A Midsummer Night's Dream, Athens, Burnham Wood, Caspar David Friedrich, Circe, Der Blonde Eckbert, Edmund Burke, Fangorn, forest, Gespensterwald, Grimm Brothers, Haensel and Gretel, Horace Walpole, Into the Woods, Ithilien, Jacob Grimm, John Bauer, John Walter Bratton, Lorien, Ludwig Tieck, Macbeth, Mirkwood, Misty Mountains, N.C. Wyeth, Nienhagen, Odysseus, Old Forest, Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas, Robert Frost, Robin Hood, Romanticism, Sir Walter Scott, Snow White, Steven Sondheim, Straparola, Teddy Bears' Picnic, The Castle of Otranto, The Fire Swamp, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Tolkien, Treebeard, Waldeinsamkeit, Waverly, Wilhelm Grimm, Woses
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
There is an early-twentieth-century American popular song called “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”, by John Walter Bratton. This was first published, in 1907, as “The Teddy Bears Picnic: A Characteristic Two-Step”,
but in 1932, it acquired both its current title and lyrics, beginning,
“If you go down to the woods today,
You’re sure of a big surprise…”
This song came to us because we’ve been thinking about forests and their frequency and importance in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Woods have always been spooky places in folktales. Think of Haensel and Gretel, for example,
or Snow White,
or even the story of Odysseus and Circe, as Circe’s house is set deep in a forest.
Among our interests is Romanticism–both in itself because it’s in Romanticism that modern adventure stories really take off (for the supernatural, think Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 1764; for historical, Sir Walter Scott, Waverly, 1814). The early Romantics were fascinated by the forest, both as a place of beauty and of fear. This is not surprising, for several reasons. First, they were influenced by the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797),
who published a famous essay, “Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in 1757 (this is a 1770s reprint).
Burke was interested in human reactions to things which, basically, are either awe-inspiring (how about this?)
Awe-inspiring (to which may even be added a little terror– you, sharp-eyed readers have probably already noticed that there are the remains of a crushed ship in the ice in the first picture) is a sort of opposite of the beautiful– we say “sort of” because they can be related, which is why we chose two pictures by the same artist– our favorite early Romantic artist, in fact, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).
This brings us to this Friedrich painting:
There are lots of his paintings in which we are standing behind someone who is looking off into the distance– as in the one we chose for “the beautiful”. As you can see in the above, here we have a man contemplating a path into a snowy wood. (Which reminds us of a poem by the American poet Robert Frost, 1874-1963, and we can’t resist adding it here, just for the pleasure of it:)
There is menace here (note the crow on the stump in the foreground…), and yet it’s beautiful. And tempting– and that’s part of the sublime, as well.
Besides their interest in Burke, the early Romantics were also deeply interested in folktales. People had been collecting and publishing such things in early modern Europe since at least Straparola in the 16th century, but, from the Romantics, we have the work of these two men, highly-intelligent brother-scholars, the Grimms, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), whose work, either in itself on in adaptation, is known throughout the whole western world.
The story of Haensel and Gretel comes from them, in fact (as does Snow White). Because of a famous short story by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853),
“Der Blonde Eckbert” (maybe “Fair-haired Eckbert” in English?), there is a word in German for this fascination for the woods, Waldeinsamkeit, meaning something like “The Sense of Being Alone in the Forest”. Like “sublime”, this word has a wide range of feeling to it, including that sense of aloneness/being alone/loneliness/ mixed with the pleasure of being alone in the forest. In the story, the word is contained in a little poem sung by a strange bird, which begins:
Die mich erfreut
So morgen wie heut
In ewger Zeit
O wie mich freut
“Aloneness in the forest–
That delights me,
As today so tomorrow
In eternal time
Oh how it delights me
Aloneness in the forest!”
In the case of JRRT, however, although he was well known to be quite passionate in his love for trees, forests in his work do not always appear to be places for pleasure. (And how can we not be reminded of that moment in the film, The Princess Bride, when the hero and heroine are at the edge of the Fire Swamp, a kind of haunted wood,
and the hero, Westley, says, “It’s not that bad. I’m not saying that I’d like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely”– and only a moment later the heroine, Buttercup, is attacked by a spurt of flame from the ground itself?)
Out first wood in The Hobbit is the one into which several of the dwarves disappear, captured by three rather dimwitted trolls.
When we look at this and at other JRRT illustrations, we are reminded of the world of the Swedish illustrator, John Bauer (1882-1918), some of whose fairy tale forests bear a certain strong similarity in their regularity.
What’s surprising is that, in northern Europe, there actually appear to be stands of wood which actually look very like this. Here’s Nienhagen, in northern Germany.
It’s a beechwood (one of JRRT’s favorite trees and ours, too– remember this big beech from N.C. Wyeth’s Robin Hood illustrations?
Nienhagen has another name, however, Gespensterwald, “Ghostwood”, and, seeing this next picture and comparing it to Bauer’s paintings, we imagine that you’d agree with us that this is an appropriate nickname.
Across the Misty Mountains, we come to Mirkwood, with its disappearing Elves, sleepy stream, and giant spiders– hardly an inviting place.
The forests of The Lord of the Rings are a bit mixed. There is the Old Forest, which is so hostile that is has to be kept off with cutting, burning, and a hedge and, in its depths, there is Old Man Willow, who almost swallows several unwary hobbits.
Then there is Lorien, a place of safety and healing for the Fellowship.
And, last, there is Fangorn, with its Ents, especially the thoughtful and ultimately sympathetic Treebeard.
These are principal woods– there are also the woodlands of South Ithilien, there Faramir
and his rangers lurk, as well as the unnamed wood where the Woses live, but it’s the people there who are the focus of the story, not the forests.
This sense of a wood being dangerous goes far beyond fairy tales and even JRRT, of course. Shakespeare has several puzzling forests– as in the wood outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
or the traveling Burnham Wood in Macbeth
And there is even the wonderful Steven Sondheim musical, Into the Woods (1986), in which going into the woods has a magical/metaphorical side.
But we’ll leave you where we started– with JRRT– and a single tree…
Thanks, as always, for reading.