Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Forests in fantasy

I’ve always been fascinated by forests. Maybe because I grew up in the middle of a desert, albeit one with a lot of skyscrapers.

Or maybe because forests feature so prominently in fantasy, beginning with Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Forests are inherently mysterious places, and none more so than Mirkwood. It’s easy to get lost and visibility is low, hence Gandalf's admonition to never leave the path. I like the part where Bilbo, the smallest and lightest of the party, climbs a tree to find black butterflies flitting about the topmost leaves.

As for the trees themselves, even in ordinary woods they may cut off much of the light and they often shelter dangerous creatures.

It’s also fun to come up with names for those trees. Poul Andersson has braidbark, copperwood, jewelleaf and gaunt lightning-rod in “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, and the Cinderbark Wood in Alan Campbell’s Iron Angel is a petrified forest where the flora has been treated with poisons. As a result, they have turned to vivid colors, and are extremely dangerous – the jab of a thorn can mean death.

Naturally, Cinderbark Wood is in a desert and the only water for miles around is a spring at the forest’s heart.

Other dry forests could be made of ice or metal or crystal (since crystals do grow). The sharp-edged shards could seriously injure anyone trying to pass through such a forest. Maybe the trees prefer blood to water. And some of the leaves could be lenses that focus the sun’s rays to start a fire – which could harm travelers but wouldn’t seriously damage the glasstrees.

Living forests can be dangerous too. For instance, they could grow extremely rapidly, meaning there’s little point in cutting a trail through the woods. They could have sprung up over the ruins of a city – which would have its own defenses, traps and perhaps stores of toxins.

They might act as prions, slowly but steadily altering people in their own image and likeness. So if you take longer than a week to travel through a certain forest, either you won’t come out or you’ll emerge with chlorophyll-colored skin, leaves for fingers and roots instead of feet.

They might have a powerful but hidden guardian – not the pretty unicorns of Dragons of Autumn Twilight or The Last Unicorn, but a creature far more disturbing. I’m thinking along the lines of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, from Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

Because of this, forests often act as barriers, magical or otherwise, to lands. Or they protect a treasure. I especially like it when the treasure is a natural part of the forest, like a special tree – Yggdrasil or the Tree of Life – so it can’t be removed.

What do you like most about forests?


Anonymous said...

What really makes forest (be they rain forest or not) is how easily you can get lost in them, specially at night. We are so used to artificial light that we can not comprehend the true darkness of of a forest.

To the medieval mind, the forest was a dangerous place filled with wolves, bears and demonic beings. They were the literal limit to the village or farmland and a place beyond their comprehension or control.

A. Shelton said...

I've always wondered what the reaction of visitors to an abandoned city would if there were signs that that city was not only overtaken by plant life/forest but there were also signs that somebody was keeping all that plant life from absolutely destroying the built structures.

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - Makes me think of all the fairytales where characters are lost in dangerous forests (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc). We still appeal to that atavistic fear.

A. Shelton - That would be subtly creepy, especially since visitors/explorers don't really notice or watch out for plants the same way they monitor animal presence or activity.

I love the idea of sentient plants, though The Day of the Triffids didn't hook me when I first read it. Maybe I should give it another try.

Robin said...

I grew up surrounded by forests, and there was always something magical about them to me (literally, I liked to think there were magic in them, if I could get far enough in to not hear any cars). They were a place to escape to, where I could do what I wanted and pretend I was 'lost in the wild' somewhere. I think that sense forests give of being apart from humans and civilization will always have a lot of appeal, and always open doors for a lot of stories.