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 forest.
But not just any forest… a magical… enchanting… foreboding… beautiful… ancient… forest.
A forest 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 Forbidden Forest.
The Wheel of Time has The Forest of Shadows.
And just about every D&D campaign either starts near or in a magical forest.
I could go on and on and on… but it begs the question: why is this the case? What links forests so closely to fantasy? And 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 our research took us on a journey that was WAY bigger than we ever expected!
Over the next few months we will be posting regularly on “dark forests”, talking about everything from history to myth… philosophy to folklore. But today, we’ll just start with a simple definition.
Definition: What is a Forest?
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… and it has trees.
But importantly, a forest is more than “a place in nature with lots of trees”.
For example: orchards are not forests. Orchards are highly organized trees planted by humans with a single purpose in mind: food production. They are about as man made as a house.
Officially (according to the U.S.National Vegetation Classification), a forest is a forest for two reasons:
1. 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…)
2. 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:
1. Tropical: Forests in… you guessed it… the tropical zone near the equator. Hot, rainy, and holy cow thats a lotta species of flora and fauna. In the western mind these forests are known as “jungles”. They carry entirely different connotations even though they share a definition.
2. Boreal: Forests in the arctic, usually evergreen that grow until they hit tundra. Very cold so lots of the animals hibernate. And in summer? Still chilly.
3. Temperate: 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 the type of forest I mean when I say “forest”.
“The Woods” Are NOT “the Forest”...
Ok, exercise time:
Sit for a moment and imagine yourself in some woods… there is a good chance you are 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 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 bear-beast instead.
“The woods” are tranquil, peaceful… while “the forest” is wild… and dangerous.
A few things make true forests different places from woods:
1. Because of the canopy blocking so much sunlight… it is very dark…
2. Because there is less sunlight… it is very wet, both on the ground and in the air…
3. Because it is very wet… there are lots of plants
4. Because it is very dense… it is difficult to travel through… inaccessible to humans…
5. Because it is inaccessible to humans… they are unmanaged… leaving lots of dead trees and bugs nad birds … etc.
Reading that, you might realize something: “I’m not sure I have ever actually been in a forest…”
And you miiiight 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: the unique environment of a dark forest has captured the imagination of humanity for eons.
Next post, we’ll explore that… going through some of the history of European forests, starting with the ancient world.