(NOTE: this blog post is part of a series on fantasy and magic forests. If you want to read them in order or see what we wrote previously, click here).
Fantasy forests… magical dark woodlands… are everywhere in fantasy literature and media. And here at Firelight Fables, we are slowly figuring out why!
In the last post, we talked about how Enlightenment and Industrialization pulled people into the cities and nearly rendered them irrelevant to culture.
But… thankfully… that’s not what happened…
In Victorian England, Germany, and America (in particular), two movements arose in reaction to all those stuffy factories and philosophers… Romanticism and Transcendentalism… and reminded the west of its obsession with the magic of dark forests.
Romanticism: A Rebellion Against Cold Reason
Romanticism was a long, widespread, complex movement from about 1760-1870. But let me sum it up for you real quick: it was a bunch of smart, emotional, artists who HATED the industrial revolution.
They looked at cities, and here is what they saw:
Black suits, gray skies, and white marble buildings… a world devoid of color…
Individuals being lost in the masses…
Cold lecture halls arrogantly dismissing everything of the past in favor of even colder intellectualism
And it made the Romanticists throw up in their hearts, minds, and mouths. In Germany, this tragic human condition was called ‘Faustian’: just as Faust sold his soul to the devil for power, Europe had sold its soul to industry for wealth.
Romanticists feared modern humanity was losing its passion-filled soul.
So they fled back to the (formerly) fantasy forests… pretty much the polar opposite of a factory! In their words, this wasn’t a thought-out plan, but an irresistible urge… a pull they felt from the depths of their hearts. There, as they wandered free from the constraints of society, they rediscovered what their ancestors thought could never be forgotten… the magical experience of the forest.
In the mysterious beauty of the trees they discovered the beautiful existence humanity was capable of. Away from the population centers the individual proved to be full, vibrant, and infinitely important. Essential to the Romanticists was a person free to feel deep, strong emotions… and a wide range of them: terror and ecstasy were all encouraged!
In Germany, the old forest is notoriously dark and cold. German romanticism stressed the deep, sublime infinity of the forest. It was a mysterious and aesthetic place, the foundation for all art and civilization… the roots of man’s spirit, proud past, and glorious future.
But in England, the romanticists yearned for the weird and exotic. Their aesthetic craving was just as strong but much, much louder. They desired life changing events and extremes of the human experience… and found it in the fairy folk tales of old (next post!).
But before we get to that, we need to talk about the spirituality of the Transcendentalists…
The Transcendentalists: Connecting with the Diving in Nature
The Transcendentalists started later, in the 1830’s, and inherited/shared a lot of things with the Romanticists. They despised intellectual snobbery and desired a more emotional, sensual life. They fled to nature, feeling society and cities not only neglected the individual, but corrupted the naturally good human soul.
But there was a huge difference in the leaders of the movements: the Romanticists were European poets … the Transcendentalists were American pastors. Therefore, the Transcendentalists took a religious, rather than mythic/pagan, route in the rediscovery of how magical a forest can be.
When they explored the forests, they found a beautiful sanctuary that proved the cosmos was both aesthetic and moral. They believed God was at the center of the universe, binding it together, and everything… every tree, rock, and person… had a divine spirit. And the key to self-realization, to being your truest self, was reconnecting and following that spirit back to God.
Their movement added many new twists to the “enlightened” western ideas of the forests:
They believed nature revealed strong spiritual forces beyond human reasoning and science.
They yearned for intensely spiritual experiences (including miracles) in and through nature
They saw the forest as a battleground between good and evil… with good’s ultimate triumph
All that said… I can’t put too much emphasis on the impact on the transcendental movement because while they loved nature, it was more the woods rather than forest! I mean, Thoreau built a cabin on a pond in Massachusetts… if that doesn’t scream “friendly, peaceful woods”, I don’t know what does!
Following the Enlightenment, the world had been disenchanted… there was no going back. The vast majority of the population, from top to bottom, no longer believed in literal wraiths.
So when the Romanticists and Transcendentalists returned to the forests, they may not have believed in literal magic, but they found them fantastic nonetheless.
And yet… we aren't quite at fantasy… from these movements a genre was born that captivated the hearts and minds of Victorian Europe.
Actually, it was the rebirth of a genre…
The rebirth and reforming of the world of the fairy… (next week!)