How to Make Magical Trees: Exploring Everything About Enchanted Forests in Fantasy
Understanding Why Magical Forests Are Irresistible for Fantasy Stories and D&D 5e Campaigns.
Table of Contents
What Is a Forest Anyways?
A Brief History of European Forests
Enchanted Forests in Myth and Folklore
"What Happened to Europe's Old, Forbidden Forests?"
The Science of Forests (Why They Make Us Feel Things)
12 Undeniable Features of a Fantasy Forest?
Popular Enchanted Forests in Works of Fantasy
Building Your Own Dungeons and Dragons Forest
Doesn’t it feel like EVERY fantasy story involves some sort of dark forest?!
Like, it doesn't matter if it's wizards or warriors… mythological or modern… at SOME POINT the heroes will enter a forbidden forest and meet some peril.
But not just any forest… a magical… beautiful (or dark)… enchanted forest. An enchanted realm that fills the characters with wonder and fear.
This is especially true if your fantasy is set in some form of Medieval Europe:
- The Lord of the Rings has Fangorn Forest.
- Harry Potter has the Dark Forest.
- The Wheel of Time has The Forest of Shadows.
- And just about every D&D campaign either starts near in a tavern… RIGHT NEXT TO A FOREST.
I could go on and on and on… but why is this the case? What links forests so closely to fantasy? What is a magical forest?
Scratch that... what even is a forest anyways?
We here at Firelight Fables are a curious bunch, so we decided to spend some time figuring it out. And we discovered 12 elements that comprised all enchanted forests.
In other words, if you came across a fantasy forest, it was some combination of many of these 12 things (jump there now).
But our research took us on a journey that was WAY bigger than we ever expected, and we’re excited to share it with you. So if you are eager to learn everything about what makes a fantasy forest, read on!
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What Is a Forest Anyways?
First things first: a forest is more than just “a place with lots-a trees”.
There are lots of places with trees… even Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles has trees… and it is about the farthest thing from a forest that I can think of.
Another example: orchards. Orchards have trees, but they are highly organized trees planted by humans with a single purpose in mind: food production. They are about as man made as a house.
A forest is something special: it is nature’s most efficient ecosystem, with a high rate of photosynthesis affecting both plant and animal systems in a series of complex organic relationships.
Officially (according to the U.S.National Vegetation Classification), a forest requires two things:
The Canopy: The canopy of the trees in a forest cover 60% to 100% of the sky… while “the woods” cover only about 25%-60% (more on that later…)
The Density: A forest has many trees tightly packed together, and between them are fallen trees and underbrush. Consequently, they are difficult to traverse on foot (and nearly impossible with vehicles).
Furthermore, there are three different types of forest biomes:
(provide an image for each)
Tropical: Forests in… you guessed it… the tropical zone near the equator. Hot, rainy, and holy cow that's a lotta species of flora and fauna. In the western mind these forests are known as the “jungles” of India and the Amazon. They carry entirely different connotations even though they share a definition.
Boreal: Forests in the arctic, usually evergreen that grow until they hit tundra. Hella cold so lots of the animals hibernate. And in summer? Still chilly.
Temperate: These are the forests that are in between Boreal and Tropical. As the seasons change, they change. Since the vast majority of European fantasy was written with temperate forests in mind, this is what I mean when I say “forest”.
“The Woods” Are NOT The Same as a Forest
Sit for a moment and imagine yourself in some woods… you’re probably imagining yourself on a relaxing stroll…maybe in some crisp air and with the golden leaves crunching beneath your feet?
Now… imagine being in a forest…
You are probably not relaxingly walking but are stepping over thick brush or actively avoiding low branches… there is a good chance you are much farther away from civilization… in REI backpacking gear rather than your favorite fall coat… and rather than relaxing there is a deeper sense of adventure … there is a heightened sense of danger.
It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but it is actually very important to differentiate the two to understand the connection between the fantasy genre and forests. Case and point: Christopher Robin would not have befriended Pooh Bear in the Hundred Acre Forest… he probably would have gotten lost and devoured by a monstrous red-shirted wild bear instead.
“The woods” are tranquil, peaceful… while “the forest” is wild and dangerous.
In summary, a few things make true forests different places from woods:
Because of the canopy blocking so much sunlight… a forest very dark…
Because there is less sunlight… a forest is very wet... both on the ground and in the air…
Because it is very wet… there are lots of plants in a forest.
Because it is very dense… forests are difficult to travel through… inaccessible to humans…
Because it is inaccessible to humans… forests are unmanaged… leaving lots of dead trees along the forest floor, which attract bugs and birds … etc.
Reading that, you might realize something: “I’m not sure I have ever actually been in a forest…”
And you miiiiiiiiight be correct. Even a lot of the national 'forests' in the United States are cleared and regulated (known as “managed forests”). For the most part, it is far more likely that all of us have spent much more of our nature time in the woods.
And yet… nearly every work of fantasy takes you through a wild, deep, dark forest. And one reason is simple: it is a unique environment that has captured the imagination of humanity for eons...
About to “Enter” A Forest In Your Next Work of Fantasy?
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A Brief History of European Forests
But before we dive right into “what makes a fantasy forest”, we need to first figure out how people in the past understood forests. We have to trace the beliefs, feelings, and ideas associated with forests back through the early modern era, to the medieval period, and beyond... starting aaaaall the way back with the ancient Romans!
Why? Cuz story archetypes aren't born in a vacuum... they serve a purpose for the people who make them. And those people and their culture are shaped by their history. So let's just touch on some fantasy-relevant history real quick.
Darkness: Forests in the Ancient Imagination
Admittedly, there is little written record of Europe's ancient forests. But we do know that the civilizations of Europe were surrounded by forests and mountains. And reading between the lines, we can discern that the ancient world perceived forests with a sense of wonder and dread.
For one, they were HUGE... 70% of Germania was covered in wild forests. They were basically big, green, tangled oceans that took months to cross.
And second, they were the MYSTERIOUS, unknown edge of civilization. The battle of Teutoburg forest is legendary even today, with three elite Roman legions seemingly swallowed up in dark, wooded gloom. With the defeat came an end to Roman northern expansion; the old forest sanctuaries of Western Europe were the fearsome antithesis of Pax Romana.
How the Medieval World Turned Forests into Woods
Fast forward to medieval times: people began to clear land for farming ("assarting"). But they didn't just devastate the nature around them. It is during this time the all important shift from “forests” to “woods” begins in earnest due to one thing: FOREST MANAGEMENT.
The reason why was simple:
Everyone needed wood for everything.
Even then they could tell there was a finite amount of wood.
And if they ever ran out everyone would be in big trouble.
And I mean EVERYTHING: from fuel to furniture to fortifications. So during the medieval period (in the 1100's), land clearing for agriculture was forbidden and forests were transformed into managed woodlands. This was especially true in Britain.
Forests began to be strategically cut down... not too much at once, and not all in the same place. Furthermore, the ground floor of the forest was cleared for wagons to cart out the timber. The result was transformation of a forest into a wood: a tamed, neat, clean, 'friendly' tree-filled area.
Eventually the common law was replaced by more efficient and official forestry. German states began true systematic protection in the 16th century and in England John Evelyn's book Sylva remains a classic on sustainable forestry. Formal education began around 1825 but, as we shall see, it was too little too late.
But for centuries what was not cut down... the true forests... felt even more wild, dark, and dense by comparison. Like the ancient peoples of the past, they seemed utterly inhospitable... dark spaces teeming with life... and MAGIC.
Read More About the History of European Forests Here
Enchanted Forests in Myth and Folklore
Classic works of fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were heavily influenced by Norse mythology, Arthurian Lore, and European folktales. So to understand the fictional enchanted forest, we need to briefly look at the old stories behind our favorite fantasy stories.
The Divine Forests of Ancient Myth
For cavemen, to ancient greek city states, to visigoths… and everyone in between… the ancient forests were not just dark and dangerous places: they were realms of otherworldly forces. In fact, the tree was the perfect symbol for their cosmology (ex: Yggdrasill, Old Norse Mimameidr). With its roots in the underworld and its branches in the heavens, the tall, old trees were threads that wove the cosmos together.
Take the Epic of Gilgamesh... the Cedar Forest is not just a holy wood... it is a place where the gods dwelt. In their eyes, the forest was not home to monsters, but also was a home to the divine and a bridge between heaven and earth.
Thus, to enter these forests was to leave the standard, material plane, and enter a supernatural world. Under the trees one's character and will would be put to the test and emerge as a victorious hero. In other words, they were the perfect place for a harrowing adventure!
Read More About the Myths of Divine Forests Here
Dark Forests in Medieval Folklore
For the medieval peasants and lords alike, the forest was dark, untamed, old, and undisturbed by humanity. Living in the midst of such wilds inevitably impacted folklore. But by this time Europe was dominated by Christianity... ONE GOD... so no one thought about 'gods', let alone gods in the trees.
But they TOTALLY thought spirits were in the trees; the forest was definitely believed to be an enchanted place!