck me as repellent, loathsome; and in my low state I imagined them a tetratogenic flower garden tended by monsters. Everything was wild. Of course that is the meaning of forests, they are wild.”

Great forests also appear in Harry Potter, and The Hobbit, and The Book of Three, and Alice in Wonderland, and I can probably go on and on….

In my own writing, I realize I keep sending my characters into the woods myself: the woods seem to play an important role in maybe 60-75% of my stories. That line of trees, the border of any forest, marking the open fields of sunlight from the dim shade, makes for such a great threshold. I’ve had narrators who abandon their best friend in the forest to a pack of boys; a mom who has to drive into a forest to a cult to find out why her daughter is dead; characters who are waiting in a forest hoping something transformative will happen to them; a future world where outcasts are sent to live in the forest and you aren’t even supposed to look into the trees; a mom who drags her child into the forest to protect her from God; a man who had to drive into a forest to get to a lodge where he then re-enacts the little mermaid story (I think the forest scene in that story god cut but I liked the idea of the forest as a passage, like a tunnel); and a female vet begins to tell a story to her daughter about the woods then gradually begins to lose her hold on reality, what is the real woods vs. the story woods. Having way too much fun with this, in my short story manuscript, I use the word “woods” 62 times; “forest” 34 times; “forests” 1 time; “trees” 58 times; and “tree” 21 times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *