2017 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the Forest. To commemorate this we’ve been thinking about the deep dark woods and their cultural significance.
Imagine a fairy tale without a forest: Little Red Riding Hood straying from the path… on a beach, Hansel and Gretel leaving their trail of crumbs in the desert, Rumpelstiltskin revealing his name dancing around a streetlamp in a village. Imagine Middle Earth without Mirkwood, Lothlórien and the ents or Harry Potter without the Forbidden Forest.
Something would be missing, right? The stories simply would not be the same.
Forests are as important to folk tales and fantasy literature as they once were to people. Until relatively recently, having access to a forest—and thus to food and firewood— was a vital part of survival for many people.
In November 1217, King Henry III signed the Charter of the Forest (the lesser-known sister of the Magna Carta). This act re-established the traditional rights of access to the royal forests for common people, enabling every free man (shockingly a mere 10% of the population at that time) to enter and use forests to collect firewood, build mills, let their animals graze and collect honey, for example.
However, no royal charter could ever grant or restrict access for the witches, dwarves and unicorns to the woodlands of our imaginations. It is unsurprising that such creature’s were conjured up in the woodland shadows. A forest, filled with ancient, creaking trees, provides an unassailable air of mystery from which these creatures are formed. For centuries the woods have symbolised a place outside of reason and decorum, representing a heady cocktail of shadows, fear and beauty.
Entering the forest, fairy tale heroines and heroes enter a realm of danger: Little Red Riding Hood promptly encounters the big bad wolf, while Hansel and Gretel walk into the arms of a cannibalistic witch. In both tales, the main characters symbolically lose their way in life, either by straying from the path or by simply getting lost in the dark maze of trees and bushes. The forest is dangerous, unknown and full of secrets; it is a hiding place for magical creatures, outlaws and outcasts (both as a shelter and as a prison) – we have never fully known what is hidden in them, and it is this scary and fascinating in equal measure.
Enchanted forests are arguably one of the most commonly recurring tropes of folk lore, fairytale and legends. In a sense, they are the fictional embodiment of our very own unconscious, capable of harbouring our darkest demons or most heartfelt desires. We are frightened of what might be hidden under the ostensibly inviting surface. By engaging with the unconscious, we leave the safe, comfortable area we normally inhabit behind.
But a fictional forest, enchanted or not, is more than just a metaphor for the human unconscious. It is almost a mythical creature in itself, with its wild and earthy smell, rustling leaves and thousands of wings and eyes and feet forming an ostensibly breathing entity ready to devour whoever and whatever dares to approach it. Some trees have been on this planet for more than a thousand years. They have seen kingdoms and empires rise and fall, witnessed castles turning from glorious strongholds of power into sad ruins, watched hundreds of generations come and go. In the modern age many things have lost their relevance and allure, but forests have endured—their sheer ancient resilience offering a wealth of fantastical wonderment.
It is no wonder that woods, defined in literal terms as ‘a large area covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth’, have come to represent so much more in human culture and consciousness.