Trees in Fantasy – Part Three: Trees as Setting
So far in our exploration of trees in fantasy we have looked at trees as both symbolism and characters across a range of mythic and modern fantasy tales. We discovered in part two that, while tree-ish characters are common residents of fantasy worlds, they are especially significant when also considered in their roles as symbols and settings. Because of the nature of trees, and the meanings that have been associated with them throughout history, it is difficult to separate these different elements of their roles in fantasy tales.
As we come to the final part of our journey through the woods to discuss trees as settings in the fantasy genre, it becomes clear that forests in this type of fiction are far more than just backdrops to fantastical stories, but instead take on a life of their own in a more powerful depiction of the link between magic and nature.
In any type of story, setting is significant to the plot. It provides context for the characters’ personalities and decisions – as seen in the warrior society of Berk in How to Train your Dragon – but also holds all the external elements of the storyline that provoke those characters to action – evidenced by the existence of dragons in Middle Earth, which presents the opportunity for Bilbo’s grand adventure in The Hobbit.
In fantasy, as can be seen from these examples, setting is even more important because the magical elements of the tales, which define the genre, often occur as part of the natural world. Forests therefore, depicted as the very essence of nature throughout religion and mythology, are the most enchanting of fantasy settings. From Little Red Riding Hood’s wooded walk, to Hogwarts’ Forbidden Forest, via the Hundred Acre Wood, they are full of hidden possibilities and charming new friends or infested with prowling enemies, perilous magic and impending natural disaster.
As homes to enchanted creatures, woods and forests often take on a bewitching atmosphere whether their trees have sentient qualities or not. Canopies infected by dark powers, such as the sickness of Middle Earth’s Greenwood, are haunted places where the air itself feels thick with danger, whereas species with activist views towards natural preservation such as wood-nymphs, elves and, of course, ents, project a feeling of natural power onto their trees, which is perhaps no less dangerous. Glades of pleasure, rest and healing, such as the forest kingdom of Lothlorien in Middle Earth or Felurian’s home in the realm of the fae in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, are created by wise and ancient creatures, and man-made dwellings in the woods utilise the industrial power of nature, as can be seen in the tree-top homes depicted in tales of Robin Hood, or the community of Kuldahar in Icewind Dale, which dwells beneath a magical tree that radiates heat.
Tree-ish settings also provoke the development of tree-ish cultures. The vast amount of woodland that existed in older ages of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros meant that in the history of that civilisation, people built pagan religious rituals around the presence of the heart trees, and the site of the sword tree in Ademre has encouraged a culture of spiritual martial arts in The Wise Man’s Fear.
Although woods of fantasy worlds are teeming with unicorns, giant spiders and thorn elementals, the hero of the story rarely hails from an enchanted forest themselves but has to journey through as part of a wider quest. Harry Potter is forced to face detention amidst the boughs of the Forbidden Forest, Hermia and Lysander escape to the forest outside Athens to elope in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in their local woods with little hope of finding their way home.
Wooded settings are particularly prevalent in the Western fairy tales of the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. In Europe’s earlier history, where the tales originated, much of the continent was covered by forests so we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by this common element. However, when considering the sometimes sinister phrases “into the woods” and “we’re not out of the woods yet”, the fairy tale trope takes on a new meaning.
British dramatist John Yorke’s book, Into the Woods, explores the question of why people tell stories by dissecting one common story structure motif – “the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within”. According to Yorke, all stories – be they novels, films or plays – utilise this structure as a means of complete and satisfying character development. In order to become whole we must make a dangerous journey into the heart of the unknown and bring back the part that was missing.
The interpretation of this journey in both fairy tales and more modern fantasy stories implies that trees as settings are more than simply a naturalistic backdrop to an epic adventure, but instead represent the tangled and unknown depths of the human psyche; a natural force that characters must conquer, or else perish in the attempt. This quest can take the form of literal journeys into the woods, such as Little Red Riding Hood’s journey to her grandmother’s, or otherwise explore the idea through metaphor, allegory and symbolism.
The Ice Garden in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a key setting within the story that is presented as a physical embodiment of the love between the two central characters. Trees and plants are living things that are able to grow and evolve in the same way as Celia and Marco’s feelings. However, due to the constraints of their situation, their love is frozen in place. The icy garden – beautiful but still – represents the stasis of their relationship and therefore the “life-giving secret” that Yorke suggests they need to uncover to become whole.
Gardens and areas of natural beauty are a commonly seen goal for fantasy heroes. From Eden to Alice in Wonderland, reaching an idyllic new land – like the journey of the Manth people to find their true homeland in William Nicholson’s Firesong – or returning home to a bounteous and beautiful one, as Odysseus and Bilbo did, is the ultimate happy ending. In this way, nature is nearly always a sign of goodness in the world, which brings us full circle to the first part of this series; trees as symbolism in fantasy literature.
Lucy pushes through the coats in the eponymous wardrobe to find herself in the snowy woods of Narnia; Jo, Bessie and Fanny hear the mysterious whisperings of the enchanted wood; Hansel and Gretel realise their trail of breadcrumbs has disappeared. All these moments present the reader with a particular kind of suspense, rooted in wild magic and primal instincts; the feeling that, for good or ill, something magical is about to happen.