October is the month of all things dark and haunted, and for me, there could be only one blog topic. The forest realm. Fantasy literature has long worshipped the forest, from Tolkien’s Mirkwood through to Kenneth Graham’s Wild Wood. Images of woodlands are many and contrasting, as different as slow moving Ents are from Whomping Willows. And like vampires and werewolves and all things ghoulish, stories of the forest realm have a long and fascinating history.
The earliest written accounts of forests construct them as dark,
fearful, and often intensely erotic places—much like the ways in which modern western imperialists have described the orient. Following resistance to Roman empire-building in the forests of northern Europe, Tacitus wrote of bestial Germanic Wild Men gnawing the bones of defeated legions, while Julius Caesar and Strabo described the Druids of the British Isles burning sacrificial victims alive in wicker men, images that have resonated through the ages. Rushing forward to medieval times, the scariest creatures of the forest were the fairies. A far cry from the sparkly wing-wearing, pink-clad kiddies of today, the fair folk embodied the spirits of the dead, feared as child snatchers, shifters, seducers, and even murderers and rapists.
Fortunately, forest lore provides us with plenty of brooding heroes too, from Robin Hood to the wonderfully tortured Herne the Hunter, a glowering, alpha male bearing the antlers of a stag and whose dark origins lie in the horned gods of Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth. To my glee, my extensive research into forest lore has also uncovered a plethora of historical bondage. The cliché of being blindfolded, bound, and taken to the hidden camp in the heart of the forest can be traced back at least as far as Roman accounts of the tribes of Germania.
The “otherness” of the forest, it’s exclusion from so-called “civilized” societies, has also resulted in one of its most wonderful manifestations: as a place of sexual liberty. The Greenwood has long been the realm to which lovers escaped to break away from the shackles of social and sexual norms – think Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On more modern note, in E.M.Forster’s novel Maurice (originally written in 1913-14, but not published till 1971) the homosexual hero evokes the romantic image of “Sherwood.” The idealized English Greenwood of the past is the imaginative space in which Maurice and his male lover can exist unfettered, in stark contrast to the homophobic reality in which he struggles to fit in.
So, sod being creepy—here’s to the forests of the world! Let’s hope you survive to keep haunting, inspiring, and liberating us, for the next several thousand years.