Christopher Stocks


Deep in the Forest | Tank


Night is falling, and you wish now that you had listened to what your grandmother had to say. You’re getting hungry, but you lost the path long ago – and is it your imagination, or do the trees seem to be closing in on every side? The little parcel of food that you brought with you has run out, and when you turned round to look for the crumbs you left as a trail, little birds were already eating them. It’s oddly hushed here, deep in the forest, as if the trees were listening to you, and the darkness is closing in. Did something move there just then, right on the edge of your vision? And what are those strange, hushed sounds? A kind of tiny scratching, like the patter of birds’ bones.

It’s an instantly recognisable scenario;  the locus of so many stories; an archetype, if you like, lodged deep in our unconscious; the stuff of memory, of dream, of nightmare, of fairy tale. But why do forests affect us so? What is it about them that wakes such primeval fears – and also, perhaps, 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 Myths and Legends, the German lexicographer Hans Biedermann characterises the forest as standing ‘in many traditions for an exterior world opposed to the microcosm of arable land. In legends and fairy tales 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, symbolizes 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 civilized 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 really explain why forests have such a hold on our imagination. Of course the answer, on the face of it, is – one could say – bleeding obvious. 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 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’s 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, fairy-tale 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.

From the Brothers Grimm to The Lord of the Rings, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the second act of Siegfried, from Little Red Riding Hood to The Blair Witch Project, the forest has proved an astonishingly fertile and persistent theme for fiction and fantasy. Yet although these myths, to us, may seem universal, they each have their own history, which often turns out to be more complex than you might at first expect.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is a geographical, or if you like 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, too, 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’s rarely anything that, in a film, would rate more than a PG warning of ‘mild threat’.

The thing these largely comic stories have in common, if it hasn’t already become apparent, is the fact 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 treelessness (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 think. Most English woods had attained their modern outlines by the 1400s, 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, say, New Jersey, Britain’s forests are too small to get dangerously lost in, too domesticated to be really scary, and I think it’s this difference that gives British myths their sunny, sylvan quality. Britain has been so 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 some romantically inclined conservation outfits might claim.

So it’s actually rather 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. Despite his exotic-sounding name, JRR Tolkein was as English as they come, but it was exactly 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 admittedly rather wild-looking) nature reserve behind Tolkein’s childhood home in suburban Birmingham.

Still, I think it would be a shame to dismiss England’s forest myths as, in EM Forster’s words, having ‘stopped with the witches and the fairies’. Robin Hood is surely one of the world’s great mythological creations, 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 his own alternative universe, where the law is an ass and its upholders – in the persons of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham – are shysters, as conniving and corrupt as Robin is principled and brave.

It’s a very appealing fantasy, and it’s 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 power persists; this forest fantasy, and it retains a tenuous hold on the area even now. In the early 19th century, by a stroke of fate that seems almost too fitting to be true, who should come to live at Newstead Abbey, in the heart of Sherwood Forest, but the young Lord Byron, the most celebrated social and sexual outlaw of his day. Far less casual an association came a hundred years on, with the birth of DH Lawrence nearby. Lawrence sought refuge in the forest from boyhood on, and Sherwood provides the backdrop to the novel that was once outlawed in itself: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

And today? Well, the age of chivalry may be dead, but Sherwood still attracts its outlaws even now. Whatever one thinks of dogging, that inelegantly named pursuit of having anonymous sex in and around parked cars outdoors, it surely counts as some kind of outlaw activity. And until recently, it seems, there were few more popular spots in Nottinghamshire than a car park deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest – in the grounds of Newstead Abbey. The present-day sheriffs of Nottingham weren’t keen.