Lovely, Dark and Deep (Part 3)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura . . .

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I 1-2

 Gustav Doré, Dante in the Dark Wood (1866)


Gustav Doré, Dante in the Dark Wood (1866)

“Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol of the soul entering the perils of the unknown,” writes J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. The forest is “the realm of death, of the secrets of nature or the spiritual world. . . .” In many folk tales, legends, and survival stories, the “[r]etreat into the forest is symbolic [of] death before initiatory rebirth.” [1]  Consistent with this view, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim viewed wooded environments as representing the inner realms of the mind. “Since ancient times,” he wrote, “the near impenetrable forest . . . has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. [When] we succeed in finding our way out, we . . . emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.”woz [2]  Stories about entering dark woods and struggling with strange experiences range from fairy tales (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Vasilisa the Beautiful”) to children’s books (Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and George MacDonald’s Phastastes) to classical
drama (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to musical theater (Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods) to canonic poems as varied as Dante’s Inferno and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

 Sir Joseph Noel Patton: "The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania" (1849) - National Gallery of Scotland


Sir Joseph Noel Patton: “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1849) –
National Gallery of Scotland

Why are forest images so common in myths, literature, and dreams—and what accounts for all the dark symbolism? Robert Pogue Harrison, writing in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a scholarly exploration of forests in Western thought and imagination, states that most inhabited lands throughout the West were more or less densely forested in the past. Western culture literally cleared its space in the midst of wooded places. The dark, tree facedensely vegetated areas thus defined the limits of civilization—the line between the Known and the Unknown, between In Here and Beyond. Pogue writes that the forest has tended to represent “an outlying realm of opacity which has allowed . . . civilization to estrange itself, enchant itself, terrify itself . . . in short, to project into the forest shadows its secrets and innermost anxieties.” In particular, Christian traditions have tended to view forests as symbolic of the Other. “The Christian Church . . . was essentially hostile toward this impassive frontier of unhumanized nature. Symbolically, forests represented the anarchy of matter itself; culturally, they were the last strongholds of Pagan worship. The darkness of forests—full of dangerous beasts both real and imagined—stood in opposition to the light of divinity cast from above.” Harrison notes that “Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with the cosmic infinity, or with ‘heaven,’ the forests became monstrous.” [3]

Yet wooded landscapes retain intense psychic power in positive ways. They are places that present us not only with shadows but with light as well. It’s hardly accidental that millions of people seek woodlands as sources of exhilaration, solace, emotional sustenance, and spiritual regeneration. Countless hikers, trekkers, and campers feel drawn to forests out of delight, not dread. Edith and I do, certainly—an experience made easier by the bizarre good fortune of having our own little wedge of woods below the meadow on Hyland Hill.

hillside #2

*   *   *

Notes

[1]  J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London and New York:  Thames & Hudson, 1987.

[2]  Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1975; Vintage Books, 2010.

[3]  Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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