Fantasy Trope: The Dark Forest
In the last post, we posed the questions: “Why are magical forests always in fantasy?” and “What is a forest anyways?”. And we discovered that the forest is very different from the woods.
But before we dive right into “what makes a fantasy forest”, we need to first figure out how people in the past understood forests… starting aaaaall the way back with the Romans!
Forests in the Ancient Europe
Small problem: we have very little written record of how ancient peoples perceived European forests. Part of that was that most of the complex civilizations of the ancient world (the ones with written records) were farther south. There were only warring tribes up in central and northern Europe, where most of the dense, dark forests dwelled.
We of course know of the Dryads in Greek myths, but that is for a later post! In general, the civilizations of Europe were surrounded by both mountains and forests like the Alps, Carpathians, Dinarides, and Pyrenees. Historically, we only have a few Roman accounts, and they all convey a similar idea:
The ancient world perceived forests with wonder and dread.
When Julius Caesar first met with chieftains of Germanic tribes, he learned that they had walked through the Hercynian forest to meet him… for TWO MONTHS. This is a testament to not only the difficulty of walking through a tangled, mangled forest… but also its size.
It is estimated that roughly 70% of Germania (central Europe) was covered in wild forests. Pliny the Elder spoke of this forest having magical birds whose feathers shone bright light.
Decades later, when news broke of an uprising across the border, the ruthless and cruel General Varus decided to lead his three legions for more conquering and plunder. They approached the deep, dark Teutoburg Forest along a narrow road that extended their marching column across 15km.
(Teutoburg Forest pictured right)
Varus and 20,000 of his men walked into the gloom… virtually none walked out. A Roman commander named Arminius united warring tribes and ambushed the stretched out legions. But as far as the Roman Senate was concerned… the forest itself had swallowed their formidable army whole..
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest
If Rome, with its marble architecture and Pax Romana, symbolized the glory of human civilization… then the old forest sanctuaries of Western Europe were the antithesis. After the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, Roman imperial ambition was culled, and they fixed the boundary of the empire at the Rhine River.
Forests in the Medieval World
But by the early middle ages… lots had happened.
Western Rome was gone… Christianity had spread… and feudalism was here to stay. People began to clear land for farming and common law was established. And it is during this time the all important shift from “forests” to “woods” begins in earnest. And if you remember the first post, what’s the difference between friendly woods and a dark forest?
That’s right: even though they did clear forests for farming, the medieval world (especially Britain) cared about deforestation!
Wood was an immensely important raw material for the middle ages. Every tool to build a home, most materials for the home, and most of everything inside the home required wood. There was no coal, so wood was also the main fuel source. Even the stone castles and cathedrals required vast amounts of wood! In other words, wood was in everything and everyone needed it.
And quickly the nobility realized that if deforestation wasn’t enacted, future generations would be in trouble. Here is an overly simplified explanation of what happened (in England it was “The Charter of the Forest”):
A) Kings declared that all forests and everything in the forest was their property/hunting grounds,
B) Lords were tasked with managing this,
C) Lords gave permission and developed more sustainable methods,
The result was the slow transformation of “forests” into “woods”.
Individual trees in a grove were sporadically felled… opening up the sky and allowing sunlight to bathe the ground.
Old, fallen trees and brush was cleared so carts could move through easily and collect the fallen trees.
Other trees were “shaped” (coppiced/pollarded) for specific uses, and many households even had “private” small woods they would carefully farm, just like they would farm a field!
Woods, were spacious… open… clean… tamed. Honestly this is what we see in movies and TV shows that shoot scenes in “forests”... they are actually woods! Amon Hen in the Fellowship of the Ring and all the forests in the Robin Hood TV series… all actually woods. I mean, think about it… film equipment is a lot heavier and harder to transport than mule drawn carts!
Forests, on the other hand, are different. They were dark… dense… wild. Whatever was forbidden or too difficult to chop down continued to do what it had done for millennia: remaining dense, dark places packed with life.
As a result, the medieval people didn’t just view forests as a collection of dense trees… but a living, active environment that both figuratively and literally moved and breathed. This is seen in the aftermath of the Black Plague. With vast swaths of the peasant population gone, the fields went untended… and the forest crept up and reconquered the tilled land.
Just like the Romans, the medieval world saw the dark forests as the boundary of civilization, an unknown, wild place from the ancient past.
From History to Mythology
The standard setting for the fantasy genre is medieval Europe, so it is important to know how they viewed their dark forests. That is a brief, incomplete history of forests, but it provides us with a historical foundation. Now, we can explore the many connotations of the “dark forest” we see in our fantasy novels.
The next step? We must turn to ancient myth, medieval superstitions, and Victorian fairy-obsession! Check back next Monday to learn more!
NOTE: I did skip over something important. There WERE these things called the “forest laws”... which basically was a Norman thing where the king got to be a jerk and declare everything in the forest theirs. Peasants hated this and they were eventually repealed in most places. But while they were in place, violators were severely punished. I have no idea if this impacted fantasy forest stories, so I left it out.