Into the Woods: An Examination of Fairy Tale Forests

By Shea Murphy

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Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

In today's increasingly modern world, forests rarely hold an importance in one's daily life. Yet when examining the fairy tale world, one sees the significance the forest holds, often serving as a story's setting. The forest is a recurrent setting for tales as it represents all that is exciting, unknown and dangerous. It becomes a character of its own, becoming an active participant in the lives of those who enter it. The forest judges, provides and punishes, wielding a magic of its own, while also housing the many mythical creatures of the fairy tale world. It possesses a sexuality that is both deceptive and intriguing, enticing characters and putting them in danger. Anything goes in the forest, allowing it to be a playground of sorts for fairy tale authors to play out the incredible, the unbelievable and the wild. The forest is continually found in so many fairy tales because it is more than just a setting – it is a life form that embodies the themes of the tales themselves.

The fairy tale world is one that operates by its own set of rules, housing magic and mythical creatures alike. Yet there is still a sense of normality and regularity that exists within the villages of the stories. The villages are the places most characters call home. They are places that represent safety and comfort and often do not contain any beasts or mythical creatures. This is not to say that there are no challenges to village life, but rather that the challenges that do exist are ones that can be expected. For example, it is not uncommon for a village family to suffer from poverty, sometimes not even having enough food. This, however, is not a ridiculous or unfathomable challenge. The solution – whether feasible or not for the family given their economic state – would be to obtain more money and more food. For fairy tale characters, their villages offer them a sense of normality and security but with that comes a rather boring life that some characters are not content with. This restlessness that lies within them causes them to venture into the deep unknown that is the forest.

The forest offers real dangers, but it also provides a chance for real adventure and excitement. In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the protagonist Belle is depicted early on in the film as being bored with her life in her small town. As she laments that "there must be more than this provincial life", she yearns for excitement and adventure, something she only finds by journeying into the woods (Condon, Beauty and the Beast). What begins as a quest to save her father ends up being a quest to save herself from a mundane life in her "provincial town". It is by venturing into the forest that she meets the Beast, a character who teaches her adventure and love, offering her a life beyond her small town.

In many ways, the forest represents all that the towns and cities are not: untamed, uncontrollable, mysterious, and wild. The civilizations, as they are the creation of mankind, have rules, standards, and boundaries. There is an acceptable and perhaps, more importantly, an unacceptable, way of behaving and everyone is expected to adhere to the conventions of society. The restrictions of such are represented in the song "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast. Here one sees how Belle was limited by her fellow townspeople because she was a woman. The standard belief was that a woman should not be concerned with reading or learning and that her sole goal should be securing a husband. Since Belle always had "her nose stuck in a book" she was considered "so peculiar" by her neighbors (Condon, Beauty and the Beast). While Belle disregards their judgments, it is made clear that her desire to be more than someone's wife is something that ostracizes her from the rest of society and something that could perhaps lead her to a more difficult life. It is suggested that a woman is to survive by marrying someone who will take care of her. Since Belle has no interest in such an arrangement, society seems to believe she will end up penniless and alone.

The Aesopic fable "The Wolf, the Dog, and the Collar" offers a good look into the difference of what life would be like in a village compared to in the forest. Within the tale, the house dog is afforded the luxury of security and routine – he is always fed by his master and expected to perform the daily tasks of a house dog (bark at those unwelcome, protect the home, etc.). The wolf, on the other hand, is starving, never knowing where his next meal will come from or when it will come, but he is free to go wherever he pleases, not beholden to the will of anyone else. This freedom he has is something more valuable to him than anything else, something he makes clear when he "jeered at the dog and said, 'Keep your luxury to yourself then! I don't want anything to do with it if, if my neck will have to chafe against a chain of iron'" (Aesop and Gibbs 5). Here the physical chain the dog endures for his safety represents the restrictive nature of society's expectations – serving as both a means of security and suffocation. A rather controlled but safe life is something most people are content with, but for a select few such as Belle, it is not enough and the wild of the woods calls to them.

Just as developed civilizations house conventions, routines, and standards, forests house the strange, the different and the rejected. In the tale of "Snow White" the characters of the seven dwarfs represent all that society – a society which highly values beauty – rejects, as they are short, ugly men. They live alone in the woods because they would not be accepted by society. Their location amongst the mountains therefore serves as a physical manifestation of the ostracization they experience from the "civilized" world. Yet it is they, not the young and beautiful Snow White, who hold the power in the forest. It is up to them to decide her fate, able to choose whether or not to provide her shelter, shelter she needs in order to survive the woods.

It is because the forest has its own rules that it is so often depicted as the home of such a diverse group of creatures. It is a common theme to have fairies, ogres, giants, witches and a myriad of other mythical or unique beings living in the forest. This theme results from the fact that these creatures would not be accepted by the rest of society and therefore find a home in a place that lies outside reason and restrictions – the forest. In the film Ella Enchanted, for example, Ella runs into a group of ogres during her journey in the forest. These ogres – who once lived amongst society – had been forced to make their home in the trees after having the monarchy steal their land. Humans had stripped them of all their belongings and characterized them as dangerous, violent creatures because they were different. Their refuge in the forest was therefore both a physical refuge as well as one from the judgments and criticisms of society. Just as mythical beings find comfort and refuge in the forest, so do human fairy tale characters. The refuge can be from the sometimes suffocating nature of society's expectations or from other characters.

As mentioned, Snow White finds refuge from her evil mother with the dwarves in the woods. Yet while Snow White is fortunate enough to find the kind dwarves, it is important not to forget that her fate in the forest could have ended immensely differently. In fact, the hunter who spared her life completely expected her to die, as he "thought the wild beasts in the forest would devour her" (Grimm 172). When considering the two very different possible experiences Snow White could have had in the forest, the question as to why she fared so well arises. Her character is not portrayed as exceedingly smart or resourceful, in fact, her repeated acceptance of her mother's deceptive tricks proves otherwise. Yet Snow White is, nonetheless, the story's protagonist and above all else, she is a good person. Where she is pure and good, her mother is wicked and evil. Her mother – the story's villain – therefore cannot be allowed to win and the forest ensures this. In this way, the forest serves as a judge, separating the good and the evil and sparing only the good.

This idea of the forest as a "test" is found frequently in fairy tales, especially in relation to children. The challenges the forest holds, while difficult and deadly, mold and develop those who are able to overcome them. They become hurdles to jump as the characters stand on the threshold of adolescence and adulthood. The forest also serves as a catalyst of transformation. Yet unlike most of the transformations seen in fairy tales, these are transformations of character rather than physical transformations. This is perhaps no better illustrated than in Charles Perrault's tale "Little Thumbling", a story extremely similar to the Grimm Brothers' "Hansel and Gretel". The parents of Tom Thumb and his six brothers were poor woodcutters and had no money for food. They, like the parents of Hansel and Gretel, decided to abandon their children in the woods as a result of this. Within the story, it is Tom's wit that allows him and his brothers to survive the wolves and ogres they encounter. The story illustrates the extreme danger they were in, as they put it themselves, "sure as anything, the wolves in the forest won't fail to eat us tonight if you refuse to take us in. That being the case, we prefer to be eaten by the gentleman of the house" (Perrault 197). While this line is certainly quite humorous, it also shows the gravity of the situation the children found themselves in, having to choose between being eaten by wolves or an ogre. Additionally, the story illustrates the transformative power of the forest, as it allows Tom's family to become rich, as well as serves as the catalyst for a major change in Tom. At the story's start, Tom is described as the "scapegoat of the entire family" and was "frail and didn't speak" (Perrault 191). He clearly wasn't respected by his family and is presented as someone weak and vulnerable - someone expected to fail. Yet it is only because of Tom that his six older brothers survive the forest's dangers, and his family becomes wealthy. Tom's experience in the woods led him to acquire a necessary confidence and provided him with an opportunity to showcase his skills, skills which led to him receiving immense wealth and recognition by the king and others in the land.

As the story of "Little Thumbling" illustrates, the forest has an undeniable danger, a danger that is omnipresent and unavoidable. This danger comes from both the creatures who inhabit the forest, as well as fact that the nature of the forest is unknown and ever-changing. One never knows who or what they will encounter when they make the journey into the world of the woods. As Marina Warner describes it, "The forest is where you are when your surroundings are not mastered" (Warner 70). Beatrice Potter's The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck illustrates the dangers the forest holds. Seeking to escape the farm where she wasn't allowed to hatch her own eggs, Jemima set off on her own. Along her journey, "she saw a wood in the distance. She thought that it looked a safe quiet spot" (Potter 4). However, instead of finding the safety she sought, Jemima meets a fox, a dangerous creature who wants to eat her (even if Jemima can't recognize this). The fox's sly ways lure Jemima into a false sense of security, proving the dangers of the woods lie both in the predatory nature of its creatures and its deceptive ways. While Jemima's ability to be deceived can be attributed to the fact that she is meant to be a naïve and foolish character, there is something to be said about the fact that a fox was a creature completely unfamiliar to her. Like so many things in the forest, the true nature of foxes was foreign to her and therefore she had no way of knowing that the fox was a predatory animal. Her complete lack of understanding is expressed in the way she refers to him: "an elegantly dressed gentle-man reading a newspaper. He had black prick ears and sandy colored whiskers" (Potter 6). The fox in the story therefore represents both the predatory side of the forest, as well as its unfamiliarity.

It is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that not all characters prosper in the face of this danger and that not all successfully make it out of the forest. While it may offer the chance for one to truly mature and develop, it also possesses many dangers that threaten one's life. In this way the forest serves as an agent of natural selection: those who are strong (whether of mind or body) are able to "defeat" the forest's challenges while those who are weak perish. The forest presents real dangers and death and while this is a scary reality, it means that those who do survive come out of the challenge as better and more mature people. In the context of fairy tales and their purpose to teach, this grave aspect of the forest serves to showcase the very real concept of death while also teaching how moral downfalls or foolishness can lead to such demises. In the case of "Little Red Riding Hood", for example, the young and beautiful Little Red is eaten by a wolf as a result of her naivety and foolishness. The story therefore presents an instance where good is defeated by evil. One may question why tales so often read to children would include such grim and disturbing stories like this. In doing so, however, one would be ignoring the true purpose of fairy tales: to teach. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, if she had been suspicious of the wolf – as she ought to have been of such a cunning and vicious creature – she could have avoided her fate and consequently her demise. The story therefore contains the lesson that those who are over-trusting or not cautious when necessary meet grim fates. Additionally, while fairy tales are not meant solely for children audiences, it is undeniable that many of the stories readers and listeners are children. The story of "Little Red Riding Hood" therefore teaches children that death exists, that there are things to be feared and that good does not always win. While these are all difficult lessons to learn, they are necessary ones. If a child grows up without accepting these facts, they will be putting themselves in danger and will likely face hardships later in life.

The forest, much like our own world, is a mixture of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly. Just as the stories teach important moral lessons, they also make clear that both good and evil exist. The physical composition of the forest serves as a physical manifestation of this, containing both dark shadows and patches of light. The tall trees can serve as sources of shade and protection, symbolizing the beauty and purity of nature. They can also seem daunting, creating inescapable darkness that harbors dangerous and terrifying creatures. This sharp contrast present within one place is also found in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid". Within the story, the beauty and magnificence of the Little Mermaid's castle are contrasted with the ugly, creepy nature of the sea witch's lair. While both places are located within the ocean, they represent two very different aspects of it. By illustrating the sea world – a place that may initially seem completely foreign to the reader – as a diverse and varied place, Anderson is drawing a parallel between it and the real world. Yet where the ocean landscape created by Anderson shows this clear distinction between the light and the dark, the forest proves to be of a much more heterogeneous nature, similar to our own world. Not only are the light and the dark interwoven, but the difference between them is not always so obvious, as seen by the fox's ability to deceive Jemima Puddle-Duck.

Despite all the challenges and danger found in the forest, it is also a place where beauty and life thrive. A forest is, by its most basic definition, a body of trees and shrubbery and is, therefore, a place where nature abounds. With the strong presence of nature comes an inherent goodness, as "No power of witches or gnomes or goblins or ogres or beasts, however, can completely extinguish the intrinsic good of the life force that runs through nature" (Warner 29). In many instances, the presence of "Mother Nature" can be felt, with the forest taking on a maternal role and providing for its inhabitants. Just as the forest uses its challenges and dangers to deter or kill those deemed bad, it uses its resources to provide for those deemed worthy. In Countess D'Anois's tale "The Blue Bird", after the prince is transformed into a bird, he "hid himself in the hollow of a tree" so as to avoid the danger of the queen while still being close to his beloved Florina (D'Anois 419). The trees in the forest, therefore, provide protection and comfort to the Blue Bird, revealing its benefits to one deemed worthy. The Blue Bird is one of the story's protagonists and therefore revealed to be a good and honest being, someone who is deserving of assistance. While it is eventually in his home in the tree that the Blue Bird is attacked, it is only when forces from the outside world – namely the Queen's men – enter that his life is endangered. The forest also offers its own resources, resources that cannot be found elsewhere. There is magical flora, priceless treasure, and talking animals. The value of the forest's resources is immense but largely unknown, much like the forest itself.

This maternal role as a protector and a provider is manifested quite literally in the Grimm Brothers' version of "Cinderella". Here, the spirit of Cinderella's mother inhabits a tree and has magical qualities: "whenever you [Cinderella] wish for something, shake it, and you'll have your wish" (Grimm 69). The tree, a key component of the forest, looks out for Cinderella, granting her wishes as a reward for staying "good and pure" (Grimm 69). It even replaces the fairy godmother character so often associated with the story, no longer needing her to provide the dress, shoes, and carriage as the tree can. The story of "Cinderella" therefore not only reinforces the idea of the forest and nature as a provider to those who are "good", but also introduces the concept of magic within the forest.

As the forest is home to the mythical, it is also home to magic. This magic comes from both the magical creatures who live there (the witches, ogres, fairies, etc.) and the intrinsic magic of nature. The Grimm Brothers' "Rumpelstiltskin" includes the magical creature of Rumpelstiltskin, for example, who can be found by going "deep into the forest", where he lives in a "small cottage" (Grimm 182). His separation from the rest of society allows him to live freely as he wishes, as is evident by his "hopping around as if he had only one leg and screeching" (Grimm 182). In fact, if the king had not been hunting in the forest, the queen never would have learned Rumpelstiltskin's name and saved her child. The magic of nature itself has already been subtly discussed when considering the forest as a test. Here the forest takes on a personality of its own, deciding who is fit to survive, separating the strong from the weak and deeming who is worthy to receive its assistance (and then providing that assistance).

The magic of nature is also seen in the Grimm Brothers' telling of "Briar Rose". In the story, once Briar Rose has fallen into the deep sleep, a wall of thorns and bushes sprouted around her palace to protect her. Many tried to pass through this forest of sorts to reach the beautiful princess, but all were unsuccessful and died in the thorns. It wasn't until many years later when another prince arrived that the thorns barricading the castle turned to "flowers that separated and made a path for him, and as he went through them, the flowers turned back into thorns" (Grimm 164). Nature here possesses a magic that allows it to judge who is worthy of saving Briar Rose and has the ability to transform accordingly. The clear juxtaposition between the attempts of the princes at the beginning where "the thorns clung tightly together like hands" (Grimm 164) and their transformation into flowers to allow the final prince to pass, illustrates not only the magic they possess but also their capacity to evaluate and judge.

The story of "Briar Rose" also carries a very sexual tone, conveying the sexuality and seduction of the forest. For fairy tale characters, the forest represents sexuality, something unknown and enticing to them. Within this tale, the diction of the story – namely the use of "penetrating" and the transformation of thorns to "flowers" – creates a sense of this sexuality (Grimm 164). Briar Rose falls victim to the fairy's curse on "the day she turned fifteen", the age when she fully entered womanhood and would be sexually able (Grimm 163). The thorns that sprout up around the castle are meant to protect her and since the only ones who try to reach her are men motivated by her beauty, the thorns are meant to protect Briar Rose from their sexual advances. They therefore serve as a means of protecting her sexuality, something made increasingly clear when the thorns are said to turn into flowers for the final prince to pass. As a woman's "flower" is a common euphemism for her virginity, the sexual nature of both the thorn forest and of the prince's desires is made clear.

The forest is also a place of temptation and seduction as it represents all that is unknown, dangerous and exciting. There is a pull to explore, to run the risk of danger for the possibility of adventure. This temptation manifests itself quite literally in the witch's house of sweets in "Hansel and Gretel". In this tale, the witch's "little house made of bread with cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows" is meant to tempt the children so that she can capture and eat them (Grimm 46). The two young children stumble across the house after having eaten nothing for two days, so nothing would be more appealing to them than food. Also, since they had come from a poor family where finding any food to eat was a struggle, they had likely never experienced sweets before, so the witch's house not only represented their deepest wish, but it did so in an extremely exuberant and excessive way.

The story of "Little Red Riding Hood" contains a different type of temptation: sexual seduction. Little Red is a young girl, on the brink of womanhood, and therefore still largely unaware of her (or anyone else's for the matter) sexuality. During her journey through the woods, however, she meets "Godfather Wolf", a creature who represents masculinity and sexuality (Perrault 133). The pursuit that entails between the two characters is clearly of a sexual nature, with the wolf playing the role of the seducer. This is only reassured in Perrault's moral, where the character of the wolf is stated to be representative of men in general, who young girls are "advised" to avoid: "…especially young girls who are beautiful, shapely, and pretty, are in the wrong when they listen to just anybody, and that is not strange if so many are eaten by the wolf. I say 'the wolf,' because not all are wolves…" (Perrault 137). By highlighting the physical aspects of a girl's being as the reasons she is "hunted", Perrault is drawing a clear connection between sexuality and the animalistic desires of men. The story's setting of the woods emphasizes how it is often the female who is in a situation characterized by unfamiliarity and danger (as Little Red is), while the man holds the advantage and uses it (like the wolf does).

Whether a French fairy tale from Perrault or a story of the Grimm Brothers, the forest is utilized as the setting because of its symbolic power and diversity. While all fairy tales share some basic themes, each one tells its own story and is therefore unique. The forest, however, is able to adapt to these differences, serving whatever purpose the story requires of it. It can save lives or it can take lives, it can tempt young characters or it can seduce young maidens, it can serve as a refuge or it can release incredible dangers. It can do all this because it lies outside the rules of reason and nature that restrict the real world, restrictions that even creep into the villages of the fairy tale worlds. The forest is a place where imagination can run free, representing the very world it inhabits: the magical and absurd world of fairy tales.