Real Forests Used to Be Considered Scary… What Changed?
So far in this series on “fantasy forests”, we’ve talked about what a forest is, and how past peoples believed forests were beyond civilization, full of magical and/or heavenly creatures, and terrifyingly dangerous.
And yet… I’ll bet that none of us reading this post view forests that way. We probably see them as darker, slightly more intimidating versions of woods.
Even if we found ourselves in the most wild and dangerous of forests remaining in the world, nearly everyone living in predominantly western culture would not really think a witch is living in a hut deep in the dark of the trees.
What happened? What changed? Why do we backpack through, rather than avoid, forests?
Long story short… A LOT changed… everywhere throughout the world… and in every way. But concerning forests, two shifts took place all throughout western culture…
A Disenchanted World Makes for a Safe Forest
The medieval world is drastically different from the modern world thanks to … (drum roll please)… the Enlightenment!
'Un dîner des philosophes', Jean Huber (1772).
Also known as “The Age of Reason”, it was the beginning and unstoppable march of reason at the expense of tradition and superstition. The result was an upper and merchant class of philosophers and scientists, seeing the world differently. And since they had the power, these beliefs meant they took the world in new directions.
I could go on and on, but this ain’t sci-fi… we need to get back to fantasy forests pronto! The important thing to know is this:
1. ) Human souls became “guarded” as 2) the world became disenchanted.
Science had explained so many previously unknown things and debunked so many myths, that crediting spirits with every strange happening seemed ridiculous. As a result, nature went from a spirit infused space to an organized, created/randomly generated system ruled by laws, just like any city or nation was ruled by laws. And if those laws could be known, they could be followed/controlled.
Simply put: peasants and princes saw spirits everywhere… plumbers and politicians saw spirits almost nowhere.
Nikola Tesla reading by the light of a Tesla coil. D.V.ALLEY WELLCOME COLLECTION
Furthermore, not only were there less spirits, but people felt inherently safe from spirits. For many reasons (which I will not get into here), people used to believe they were particularly vulnerable to spiritual attacks. Think signs of the cross, symbols over doors, and throwing salt over your shoulder… all that stuff people performed with utter seriousness in order to keep the spirits away.
But after the Age of Reason, people saw themselves as “autonomous individuals”. As a result, the only way to be impacted by a spirit would be if you expressly and intentionally let them in (like vampires)… or failed to an agreed upon test (witch oaths).
Henceforth, the forest became less dangerous and less mysterious. Gone were the lawless and devilish beings lurking in the dark depths of the forest pouncing upon unsuspecting wanderers!
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Industrialized World = Abandoned (But Protected!) Forests
Thames River in London during the Victorian Era.
But immediately following the Age of Reason, another seismic shift reverberated throughout Europe: the Industrial Revolution. Factories and locomotives and steel… oh my! And factories need two things: lots of infrastructure and lots of people. Swaths of farmers and country folk… people whose ancestors would have been peasants… moved to the cities.
By this time, Europe's forests were a fraction of what they were when Caesar gazed upon them back the 100’s BC (medieval deforestation practices can only work so long…). But, thankfully, the powers that be discover a new fuel source for their industry: COAL.
Victorian Coal Mine.
Coal burned hotter, burned longer, and boy howdy was there a lot of it. It replaced not only wood as the fuel source, but also enabled many more things to be made of iron and steel rather than wood.
Concerning the dark forests of Europe, the result of the Industrial Revolution was threefold:
There were not very many forests in Europe left (less than 20%)
Because of coal, there was no need to cut all the forests down
People moved to the towns and cities and were around forests a lot less
These three things mean people viewed forests a lot differently… and has continued to the modern day. Roughly ⅔ of the world's population is expected to live in cities by the middle of the century. And once people move to the cities and participate in various industries, they spend over 90% of their time indoors.
So… if all of that is the case… why are we STILL interested in fantasy stories of magical forests?
Even though we live in a modern world… we still love nature! We strive to conserve it, adventure throughout it, and continue to be fascinated by it. The age of reason de-mystified forests and industrialization threatens them, but we still find them ‘magical’?
Next week, we’ll introduce the movements responsible for the rebirth of forests in western imagination.