"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 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; tree 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."
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."
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.
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."
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:
"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."
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.
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.