The forests and woodlands of this world have forever held a special place in our hearts. When we were but cavemen, these mysterious and dangerous places stretched across the land like an ocean and would be the place only men would go to hunt for food. A place full of wild, deadly animals, strange plants and mysterious goings on.
This has lasted in our psyche ever since. Tales have always been told of the strange things that live in the darkness of the woodlands and of the magic that can be found, coursing through the roots of the trees of the forest. Long thought of as a home for faeries and elves, goblins and brownies, monsters of all descriptions, not to mention big bad wolves! But why, then, do we still love the forests? Just the act of walking through one in the dappled sunlight of a warm spring day can fill the heart with joy and prove better than any medication known to man. It can relax and restore peace in our lives. And it is this, I feel, the sheer beauty by day and the dread that the shadows bring at night, that keeps us coming back and enthrals us. So much so, that all the best stories ever told seem to involve a woodland or forest.
Look no further than the most famous of folklore collectors, the Brothers Grim. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected hundreds of German and European folk tales during the early 19th Century. Their collection grew from 156 stories in the first edition of their book to over 200 by the seventh edition. Many of these stories had the great European forests at their core. For example, look at Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Rapunzel, three extremely well-known stories, all with forests at their heart. But each has a different message about this wonderous place. In Hansel and Gretel, the forest is a place to lose the children, full of dangers that would do the job the parents couldn’t bring themselves to do, and end their lives. Of course, our heroes best the forest and the wicked witch and survive. For Snow White, the forest, frightening at first, becomes a safe refuge from the wicked queen, with the woodland creatures and the dwarves protecting her. Finally, in Rapunzel, the forest hides the tower in which the beauty of the story is locked away. The forest becomes a hiding place for a treasure as most men fear to enter within.
These themes are found across the old oral stories that we all know and love. From the warnings Little Red Riding Hood gets from her mother about staying on the path through the deep dark wood to the protection the forest brings Aurora during her first 16 years of life with the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty.
We can also look at more recent stories to see how our fascination with forests has continued. Tolkien drew heavily on Norse mythology and legend to create his Middle Earth and the stories surrounding it. At its core was the theme of an advancing new age of industry which would one day wipe out the greenwoods of old through the corruptions and evils of those wielding the power. Mirkwood is a prime example of this. Once looked after and cared for by talking tree people called Ent’s and the wood elves and known as Greenwood the Great, in ‘The Hobbit’, we find out that evil magic has seen the Ents disappear and the wood elves retreat to their homes. Giant spiders and other nasties now rule this wood that seek to trap and ensnare those who dare walk through it. This idea of forests being mighty and dangerous is also seen in the coming of the forest to the fight at Helms Deep during The Lord of the Rings, in which an entire forest moves to cut off the retreating orc forces of the evil wizard Saruman.
To bring it all to the modern day, we need look no further than the wizarding world of Harry Potter and the Whomping Willow that sits in the grounds of Hogwarts alongside the forbidden forest, a place full of centaurs, giant spiders, giants, unicorns and many other mythical creatures. A place few wizards and witches dare to go.
So, we love forests because they both scare us and excite us, relax us and keep us on edge. Home to legendary outlaws and mythical creatures, we keep coming back to them time and again. But what of our forests right here in the UK? Our land was once covered in forests and now, thanks to farming and the march of the modern day, they have become pockets of tranquillity. Still, at night, we mostly avoid them, the shadows hiding unseen and most possibly imagined dangers. But what of the stories of our forests?
We all know of the great man in tights himself, the legendary outlaw of the greenwood, Robin Hood, for songs and stories have been told for centuries and his legacy is engrained into us as Britain’s, his rebellious spirit embodying what we feel is everything good about our land. But what of the other stories?
Scratch the surface though, and they are there. Stories of faeries, both bad and good. Dragons lurk in many of our wooded areas watched over by a witch or two. Ghostly goings on and phantoms beast, yep, we have them! What about tales of royalty and curses? Tick those off. Creatures you might have never heard of such as hobs, they’re waiting to be found.
So, in short, the stories that have shaped our view of the world and of our forests, continue to do so, however, we have them on our doorstep. We must never forget the importance of our forests and woodlands and, by keeping the stories alive, we will ensure a continued love of forests for the next generation who, now more than ever, with technology becoming an increasingly big part of everyday life, will be the keepers of these magical places for many more years to come.
By Tom Phillips