In the middle of our walk of life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Foggy Forest on Emei Shan, via http://tryse.net/blog/2009/08/
It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.
Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Lothlórien, via here
The forest is one of these great symbols which have been ever-present in myth, legend, literature, film and others, if not all, creative endeavours of mankind. I have long been enchanted by the following poem by Baudeleaire called Correspondences, mainly because of the way it is both deeply spiritual and sensual (note the wonderful use of synesthesia) and how it touches upon the mystery of forest symbolism without defiling its depth and mysteriousness. Correspondences is a term put forward by Swedenborg to denote the affinity between Above and Below, a hidden network of secret relationships, the belief in which is at the heart of symbolist thought. According to Swedenborg, correspondences exist between Spiritual and Natural Plane of the Mind, between God and the world he created, between body and spirit, and between action and intention. The poem shows wonderfully what the forest may correspond with in the spiritual realm of symbols.
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity,
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.
There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
— And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,
With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.
(translated from the French by William Aggeler)
When I was a little girl we played a game of imagination which started with a challenge: Imagine you are in a forest. Describe it in as much detail as you can. I would always imagine a really deep, dark and dense forest, perhaps even foggy, with very low visibility but with breathtaking and intoxicating aromas, full of crooked mossy branches and with the sounds of hooting owls and screeching bats. I remember playing that game with our secondary school teacher during a school trip. Her imaginary forest was sunny, lush, green, with tall trees and short manicured grass, full of colourful mushrooms and berries. After I offered my description she looked at me suspiciously, perhaps not certain whether the monsters hiding in my subconscious would not haunt her at night. I think she might have thought I was disturbed. However, when I learned more about symbols later on in life, I felt a little vindicated. In his Dictionary of Symbols Cirlot writes thus about the forest:
The forest is the place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foliage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun’s power and as a symbol of the earth. In Druid mythology, the forest was given to the sun in marriage. Since the female principle is identified with the unconscious in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconscious. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in children’s tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconscious, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure the reason. Zimmer stresses that, in contrast with the city, the house and cultivated land, which are all safe areas, the forest harbours all kinds of dangers and demons, enemies and diseases. This is why forests were among the first places in nature to be dedicated to the cult of the gods, and why propitiatory offerings were suspended from trees (the tree being, in this case, the equivalent of a sacrificial stake).
Arnold Böcklin, The Sacred Grove
I think Cirlot succeeds in capturing the gist of forest symbolism but I would dare to expand a little on his definition by looking at the forest imagery in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (the book). In the first part, the heroic quest begins in the Old Forest, which borders the Shire symbolizing the threshold on the verge of the unknown. Marching through it, the hobbits go deeper and deeper and always keep turning left, which symbolically implies introversion and probing the unconscious. The trees are perilous, alive and can be malicious. At one point Merry and Pippin get trapped in the trunk of Old Man Willow, who had cast a spell on them making them sleepy. In this part of the hero’s journey the forest symbolizes the threatening aspect of the personal unconscious, its deathly pull towards inertia stemming from the lack of consciousness and self-knowledge.
The next stop in the journey, which is the beautiful forest of Lothlórien, where Lady Galadriel resides with the Elves, symbolizes the enchanting, magic and creative powers of the collective unconscious. This is a sacred grove not touched by Sauron’s evil powers. The word Lórien meant literally Land of Gold and Dream. It is a place where the heroes can find a respite in their quest, get in touch with their own inner beauty and divinity and fill their hearts with hope, meaning and vision of the future, tapping into the prophetic powers of Lady Galadriel.
Lastly, the heroes find themselves in the Fangorn Forest, where the Ents (tree-like creatures, shepherds of the trees) dwell. The Hobbits have gone full circle now in their journey of self-discovery and are able to ensure the assistance of the Ents. In other words, they are now able to form a meaningful connection with their own unconscious Self and find help and inspiration there. In the ultimate Gaia’s revenge against her oppressors, who have been chopping down the forest, the Ents invade the evil Saruman’s domain and destroy it. The Fangorn Forest symbolizes simultaneously the destructive forces of the collective unconscious but also its Saviour aspect. The Hobbits have now learned that “where danger is, grows the saving power also”, as the German poet Holderlin put it.An act of destruction can lead to magnificent creation, which once again shows that the power of archetypes activates light and dark forces at the same time.