On the Symbolic Meaning of Forestry

Or, I go a little New Critic for an evening…

So that’s a weird title. OK, I try to come up with weird titles all the time here, but that one just sounds odd. Maybe a little pretentious? I dunno. Basically, personal background info here, I’m back home after a long time away, and if you didn’t already know, my family lives in the middle of nowhere, in Appalachia. So basically I live in the woods. Not really – there are people around here who genuinely do live in the fucking woods – as in, their front yard is full of fucking trees and bushes. But compared to the places I’ve lived and worked, yeah, woods. And it got me to thinking about the woods as a setting for fantasy and horror – and let’s talk about fantasy here. Horror’s pretty obvious and probably it’s been done to death.

I’ve talked about the sympathetic nature of fantasy before – I mean that thing where nature itself is sympathetic to the events, mood, and characters in a story. That doesn’t mean nature cares about the characters, but that it’s in sync. So when bad things happen on “a dark and stormy night” nature is sympathetic – it is affected by a narrative. This stuff got so common in thrillers that there was a backlash: if you look very carefully at bad things in thrillers nowadays, they all happen in stark daylight, and carefully so. Look to the first bombing of the new Star Trek movie for what I mean. It’s a cheery middle of the day, people are going to work, light is spilling everywhere except Benedict Cumberbatch’s enormous coat. Then explosion.

Well, the woods provide a good setting for that, right? Also, fantasy as a second-world genre tends to be pretty pastoral – though of course there’s Fritz Leiber’s tradition of the wonderfully strange fantasy city to counteract that. But that isn’t what most of the appeal comes from, I don’t think.

If you think about the woods, they are, in themselves, a secondary world. By their nature (ha ha, I’m very funny tonight) they encapsulate life and worlds. Ecosystems are generally illustrated, in high school classrooms across the world, by some woods, some fields, and a river or a lake, right? Or did my teacher have the only one of those posters in existence? (Hint: no she didn’t) So when you go into a wood you are going into another world, just as you are when you dive into the ocean. Both have lifeforms different from you, both hide more than they show, so they both seem like natural settings for fantasy. And of course you can breathe in the woods, so it has one advantage over under-the-sea themed novels right there, right?

But it’s, of course, more than that, too. The ocean hides everything under a sheet, under its surface. The woods are all surface, there are layers under layers but each one has a kind of striation. There’s the ground, then the trees, then the treetops, and under you the undergrowth, the fallen leaves, the air beneath those, and the ground, which has layers of rock and soil and bugs. The woods have doors, or at least archways to pass through. It’s as though you’ve gone into a place, not just a world where animals live that could bite your leg off. No, they could bite your leg off and use it to make a house. It’s kind of like Narnia. A horrible, bloodthirsty Narnia that would just as soon kill you as give you candy. Animals have their own dens and caves and such, and don’t carry a shell around on their backs. We ran into that one a while back when I talked about Blackwood and his tree stories – they have their own home and their own life, separate from ours. Perfect place to put elves, who have their own homes and their own lives, separate from ours.

This is all in support, to some degree, of the sympathetic nature idea above. It’s easier for the reader to sense that sympathy if nature isn’t fucking nuts, with ancient fish and sharks and shit everywhere. But forests also change, and that’s probably the big thing I’m feeling my way toward. Fantasy novels are about change, usually personal and often world-wide. People are changed by their experiences, like any number of “sent to another world from here” protagonists who return to our world better able to deal with the problems that overwhelmed them before (think Joe of Joe the Barbarian or Hitomi of Escaflowne). Forests are the emblems, in nature, of safe but drastic change, because of tree foliage. It’s a simple visual symbol for one of the core ideas of the entire genre, so it makes sense that the genre and the visual image / setting would be tied together in the way they have been. And, along with that post I did bitching about video game critics (always safe, right?), that’s my entry into a dialogue we could call “yes, innovation is good, but just remember some of this stuff is good for a reason).


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