Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fearing the Forest

Are humans afraid of trees? It seems like a silly question. Trees are alive, sure, but they can’t move quickly. They can’t attack us. Of course, they can fall on us, but then we should be more afraid of gravity than we are of trees. I imagine if I polled people on the streets and asked them if they were afraid of trees, I would receive a rather resounding no. In fact, I think we as humans are quite fond of trees. Look at Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahontas or the eponymous character in The Giving Tree. Look at the Truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. These trees, even the ones that are non-anthropomorphic are nurturing; they are providers. And this is reflective of what trees are in reality. Trees bear fruit; they provide oxygen; they give shade. As children, these trees can be climbed and they can hold swings. As we grow older, trees provide lumber for homes and furniture. Trees are truly useful. Humans like trees.
 But I do think we are afraid of forests! And Tolkien recognizes this. In fact, many authors recognize this. Just think of all the times that forests have been used for a foreboding setting in literature and cinema. A dark and scary forest has been the setting (at least partially) for fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, horror movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Friday the Thirteenth, and fantasies like The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. For forests to set the mood for spooky scenes, there must be something that humans find spooky about forests themselves. There must be something that makes us scared of them that makes them so applicable for when writers wish to evoke an emotion of fear or unease. So what is it?
Part of the reason we fear forests is the same reason we like trees. They provide shade. When it’s just a single tree or even a few trees, the shade is soothing. When it’s a forest full of trees, it’s no longer shade; it’s darkness. In the daytime, it isn’t too terrible. Sunlight still peaks through. You can navigate the forest and wander in the beauty of nature. But as the sun begins to set, the forest becomes dark. The moonlight and starlight can’t permeate the branches and leaves. It’s harder to see where you are going. Fallen branches and roots coming up from the ground become very easy ways to injure yourself.  Wild animals could be lurking in the darkness just behind the next tree. In the darkness, you miss the path you were supposed to take and get lost in the forest. It’s this darkness that makes them such good settings for horror movies. It allows the murderer to be just beyond the next tree. It forces the victim to fall down, making them easier prey. It keeps the victim from knowing which way safety is. The darkness of the forest weakens humans and makes them more susceptible to harm.
                Forests also make it easy for people to get lost. The trees all look very similar, so it’s easy to get turned around and walking in circles without realizing it. Trees are also tall and obstruct our view. Walking through a field, you can see that landmark that you know means you’re going in the right direction. In a forest, not so much. This is the reason that forests are often used as setting in fairy tales. Both tales warn children (and any listener) of the danger of the forest and the importance of not getting lost in a forest. These were very real concerns when these stories were initially told.*
                The final reason that forests scare us and also the reason they fit so easily in fantastical settings is because forests are alive. This may sound like a stretch, but let me continue. I do not mean to suggest that they are alive in the sense that the apple-throwing trees in The Wizard of Oz are alive. But forests do grow and change. A forest you know very well as a child will be a very different forest when you revisit it as an adult. Trees that were once there will have fallen down, new trees will replace them. Saplings grow into towering trees. Beyond this very real way in which forests are alive, they can also create a perception of being alive. Just think of the sounds of a forest. Is it the wind blowing through the leaves or is someone approaching you? The bird that fluttered overhead and the animal that snaps a twig, are these the sounds of friends or foes? These are sounds of the forest. So even though the forest isn’t making them, we attribute them to the forest. We fear their physical growth because it takes what is familiar and makes it unfamiliar to us. We fear the noises of the forest because it preys upon our fear of the unknown. Authors of fantastical works and myths recognize this about forests. They see that forests are very much alive, and they use that. They make their forests literally alive.
The living status of a forest is particular true in Tolkien’s works. And while the Ents are a part of this, I’m not simply talking about the Ents. For Tolkien, the forests themselves are alive. They have feelings. They perceive the world around them. They have likes and dislikes. But for Tolkien not all forests are scary and this is true for all forests. Though it is clear that we fear some forests, I will be the first to admit that we don’t fear all forests. Think of the Hundred-Acre Wood from Winnie the Pooh. Think of James Cameron’s Avatar, or Fern Gully, or Sherwood Forest. These are happy forests. So what’s different? Well, Tolkien would say they are happy forests because they are cared for. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the forests are alive. As I said, for Tolkien, forests have likes and dislikes and feelings. A forest that is well cared for, lived in, and loved, Lothlorien for example, recognizes that it is loved and it will respond just like any loved living thing. A forest that is neglected, threatened, and feared, the Old Forest for example, responds just as any creature that is neglected and threatened. It becomes wild and angry. It becomes vengeful even.
So is this true with real forests? Is that why they are scary? Is it because they are threatened by our hacking axes, neglected by our disregard for nature, saddened by our innate fear of them? Maybe. Maybe Tolkien was onto something. After all, forests become a lot less scary once you get to know them.

* I suppose they still are real concerns today, but I’ve always lived in a city.

-N. Lurquin


  1. Like you, I've always lived in a suburban or urban area. Like many city-slickers, I found the forest daunting, and even scary at night. However, after spending a few days in the woods, I immediately acclimated to my surroundings. While the forest is dark, eventually, your eyes adjust. We see this throughout Tolkien's works. Merry and Pippin find Fangorn not to be a place of darkness and fear, but of growth and nourishment (the entwater literally makes them grow).

    So, I agree with you in that regard; the forests are misunderstood, not evil. But, we do see some legitatmately bad forests in Middle Earth. Take, for example, Mirkwood. However, we must remember the evil in Mirkwood is from an outside source. So, while the darkness in forests is not inherently dangerous, it can hide some malevolent creatures: spiders, necromancers, or outside of middle earth, beasts and poisonous plants.


  2. I can't think about menacing trees without thinking of the wonderfully scary Blackwood story "The Willows."

    That aside, I think it's interesting how the two of the features you single out that make trees terrifying, their darkness and their life, are two reasons that, as you point to, we life them in the first place. I wonder if there's more to that, especially with regard to life. There's certainly some distinction between what we might imagine as a "good" forest, bursting with life and light, and the foul, dank fecundity of a swampey, evil forest. Is this a case of perversion? You note that the evil in the Mirkwood enters from outside, warping the forest like a corrupting agent, so perhaps. But then what to do with Old Man Willow and the Old Forest? I think this points to another factor that you overlooked in why forests are menacing, age. What is it about this interaction of age, darkness, and life that can result in the evil of the Mirkwood and the wonder of Lothlorien? And what can it tell us about the nature of evil and good, the nature of things, in Tolkien's legendarium?

  3. You make an interesting claim that humans like trees but are afraid of forests, and that Tolkien recognizes this. Yet, perhaps some humans may also be afraid of trees, and not just afraid but disdainful. In his letter to Jane Neave, Tolkien shares a personal story of a beautiful majestic poplar tree outside his window that he loved but his “foolish neighbor” hated (Letter 241). She was afraid that it would crash on her house in the case of high wind (though the tree was a considerable distance away from her house) and she also claimed that it blocked her house and garden from the enjoying the sun (though in reality it only cast a shadow very early in the morning). Because of this, his neighbor agitated to agitated to have the tree chopped down. Tolkien then concludes, “Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.”

    Extending from a tree to a forest, while I take your point that we fear forests, I think that the more pertinent problem at hand is that we do not care enough for trees and forests. It is not fear that causes us to chop down trees and ravage through them. We are the enemies of trees not out of fear, but rather a lack of love and care. Saruman and his followers were not afraid of Fangorn forest, rather they merely “did not care for living things” and cut these trees out of cruel mischief or otherwise fell them in order to achieve their own Machine-loving ends i.e. to feed the fire of Orthanc. In Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”, a painter by the named of Niggle is painting a beautiful tree, yet an inspector comes into the house and demands that he uses his canvas, wood and waterproof paint to help his neighbor with his house. When he protests, he is told that, “House comes first. That is the law” (Tolkien Reader, 107).

    Hence, while humans may have a certain fear of forests, but I do think forests have more to be afraid of us than us of them.

    G Zhang

  4. I appreciate your proposal that humans are afraid of forests, and not of trees. From a biological standpoint this works rather well, as humans first evolved in a savannah/grassland environment, and forests would have initially been dangerous.
    You conclude that a loved forest will respond like a loved living thing, and a neglected forest will respond as you would expect. The ents care for their forests, yet Fangorn still appears hostile to many of the characters. Is this because it is the ents caring for the forest rather than humans or elves?
    I would like to know what you think of Mirkwood, Old Man WIllow and the Huorns, which represent real reasons to fear a forest. Old Man Willow could be the result of neglecting the forest, but the Hurons and Mirkwood can't.

    Chloe B

  5. I would assert, I think agreeing with you, that forests are scary if they are unknown, for what we fear is the unknown. Traditional fears (death, the dark, uncertainty, strangers, etc.) all come down to a fear of what we do not know, so it naturally follows that unknown forests would be fearsome (in the vein of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.), whereas familiar forests are welcoming places of comfort (in the vein of the Hundred Acre Wood). We see this trope clearly being followed in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his friends fear not the woods near the Shire where they like to take walks and know well, but find fear in unknown parts (like where Old Man Willow dwells), and rightfully so. Fangorn forest is originally fearsome to Merry and Pippin, knowing not what they will find, but once they know what they’ll find, Ents, and befriend them, it becomes a place of comfort rather than fear. The Fellowship at first is afraid in Lórien, but once they find who dwells in it, the elves, and befriend them, it becomes another place where they are comfortable. Mirkwood in The Hobbit and the appendices we learn is a fearful place, both to the Dwarves who fear Elves and generally everyone (White Council etc.) afraid of the “shadow” that is at Dol Guldur, but once it is known to be Sauron it is driven from there, and Mirkwood once again becomes a safe space.

    SB Chhabra