Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Woods between Worlds

This is the first post in what I hope to be a series of short articles relating to forests and fairy tales, inspired by Sara Maitland's writing in Gossip from the Forest. In this post I look at the links between the 'casual magic' of the forests and their setting as a place of transition for characters in and beyond fairy tales.


Woods between Worlds: Magic and Transition in the Fairy Tale Forest

There is magic between the pages of fairy stories. We can't always see it, but it's there. This magic will often be found and felt amongst knotted trunks and snaking branches, between the barriers formed by tangled undergrowth and a dense, leafy canopy. It will be practised by plants, animals and people (mostly old people) but never, on any account, will it be sought for or used by you.

'Magic is something you are given, something that is done to you or around you,' Maitland explains in Gossip from the Forest (1). Have you ever set foot within the boundaries of a forest and felt a change in atmosphere? You cannot walk into a forest and look for magic, but the knowledge that there is magic there, and that it might cross your path, definitely gives the forest an atmosphere unlike any other natural place, heightened by the fact that you are on alert for its sudden, random appearance. It could happen to anyone, any time:
I know of no other cultural tradition that treats magic in this odd casual way. I believe it is a distinct forest magic that grew out of the experience of living in woods, where you cannot see far ahead and where things change abruptly. (2)
This casual magic does seem to have one rule, however:
The magic comes to them, without solicitation or endeavour. It is usually in the form of assistance, not solution: they have to use the magical gifts they are given, and they have to continue to work or suffer or both. (3)
If magic was the goal, the forest would be the destination. But magic finds you in the forest: you enter seeking your fortune, escaping abuse, looking to prove yourself, and you leave armed with the power to achieve your goal. The casual magic of the forest is linked to the transition of the character's ability or status, an emotional or physical turning point in their journey; and this role of the forest is one that has lingered in literature, beyond the realms of traditional fairy stories.
In C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe and find themselves in the woods. It contains magical creatures (here we meet the faun, Mr Tumnus) but also a familiar item from their own world: the lamp post. The imagery provided by this infiltration from their world highlights the transitional nature of the woods. When Lucy and Edmund spend time alone in Narnia they do not wander far, but Lucy's time alone in particular empowers her and provides her with enough understanding of the creatures and rules of the land to motivate the others to keep travelling onward on their quest.

Lewis also created 'the wood between the worlds' in The Magicians's Nephew. It is, as its name suggests, the place Diggory and Polly appear when they leave their own world, containing the access points to other worlds. It has a peculiar effect on the children, who find it hard to hold on to memories of who they are and where they are from. Diggory claims, 'It's not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that's all.' (4) This, I believe, is a common misconception of forests in our post-industrial world. I could take a guess and say that Lewis was commenting on the way we use our forests now, no longer for our livelihoods but for occasional days out...but, really, in the context of the book nothing needs to happen there: it is just a transitional place containing magical portals to access other worlds.
Tolkien's Middle-Earth universe does not see characters travel between worlds, but immerses the reader in an alternate universe that still uses the forest as a magical, transitional space. Immediately upon leaving the Shire, as they flee the black riders, the four hobbits find themselves in the Old Forest, marking the end of normality and familiarity and the start of one of the most epic adventures in literature. Hobbits believe the Old Forest to contain trees that are 'awake', and later on Merry and Pippin come into contact with the Ents (tree-herders) when they find themselves in Fangorn Forest. This, again, marks a change in status for the two hobbits, from danger to safety, and from an old mission to a new one.

I could go on (5). There are forests in all types of literature, for all ages, all showing the impact the fairy tale forest has had on them. This is also abundantly clear in Disney films, even though they have moved away from the traditional stories. In
 'The Princess and The Frog,' (6) Tiana and Naveen find themselves in a foresty bayou where they must face up to their personality flaws and learn to co-operate (as well as find a good witch); and Carl and Russell from 'Up' make an early stop in their balloon adventure in the jungle, where they better learn how to get along and meet other magical members of their group. 

One of the points Maitland wanted to make in her book was that forests and fairy tales grow and evolve together. Our world has changed dramatically over the years, and even though we are not getting out into these legendary places of mischief and magic like we used to, and even though there are factions trying to tell us fairy tales are bad, the legacy of fairy tales and forests continues to inform our lives, whether it is through films, books, music, or even just a vague feeling that causes a shiver down our spines when we walk through the trees. I think the clue is in the first line of every story: once upon a time. Once upon a time there were fairy stories and forests. There were, there are, and there will always be movement, change and magic in the world.

Related Posts:
When Fantasy Left the Forest
Exploring the Forest

(1) Maitland, Sara, Gossip from the Forest, (London: Granta, 2012), 157.
(2) Maitland, 158.
(3) Maitland, 157-8.
(4) Quotes sourced from ePubBud as I don't have my copy of the book to hand. Unfortunately this means a lack of page numbers, but the quoted text is from chapter 3.
(5) I considered all the transitional and magical elements of Harry Potter's various trips into the Forbidden Forest each year, but something about it wasn't quite right...I then realised it was because there was a broken rule: Harry Potter had his own magic, and sought magical knowledge. Despite the forest being used for various transitional purposes, the magic was not casual.
(6) Although you could try and draw a parallel between the classic fairy tale, I find the Disney film to bear very little resemblance. However, Tiana's violent dislike for Naveen does recall my preferred ending to the story, where the frog is turned into a prince through being hurled against a wall by the princess, rather than from a kiss. 


  1. I picked up Gossip from the Forrest and even though I've only read the first chapter, I really like it. As someone who grew up in San Diego, CA and has now lived in San Francisco for the past 6 years, I have very (almost no) relationship to forests. I don't think this means I don't have a connection to nature, but I can really appreciate how much natural landscapes can influence a society and their literature. I think about some of the pictures I've seen of Ireland and think 'OF COURSE the Sidhe live here'. And when I went to Delphi I thought 'how COULDN'T the gods call this home?'

    I like your thoughts on the Woods Between the Worlds, especially on the simplicity and tranquility of the forest and nature in general. Do you remember if the Wood is Aslan's or not? If I remember correctly, it isn't his wood, but something larger than him. In any case, it's very significant that it is a wood.
    As for Harry Potter and the forest, great point about him having magic already (though I think it's important to remember that the wands in Harry Potter are made of wild trees and beasts- I might do a post about this soon :) ) Have you read this?


    Needless to say, I really enjoyed this post!

    1. When I lived in London the only access to nature I had was in tame, man-made places, like parks. But I wouldn't have said I was disconnected either, only that since moving to the coast and being able to get into proper countryside more easily, I feel more connected than before and personally feel all the better for it (I'm doing a post soon where I'll talk a bit about 'nature deficit disorder' - it actually exists!!)

      You're right about the creatures/gods matching the landscapes, when you see things in context it makes loads of sense! Maitland picks up on this at some point to explain how in landscapes like Britain's the fact that you have such variation means wide variation in gods, hence worshipping many; but for the people wondering the desert they needed one huge god to make sense of it all.

      I think you're right that the woods don't belong to Aslan but I can't honestly remember! I need to read that series again~

      Ooh, you should do a post about that! That's really interesting - I suppose another way of calling forest magic 'casual' is 'wild', and by making a wand out of something wild the wizards are exerting their will over it, allowing their control to dominate the magic which exists in the channeling instrument...or something. I'm not entirely sure that sentence makes sense. But wands must have their own power because a wizards magic is enhanced when they use it...I think? I don't really remember, you're the expert, I shall await your enlightening post!!

      There are websites with articles on Harry Potter?! Wow. I look forward to reading!

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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