John Anster Fitzgerald Painting, The Fairies Favourite
Reading about the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter? Or is your D&D campaign going through some arcane forest? Well, there are a lot of reasons the “dark forest” is a trope of the fantasy genre!
Today’s post is about the Victorian era obsession with “the fairy”, where all the tropes of myth and folklore were cobbled together into a new thing… which “plowed the fields” that the seeds for works like The Lord of the Rings were planted.
Folklore Sanitized as Fairy Tales
In the past two posts, we talked about
how the Enlightenment and Industrialization changed the western world, and how two movements, Romanticism and Transcendentalism, reprioritized the seemingly magical wonder of nature and forests. All these things took place at the same time period known as “the Victorian Era”.
But in the midst of all these movements, with their disenchantment and forest fascination, was born the “children’s fairy tale”. These were collections of folklore, edited and rewritten to make them cautionary tales for children. The most famous of these are the Brothers Grimm, but other famous collections include Peter Christian Asbjornsen and Alexander Afanasyev.
You might remember from the forest folklore blog post that the stories of spirits, monsters, and gremlins in the forests was “common knowledge”. It was important that knights, blacksmiths, and servant girls understood all the magical threats that lingered in the forest so they could avoid/survive them!
But that was when the forest was a place to fear… now they are fun! And nothing represented the fun of the forest more than the delicate and beautiful whimsy of the re-branded fairy tales. This was particularly true in Britain which, being an emotionally repressed society, found their outlet in the wild and vibrant nature of the fairy.
A Fairy and Spiritual World of Imagination
Many of the same elements of forests remained: the forest was dark and dense… they were unknown and mysterious… the old trees provided a window into the past. And into that past they infused a new, less deadly, fairy.
Though some grotesque remained, the fairy shifted to an untouched ideal… like Tinkerbell they became small, bright, and beautiful. Pixies, sprites, elves, dwarves, satyrs… all glowing, dressed properly… speaking with and making dealings with humans. Unconcerned with productivity or civilization, they sang and danced day and night in their sacred spaces in nature.
This turned the once dangerous forest into a place of opportunity, where adventure awaits. And if you are clever, strong, lucky, or all three, then fame and fortunes can be made! Rather than being borderline satanic spirits with alien logic… the fairy became magical and tricksy, inviting you to dance and party throughout the night (even if it costs you years of your life…). Even the witches became more comical rather than horrifying (think “Wicked Witch of the West” vs “The Witch”).
The town and city were the domain of humans, but the forest was the domain of the fairy, their home, where their strange laws and enchanting royalty held sway. And precisely because it is unknown and beyond human control, it can allow the bold and brave to rewrite the scripts of their own lives
Trademarks of a Fairy Forest
Strangely, even though it is from an earlier era, Shakespeare’s “As You Like it” and “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” are the quintessential fairy forests.
In the plays, reckless youth escape society and experience the fullness of emotions by retreating into the forest where magic and fairies are alive and well. There, fairies mingle with mortals, passionately loving and betraying one another with a carefree revelry where anything can happen.
Simply put: the fairy forest was the polar opposite of industrial London… in more ways than one:
The modern world burned endlessly and steel buildings displayed human progress… but in the forest… the strength of ancient trees endured unchanged.
Factories ran on tight schedules for max productivity… but in the forests… time moved like magic and flowed randomly, uncondensed with progress.
The world was full of tough and metal that would break you… but in the forests… the fairies and their little paths and houses were delicate and fragile.
Mature adults were rational and kept their emotions in check… but in the forest… they could feel everything with reckless abandon.
The world was known and could be discovered from a textbook… but in the forest… magic and mystery lingered in the mists.
The Fairie’s Home, published by Currier and Ives, 1868.
And with that, we have now arrived at the fantasy forest. With history, myth, folklore, movements, and fairy all established, the next phase of the fantasy forest is… well… the fantasy forest!
The next phase of fantasy forests would be some of the earliest and foundational pieces of fantasy: Phantastes, The Well at the World’s End, the Hobbit…
But wait! There is one more thing we forgot about… YOU! … the reader/viewer!
Here, in the present day, our own experience with nature and forests impacts how we experience magical forests in our favorite works of fantasy.
Next week: how DO we experience forests and nature… psychologically?