Into the Wild Woods: On the Significance of Trees and Forests in Fantasy Fiction

By Laszkiewicz, Weronika | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Into the Wild Woods: On the Significance of Trees and Forests in Fantasy Fiction


Laszkiewicz, Weronika, Mythlore


AMONG THE VARIOUS ELEMENTS OF THE NATURAL WORLD which in fantasy fiction become invested with otherworldly powers, trees and forests particularly often undergo transformations which elevate them from the domain of the natural into that of the super-natural. Consequently, their appearance in fantastic narratives as animated characters and magical woodlands strengthens the enchanting and estranging appeal of a story. Yet it is a misconception--born, perhaps, from too many formulaic fantasy novels (the likes of which which Diana Wynne Jones mocks in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland [rev. ed. 2006], for their ubiquitous "Forests of Doom" [73])--to perceive the trees and forests of fantasy as hardly anything else than amusing, but otherwise insignificant characters or as secretive groves (a staple element of fantastic world-building), preferably inhabited by elves whom every hero is obliged to visit during his/her journey. In the following paper I wish to explore how numerous fantasists--particularly those writing in the subgenres of high/epic fantasy and mythic fiction--draw upon and creatively reconstruct arboreal imagery present in myths and fairy tales not only to enrich their secondary worlds, but also to investigate issues pertaining to psychology and religion, to question mankind's relationship with the environment, and to convey their own deep appreciation of nature. The analysis of a number of examples will illustrate the variety of roles and functions ascribed to fantastic trees and forests. The proposed analysis will be preceded by a brief summary of arboreal imagery appearing in myths and fairy tales, and followed by an inquiry into the meaning behind the genre's persistence in depicting fantastic trees and forests.

Various mythologies from across the world account for sacred trees which serve as a link between mankind and the numinous. In Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Mircea Eliade identifies certain recurring themes among the multiple variants of the sacred tree. First of all, Eliade declares that "[n]o tree was ever adored for itself only, but always for what was revealed through it, for what it implied and signified" (268). In other words, the tree was often associated with a particular deity (270-280) or, together with an altar and a sacred stone, it formed a place of worship, which Eliade calls a "microcosm," because its nature reflected the nature of the cosmos. As the cosmic "inverted tree," whose roots were in the sky and branches reached the earth, the sacred tree functioned also as a representation of the Universe (273-275). Moreover, the location of the tree was often perceived as the center of the universe, and the tree itself became the axis mundi--a link between heaven and earth (299). Because of its cycle of shedding and regeneration many cultures regarded the tree as symbol of life, fertility and resurrection (283-296), and numerous myths insisted that human life was connected to or, in fact, originated from trees and other plants (300-303). Today, some of the most recognizable examples of sacred trees are the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life appearing in the Old Testament as well as in numerous other traditions (the universal motif of the arbor vitae), and Yggdrasil--the cosmic ash (1) tree of Norse mythology. From the various vegetation gods and other mythical beings connected with trees, the ones which have most strongly imprinted upon popular imagination are the Greek dryads and the Green Man. Though originally the word dryad denoted an "oak spirit" (Sherman 461), which was only one among the many tree spirits recognized by ancient mythology, today the name is ascribed to any nature spirit dwelling in a tree. (2) The Green Man is an enigmatic figure whose face, encompassed by or created from leaves and vines, has served as an architectural motif in European churches. The mystery surrounding his origins and identity (3) became a lasting inspiration for artists in different fields, including fantasy fiction. …

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