Forests in literary imagination
From Snow White to Tarzan, Robin Hood to Alice, Lord Rama to the Pandavas, Ali Baba to Winnie the Pooh, Dorothy (of Oz) to Harry Potter, from works of Shakespeare to Henry David Thoreau, Rudyard Kipling to Bill Bryson and Enid Blyton to Cheryl Strayed, there is one common thread, wholly or partly, to some of our most remembered and favourite literature - forests as a setting for key action.
Earth’s dominant terrestrial ecosystem, forests are commonly taken to mean a large area with trees or other woody vegetation though there isn't any common global definition – 800 definitions are available around the world! What is however more acceptable and indisputable is their role in human imagination and culture, be it folklore, fantastic or legendary, and modern literature, whether children or adult. They can represent a place of refuge or menace, of succour or challenge, of restful contemplation or exciting adventure, a metaphor for nature at its most basic and untrammeled by human civilising, and a source of sustenance - or danger.
But best-served are those who take some benefit from their sojourn in the woods. As a Shakespearean character ruminates: “And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
This was the Senior Duke, perfectly content in his exile in the Forest or Arden in “As You Like It” (Act II, Scene 1) but forests are not always that welcoming and instructive for the Bard’s other creations. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, some unwelcome changes afflict various characters, especially poor Nick Bottom in the forest (though everything gets amicably and amenably solved in the end), while in another, the appearance of the Dunsinane forest (or a branch of it, excuse the
pun) before Macbeth’s castle spells his doom!
In ancient Hindu epics, Lord Rama and his brother Lakshman first exhibit their mettle by ridding some forests of demons before their eventful exile to the forest, as do the Pandavas who raise their capital after clearing a notorious forest and then spend part of their own exile in forests.
But some of the most memorable and universally-known stories set in the woods – Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel and many more of brave young princes and fair maidens.