There’s a tree, some say, at the heart of all the worlds. Its roots wind down into the ashes of the past and its branches reach into future skies. At the centre of a grove at the heart of the first of all forests, this titanic world tree binds the essences of That-Which-Was, That-Which-Is and That-Which-Will-Be together. There are many names for this tree, including Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the lotus of Meru. Legends say that mankind was born amid the Forever Trees of the First Forest. Here humanity dwelt for untold aeons until some dark sin or distant shame exiled them from the shade of the great world tree. Perhaps this explains why forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanting tales in world literature and mythology, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the fairy-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago sequence. However, Holdstock’s mythagos – living, breathing ‘images of myth’ who dwell in Ryhope Wood, a primeval tract of virgin forest, and other ancient woodlands around the world – are anything but harmless. Even Tolkien, despite his oft-mentioned Green ideology, was famously ambiguous about trees – as illustrated by the actions of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. This illustrates an equally important point about the way forests are portrayed in mythology. Just as there are shadows in the hearts of men, nature too has its terrors, and the sum of all of them becomes the Dark Wood – the dread within each forest’s core. In folklore there were said to be many ways through the forest – the narrow road beset with thorns and briars that was the path to righteousness; the broad, leavened road that was the path to wickedness; and the bonny, winding road that was the path to fairyland. For this reason, among many others, caution was always advised for those who travelled the deep woods.
In early pagan religions, trees were held sacred; forest groves were perceived as the dwelling place of gods, goddesses and a wide variety of nature spirits. A staunchly animist outlook with a strong reverence for trees and the holiness of nature was particularly entrenched among the peoples in the far north of Europe and in the British Isles. It is therefore not surprising that when the Christian priests of the Dark Ages waged war against older beliefs, these were two of the areas where they focused their efforts, cutting down sacred trees and putting whole groves of woodland to the torch. The Celtic tribes of Britain and Ireland assigned each type of tree magical properties, and the twigs from the tops of the trees were prized by magicians, warriors and healers. Each letter in the Celtic ogham alphabet stood for a tree and its magical associations, while trees were a richly poetic presence in Celtic myths. The Green Man, who may be an incarnation of the horned Celtic forest god Cernunnos, is an architectural motif found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves across Europe, masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from his mouth. Intriguingly, the stylised Green Man head became incorporated into Christian architecture throughout medieval churches, perhaps because it became linked to Christian resurrection iconography through its association with the seasonal cycle of mythic rebirth and regeneration. Incidentally, although they are much rarer, examples of a primitive female form – the so-called Green Woman – giving birth to a spray of vegetation also exist in some churches, mainly in Ireland, where they are known by the name Sheela-na-gig.
Supernatural forest spirits take many forms, ranging from the exquisite dryads of the Greeks to the ugly tree trolls of Finland and Norway. According to Greco-Roman tradition, wood spirits die when their personal tree is cut down. In some cautionary tales, the fairy folk take their revenge upon humans who dare disturb their haunts. In others, the fairy or wood spirit quietly pines away when her habitat is destroyed – and when she dies, the beauty and magical soul of the land dies with her. The wood spirits in the ancient forest of Broceliande in Brittany, for example, range from the benevolent to the malign. Dangerously seductive spirits are said to roam this forest in the form of fair youths or maidens, entrapping mortals who partake of their food or drink in webs of enchantment. It is also the woodland where the wizard Merlin is said to lay entrapped in the bowels of a tree, tricked or seduced by the fey sorceress Vivian. In the Romantic era, forests were thought to hold the soul of myth and thus of folk culture, making them more pure and true than the artifice of civilisation. Writers such as the Brothers Grimm entered the fairy tale forest to create mystical, darkly magical works making deft use of mythic archetypes. Collections of fairy tales and folk lore were produced which were full of stories in which a journey to the dark woods was the catalyst for magic and transformation. Heroes entered the dark woods to test their strength, courage and faith, and came out all the stronger for it – if they were lucky enough to come out at all that is.
The Dark Wood is not a single place; rather, it is a type of place, a primal archetype of all that is fearsome in the wood. Draped in mists, choked with brambles, a Dark Wood is a test of faith. Its reaches shelter wolves and demons; the trees are hungry, the paths bizarre. Eerily seductive, it lures people inside, wrapping them in cold confidence and leading their feet astray. Its roots entwine lost travellers’ bones. Its winds cackle with forbidden jests. Crows and owls watch from the trees, patiently waiting for the next meal’s fall. Dark fairies make their homes there, as do mad wayfarers like the aforementioned wizard Merlin, a figure intimately connected with forests in Arthurian lore. It was during Merlin’s years of madness roaming the forests of Wales that he learned the speech of animals and honed his prophetic powers. This illustrates the fact that there is a certain beauty to the Dark Wood, a grim necessity made all the more appealing for its shadows. The Dark Wood emerges before you when there is somewhere you must go, some quest you must fulfil. It is impediment and fear, pain and solitude, yet in its heart lie treasures, shelters, friends and fortune. If you face the Dark Wood and survive its terrors, a kind of comfort can be found within.
Modern writers and artists make use of forests and all of the symbolism related to them every bit as much as those who crafted the ancient myths and folk tales. Neil Gaiman, one of our finest modern myth-makers, wrote Stardust, a novel set in an English woodland at the Wall separating our world from fairyland. Charles de Lint writes stories which bring the potent archetypes of the mythic First Forest into contemporary settings, particularly in his novels Forests of the Heart, Greenmantle, The Wild Wood and Into the Green. The woodlands of Patricia A. McKillip’s tales Winter Rose, Stepping from the Shadows and The Book of Atrix Wolfe are some of the finest in fantasy literature. The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin, Cloven Hooves by Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb), The Stone Silenus by Jane Yolen and Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner are all also highly recommended. Visual artists such as Arthur Rackham, Alan Lee, John Howe, Brian Froud and Charles Vess have also been caught by the powerful spell of the First Forest. No other writer or artist has journeyed deeper into the woods than Robert Holdstock, however, and the books of his Mythago sequence – Mythago Wood, Lavondyss, The Hollowing and Gate of Ivory – as well as Merlin’s Wood are hauntingly original and deeply moving. What I love is the fact that in all of these stories the forest seems eternal, endless and green. It arches out under skies that have never tasted smog, no bulldozer or toxic waste can kill it and no axe can dent its timbered heart. The dream of the wood might occasionally be treacherous – as all wilderness can be – but it still stands as monument to nature, a paradise that was never lost and a shadow of a world that might never have been. The First Forest is the ghost of all woods that were and the heart of all forests that will be – we enter it not only whenever we enter gardens, parks or woods but also every time we see it in a painting or read about it in a book. It exists, and somehow that’s enough.