Into the Woods, 6: Wild Community
Myth & Moor update

Into the Woods, 7: The Dark Forest

Fur Feather Tooth and Nail by Arthur Rackham

"In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," writes Dante in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The path is hard to find and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards...but helpers, too, appear along the way: good fairies, wise elders, and animal guides, usually cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

The Dark Forest is not the merry greenwood of Robin Hood legends, or a Disney glade where dwarves whistle as they work, or a National Park with walkways and signposts and designated camping sites; it's the forest primeval, true wilderness, symbolic of the deep, dark levels of the psyche; it's the woods where giants will eat you and pick your bones clean, where muttering trees offer no safe shelter, where the faeries and troll folk are not benign. It's the woods you may never come back from.

The Faery Ring by Alan Lee

"The woods enclose," writes Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber. "You step between the fir trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up. There is no way through the wood anymore; this wood has reverted to its original privacy. Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again for there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety; grass grew over the tracks years ago and now the rabbits and foxes make their own runs in the subtle labyrinth and nobody comes.... "

"I stood in the wood," Patricia McKillip tells us in Winter Rose. "Now it was a grim and shadowy tangle of thick dark trees, dead vines, leafless branches that extended twig like fingers to point to the heartbeat of hooves. The buttermilk mare, eerily, eerily pale in that silent wood, galloped through the trees; Goblin Market by Arthur Rackhamtree boles turned toward it like faces. A woman in her wedding gown rode with a man in black; he held the reins with one hand and his smiling bride with the other. She wore lace from throat to heel; the roses in her chestnut hair glowed too bright a scarlet, mocking her bridal white…When they stopped, her expression began to change from a pleased, astonished smile, to confusion and growing terror. What twilight wood is this? she asked. What dead, forgotten place?"

The goblins of the glen, in Christina Rossetti 's great poem "Goblin Market," are thoroughly dangerous creatures. When young Laura buys but will not eat their fruit...

"Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Against her mouth to make her eat."

Goblin Market by Arthur Rackham

Chase of the White Mouse by John Anster Fitzgerald

Goblins by Brian Froud

To know the woods and to love the woods is to embrace it all, the light and the dark -- the sun dappled glens and the rank, damp hollows; beech trees and bluebells and also the deadly fungi and poison oak. The dark of the woods represents the moon side of life: traumas and trials, failures and secrets, illness and other calamities. The things that change us, temper us, shape us; that if we're not careful defeat or destroy us...but if we pass through that dark place bravely, stubbornly, wisely, turn us all into heroes. 

"The sense of secrets, silence, surprises, good and bad, is fundamental to forests and informs their literatures," notes Sara Maitland in Gossip from the Forest. "In fairy stories this is sometimes simple and direct: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods, and then suddenly they come upon the gingerbread house. Snow White runs in terror through the forest and suddenly stumbles upon the dwarves' cottage; characters spending scary nights in or under trees suddenly see a twinkling light -- and they make their laborious way towards it without having any idea what they will find when they arrive.....

"The forest is about concealment and appearances are not to be trusted. Things are not necessarily what they seem and can be dangerously deceptive. Snow White's murderous stepmother is truly the 'fairest of them all,' The wolf can disguise himself as a sweet old granny. The forest hides things; it does not open them out but closes them off. Trees hide the sunshine; and life goes on under the trees, in thickets and tanglewood. Forests are full of secrets and silences. It is not strange that the fairy stories that come out of the forest are stories about hidden identities, both good and bad."

The Gingerbread House by Trina Schart Hyman

The Queen's Pearl Necklace by John Bauer

Appearance deceive in the dark of the woods. You must beware of the helpful wolf by the path, of the beautiful woman who asks for a kiss, of the cozy little house with its door standing open, a meal on the table, and its owner nowhere in sight. No matter how tired you are, warns Lisel Mueller (in her poem "Voice from the Forest"), do not enter that house, do not eat the bread, do not drink the wine: "It is only when you finish eating and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes, that the ax falls or the giant returns or the monster springs or the witch locks the door from the outside and throws away the key."

But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman advises (in his poem "Instructions"), be courteous. And wary. "A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door, as a knocker, do not touch it; it will bite your fingers. Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing."

Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the faeries can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones.

The Lamb and the Serpent by Arthur Rackham

And yet, despite all the fairy tale warnings, sometimes we're compelled to run to the dark of the woods, away from all that is safe and familiar -- driven by desperation, perhaps, or the lure of danger, or the need for change. Young heroes stray from the safe, well-trodden path through foolishness or despair...but perhaps also by canny premeditation, knowing that venturing into the great unknown is how lives are tranformed. When Gretel walks into the woods, writes Andrea Hollander Budy (in her poem "Gretel," from The House Without a Dreamer) "she means to lose everything she is. She empties her dark pockets, dropping enough crumbs to feed all the men who have touched her or wished." In Ellen Steiber's "Silver and Gold," Red Riding Hood is asked to explain how she failed to distinguish her grandmother from a wolf. "It's complicated," she answers. "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the ones who love you and the ones who will eat you alive." But what she doesn't say is that if the wolf comes again, she will surely follow. Why? Carol Ann Duffy answers in her poem "Little Red-Cap" (from The World's Wife): "Here's why. Poetry. The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place lit by the light of owls." To the place of poetry and adventure. The place where the hard and perilous work of transformation begins.

Sara Maitland compares the transformational magic in fairy tales to the everyday magic that turns caterpillars into butterflies. "[S]omething very dreadful and frightening happens inside the chrysalis," she points out. "We use the word 'cocoon' now to mean a place of safety and escape, but in fact the caterpillar, having constructed its own grave, does not develop smoothly, growing wings onto its first body, but disintegrates entirely, breaking down into organic slime which then regenerates in a completely new form. It goes as a child into the dark place and is lost; it emerges as the princess, or proven hero. The forest is full of such magic, in reality and in the stories."

Little Red Riding Hood by Richard Hermann Eschke

The Briarwood by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

My husband, Howard Gayton, a theatre director, uses the term "the Dark Forest" to refer to the part of the art-making process when we've lost our way: when the creation of a story or a painting or a play reaches a crisis point...when the path disappears, the idea loses steam, the plot line tangles, the palette muddies, and there is no way, it seems, to move forward. This often occurs, interestingly enough, right before true magic happens: first the crisis, then a breakthrough, an unexpected solution, and the piece comes to life. In a journal he wrote some years ago, while creating a fairy tale play in Portugal, he noted:

Brian Froud"Today I arrived in the middle of the Dark Forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even our opening meditation today felt tired. The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and, as always, the forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps the performers are getting stuck and are unable to develop their parts. Perhaps it's that our storytelling has become flat, or that I'm neglecting some simple but crucial aspect of the directorial process. Or maybe it's all of these things....

"It's difficult to keep my original vision of the piece as I travel through the forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come to fruition. I know that I can't lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and one's own ability. I can't turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere.

'I'm reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I once took to Santiago de Compostela, biking alone across the Pyranees of France and Spain. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles. I couldn't turn back, I was too far along the path -- but if I didn't get to the monastery before sundown, I could lose my way in those cold, dark mountains, even die of exposure. It's a similar feeling that I have now: I'm exhausted, I don't know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on."

Troll in the Wood by John Bauer

So what should we do when we're in the Dark Forest, creatively or personally? Perservere. As Howard says, plough on. The gifts of the journey are worth the hardship, as writer & writing teacher Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew notes:

"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale, and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path. They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise. From now on, when you come upon darkness, you'll know it has dimension. You'll know how closely poppy seeds and dirt resemble each other. The forest will be just another story that has absorbed you, taken you through its paces, and cast you out again to your home with its rattling windows...."

And as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests (in Letters to a Young Poet):

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Including the bears and the beasties, the fungi and faeries, the wolves and witches hidden in the deep forest...and the frightening, spell-binding, life-changing stories to be found only in the dark of the woods.

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Art above: "Fur, Feather, Tooth and Nail" by Arthur Rackham, "The Faery Ring" by Alan Lee, two illustrations for Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" by Arthur Rackham, "Chase of the White Mouse" by John Anster Fitzgerald, "Goblins" by Brian Froud, "The Gingerbread House" by Trina Schart Hyman, "The Queen's Pearl Necklace" by John Bauer, "Hansel and Gretel" by Arthur Rackham, "The Lamb and the Serpent" by Arthur Rackham, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Richard Hermann Eschke, "The Briarwood" (from the Briar Rose series) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Through the Dark Forest" by Brian Froud, "Troll in the Wood" by John Bauer, and "She Kissed the Bear on the Nose" by John Bauer.


What a cornucopia of riches this morning. As I'm sure I've said before, Rackham and Baur are amongst my favourites, and now you've added Burne-Jones as well. Perfection!

And what a striking picture by Eschke; forgive my ignorance, but I'm ashamed to say I know nothing about this artist. Something I intend to put right as soon as poss.

What about adding a little Edmund Du Lac,- I think his colour range is wonderful - and a smidge of Ivan Bilibin for that exotic Russian spice?

I've just begun reading Jay Griffiths' 'Wild', which I'm finding an incredible read. But in reading about her experiences of using Ayahuasca among local shamans in the Amazon, it occurred to me that maybe the warning to never, EVER taste food offered by faeries, or witches, or the fair folk of forests, is a more recent inclusion in faery tales. A dire warning added in by Christianity perhaps, to frighten people away from experiencing what might have once been very deep, and sacred religious rites, held deep in the very wildest places that have always been beyond the reach of institutionalised religion. As Griffiths explains, the institutionalised Church has always been an urban, city-based, CIVILISED (in the original meaning of the word) religion, and the wild, nature, the indigenous people who live within wild wood and forest have always been seen as an Enemy that must be dragged out and clothed, tamed, put into schools, put to work, cultivated and conquered. The idea that people might be sneaking off into the deep woods to imbibe substances that might allow them to have visions of other beings, to experience some kind of communication with other life forces like plants or animals or rivers, or the stretching or bending of linear time, would have been considered utterly intolerable, something that had to be stamped out. And as Griffiths points out, the methods of modern missionaries in the Amazon use exactly those kind of scare tactics.

WELL NOW, now you've done it, honed down to it's essence in a way, defined through myth and tales the way of all things material--etherial transformation of matter is in the mind--and the mind creates the matter--and the matter makes the mind. I'm thinking that all the posts, and what ever more's to come of this 'Into The Woods' series, are chapters! You've just completed chapter six! "Plough on" brave and beautiful heroine, onward!

An interesting thought, Christina. My take on it: The fairy tale injunction against taking food from strangers is not an absolute one. There are times when there *is* safe shelter in the woods (that's what my next "into the Woods" post is about, in fact), and there are woodland palaces conjured by good fairies in which one can dine heartily without adverse affect. What the stories seem to want to teach us is not to shun the forest's gifts (magical and otherwise) entirely, but to be careful, and wary of appearances. Once we recognize that the hideous hag is a good fairy in disguise (in other words, that she has a good spirit and heart), then it's perfectly safe to take bread from her hands -- but that suave, handsome wolf? He's a trickster and a rogue, and it's the flesh of your own grandmother he's inviting you to eat.

This is true in life as well. An Ayahuasca ceremony in the proper setting, with an Amazonian shaman who will safely lead you through its dangers and into the place of insight and wonder, is no doubt an extraordinary experience. The same sacred medicine offered by some Anglo hippie wannabe shaman, on the other hand, is probably best avoided....

(That said, I'm also quite interested in the subject of sacred plants as they relate to folklore and spirit.)

There are actually surprisingly few forests in Dulac's paintings. (I have him scheduled for a post on a different topic.) Even Rackham doesn't often go deep into the woods. John Bauer, however, spends a lot of time there, bless him. And I'm using Bilibin in a post next week. Nielsen too. Among others.


'The Dark Forest' - the quote from Howard's journal about losing your way in the creation of a piece certainly struck a chord with me. It describes perfectly the place I am floundering about in at the moment as I try and finish a story with a deadline of next week - so today's thoughts could not be more timely. I will follow his advice and 'plough on'. Many thanks. I needed that.


Very true, perhaps the knowledge we have lost is that ability to tell the shaman from the charlatan, and we have been taught to fear them all. I agree totally with the last point, Terri. I'm a complete 'babe in the woods' when it comes to such experiences, but I do believe that in the right hands and right context, they can lead to great insight and healing...but there are few who have that kind of knowledge, to safely lead someone through a journey like that, certainly in the western world. And too many charlatans and 'gurus' who do not have the years of accumulated deep knowledge passed down but are quite willing to set themselves up as experts and make money from it.


“Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.”
--Neil Gaiman from the poem “Instructions”

This is the forest house ripe for burgling.
You fiddle the lock, brush a side table,
open a closet ripe with body smells.
There is a bowl on the marble counter
filled with apples green and red and gold.
You wash one with drips from the faucet,
watch as the water swirls down the drain.

The lock spills your secrets, side table leaves
a nail in your skirt, closet breathes on you,
apple core holds your dental records,
water needs to run over twenty-one stones
before it is once again pure.

Exhausted you sleep. Bears growl over you,
witch hides the cage key in her bosom,
wolf strips the seam-burst nightgown
from his hairy shoulders, the blue line
of fairy arrests you, puts you in jail.

The DNA of the story is your own.
You never had the chance of escape.
Even as you read it, it tells your tale.
Weeping red tears, you confess it all,
the transgress in the forest,
that dark migration of the soul,
the words on the page brilliant
with your own heart’s blood
and ours.

©2013 Jane Yolen, all rights reserved

This made me laugh out loud with pure pleasure.

One of my favorite themes!

Sounds wonderful. Looking forward to them all.

I'm so glad you mentioned you'd be coming onto the sanctuary elements of woods and forests, as that was my first thought on reading this series.
Sometimes the monsters in the forest are less scary than the monsters at home, and the glades are open spaces where you cannot hide, and are at risk of being seen when you want to stay out of sight.
Recently I had a similar experience to that of your husband's "Dark Forest", of reaching the point in a project where I felt lost. Before, when I'd reached that point in a writing project, I thought it was because I'd got bored. Knowing that I was just lost, and needed to check my bearings, made it easier.
But on reading this post I also realised that the point where you're "lost" is actually the point where the direction changes.
There's only so far you can enter any forest, however large it may be, before you reach a point where you're heading out of the forest again. And that mid-point is a transition, from entering the woods, to leaving. It's natural we should feel a little lost at that stage.
It's akin more to the movement of the sea, the pause when the tide turns; or the highest point of a swing, when we're momentarily weightless, and the thrill of that sensation is tempered with the fear that nothing is holding us up, or down, or safe. (I wonder how astronauts cope?)
I am enjoying this series very much, Terri. Thank you!

As someone else said, so much richness here. I have bookmarked it for re-reading. I would add, some of us love the dark forest. The wild nocturnal poetry of the place. For some folk, the trick is emerging from that forest to calm, sensible, hardworking, proper-lit normality. :-)

This is quite a post... I loved reading Howard's journal entry. I know that place so well. In fact, I've come to realize that since I often have months of solid work, then a break of some sort because of other work, I am continually faced with the quest to find my way back into the work. I am continually overcoming anxiety about it by just "ploughing on." As my work has now become about the mystery in the deep, dark forest, I need to find myself in my process again by losing myself in the deep forest - love that!

So many riches in this post. You've introduced me to a few forest painters that will be good for me to look at.

Yes indeed, that's what the next post is about. I wanted to look at the fearsome/dangerous fairy tale forest first, but forest sanctuary, the wild man/wild woman archetype, and "return from the woods" are topics I'll cover, promise!

(Though these being blog posts and quote collections rather than proper essays, I'm really just skimming over the surface of these subjects, and leaving so much out. Too much....)

I know many artists who love the woods, but few who live in a forest as you do. It gives your work such grace and power.

Your Thresholds are lovely.

Lee, you say "There's only so far you can enter any forest, however large it may be, before you reach a point where you're heading out of the forest again" -- and that's a very interesting point.

I'm wondering now if there's any difference in the way one views forests depending on whether one is from North American (or Australia or New Zealand) or the UK? The British Isles being so very small, forests here, too, though thoroughly magical, are quite small by comparison to the vast tracks of forest wilderness to found in North America. The idea of getting lost in a forest and *never* making it out again is a genuine possibility in parts of the American and Canadian wild, especially in the West.

Some areas of the UK are wilder than others, to be sure, (the Scottish Highlands, the mountains of Wales, etc.), but there's nothing remotely on the scale of North American wilderness, which could swallow up the whole of the UK within its trees.

As an American living in Devon, I'm still not entirely used to the miniature scale of the (wildly beautiful) landscape here. People refer to Dartmoor as a wilderness (and I certainly wouldn't want to get lost out there on a misty night), but coming from Arizona, the idea of a wilderness area that you can drive across in 20 minutes is a peculiar one....

I love what you say about the mid-point transition stage. It's so very true!

Which suddenly makes me wonder...what is the etymology of the word 'threshold'...I'll have to go and look it up now!

Australian forests are not as vast as those of Canada or the US, but definitely still large enough to wander into and never be seen again. In fact, just recently down south there have been a couple of cases. There is also the vast desert here too, and as you say about Arizona, it seems strange to think of a patch of wilderness you can drive across in 20 minutes. The Australian bush has definitely had that terrifying, alien aspect for colonialists who settled here, and there is quite a lot of folklore, stories, anecdotes, paintings and even movies, about the fear parents had (and still have) of losing their children in it. And yet, they faced these fears. My hubby has been on a couple long trailbike rides in the last couple of years, heading right out into the desert beyond Kalgoorlie, and he told me of his amazement at discovering that a small 2 room shack literally out the back of beyond (over 300kms from the nearest town) that is now a tourist stay-over, was once the home of a family with three children, whose only transport was probably a horse and cart. I cannot begin to imagine living so far from medical help with small children.

A couple of links about the European settlers and their feelings about 'the bush'.
(includes one of Fred McCubbin's paintings of lost children)

Fred McCubbin's most famous painting of a lost child

Info about the exquisite film, 'One Night the Moon', about a child who wanders off into the bush one night.

And this is the link to the whole movie

Thanks, Terri. I feel a deeper kind of integration happening for me. After 10 years living here, my work, my spiritual life and the medicine of the forest are finally integrated.

getting lost in the deep... at the book launch last year of "The Essential Leunig" Michael charmed the audience with his quiet voice speaking about the nature of creativity, the importance of ducks and the need to get lost with each cartoon…
here’s a few scribbled notes from the talk-
to lose it and get all moody and infantile and deep down lost… the cartoon comes out of the lostness when a strange thing happens & it doesn’t matter anymore because it’s gone so very wrong and awry that he might as well enjoy himself as the ship goes down… that’s when he starts playing recklessly making those unexpected connections that keep his work so real and true and straight from the heart!
Michael's cartoons have helped me understand the world for over 40 years now, he is a national treasure here in the Land Down Under.

oh and about eating or drinking those offerings found in the dark places. Alice would never have fit through the door into Wonderland if she hadn't eaten the cake & where would we be without her tale? why we would never have discovered The Frumious Bandersnatch and our world would be much poorer without it!
NB But I am just an old hippie who comes from a different more innocent time & place when we could trust strangers with interesting candy!

I tried to articulate further, deeper, my feeling ... my love of the dark forest ... here -

That's just wonderful, Sarah!

You're right about the scale of forests in the UK. In northern Europe the borders cross between Norway, Sweden and Finland in the depths of snowy forests, and wolves still pass from one country to another, heading for Russian wastes (or more likely, Sami reindeer herds).
I spent the first twenty years of my life in Scotland, in various places, and my memories of forests range from the small woods at the back of my childhood home (a mixed deciduous treasure trove of deer-paths and little streams and an old walled garden by a ruined house) to the conifer plantations of the Highlands (tangled and truly impenetrable with the land underneath deeply furrowed, hard to traverse). But always with an edge, even if that edge is the sea at the bottom or the blanket bog draped over the mountains at the top.
And Dartmoor is dinky. I've visited it a couple of times and it reminds me of Scotland, but so much more domesticated. Robert Louis Stevenson describes the wastes of Scotland perfectly in "Kidnapped!" -
"...that country lying as waste as the sea; only the moorfowl and the pewees crying upon it... red with heather; much of the rest broken up with bogs and hags and peaty pools; some had been burnt black in a heath fire; and in another place there was quite a forest of dead firs, standing like skeletons..."

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