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.