Entering the Enchanted Forest
The Enchanted Forest is a dimension all forests. It is the fusion of the rich possibility of life, secrets, growth, enchantment, danger, and mystery that seem to fill the very air of a living forest. In the world of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea the Immanent Grove, the heart of enchantment on the Isle of Roke, is “center of all the earth’s powers." It is a place of wonder and of refuge, and those who have been there remember “the glades and aisles of that wood, the sunlight and starlight in its leaves.” One character, Tanar, recalls being told that “the forests here on Gont are that forest...All forests are.”
The Enchanted Forest is the forest of mythology and fairy tales where Prince Ivan chased the Firebird, where Deerskin ran to hide from her father, where Beauty found her Beast, and where many younger sons have successfully won treasures, love and fame. It is a place of transformation--once entered few come out the same.
Within the tomes of fantasy, the Enchanted Forest appears as a benevolent place and as a place of terror. In The Lord of the Rings the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire tests the four hobbits on the first day of their perilous journey: “Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing on them.” Tom Bombadil, who dwells on the margins of the Old Forest and is the “master of wood, water and hill” saves the hobbits from Old Man Willow, the most dangerous tree in the Old Forest. He and his wife, Lady Goldberry, daughter of the River, make up the hospitable side of the Old Forest: their house is a place of refuge and recovery.
Another forest that is both a place of danger and of rest is Fangorn. The very trees are alive in Fangorn and their guardian, Treebeard laments the lack of care for forests. When asked what side he will take in the war, he responds: "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays."
Perhaps the most enchanted forest in Tolkien’s Middle Earth is Lothlórien, which reflects the enchantment of the elves who live there:
There are no trees like the trees of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.
Though Lothlórien turns out to be a place of refuge and healing for the members of the Fellowship, and its Lady, Galadriel, is their friend, others in Middle Earth view her, and the land of Lórien, as perilous: “Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell! ...Few escape her nets, they say.”
It is not uncommon for the Enchanted Forest to derive its magic from a spirit, sorcerer or other magical creature who dwells there. The unicorn’s forest in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is enchanted because of the unicorn’s presence: “It was always spring in her forest, because she lived there, and she wandered all day among the giant beech trees, keeping watch over the animals.” The forest remains with her once she leaves, and, when the unicorn has been transformed into a human maiden, her eyes at first reflect “green leaves, crowded with trees and streams and small animals.”
In The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, the forest is made of magic and as such it moves and shifts, transforming around those who enter it. It follows the rules of fairy tales, so its power seeks to play out classic stories, turning princes to frogs and hiding treasure in strange places.
C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also rife with magical forests, from the wood beyond the wardrobe filled with talking beasts, nymphs and dryads, and all manner of wondrous creatures to the wood beyond the worlds in which each pool of water leads to a different realm (The Magician’s Nephew). In writing on the value of fairy tales and fantasy fiction, C. S. Lewis noted that a reader “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
An author whose enchanted forests do what Lewis describes above is Patricia McKillip. More than one of her tales contain woods that are at once ordinary and strange, where the boundaries between the normal world and the Otherworld are thin and transmutable. For example in The Book of Atrix Wolfe the young prince Talis,slips from one forest, where he hunts with his brother, down a shaft of moonlight into another forest where the Queen of the Wood hunts. She has “hair like dying oak leaves, and her voice [was] like mourning doves” The forest itself forms her retinue, which is “a gathering of hunters that seem to have fashioned themselves out of roots, tree bark and leaves." In McKillip’s later work Solstice Wood the fairy queen herself is formed of the enchantment of the wood and the character Sylvia describes her as seeming to be:
another expression of the wood, as natural and astonishing as an oak full of owls, or a perfect ring of scarlet mushrooms. Like a figure hidden in a painting, she seemed only visible because I had seen her. My eyes could have just as easily told me her hair was light, her eyes leaf, her skin the tender white of birch, her garments tree bark, root, earth.
Take a walk through a spring wood sometime and notice those things--light and leaf and tender white birch. The Queen of the Wood is just in the corner of your eye.
The Enchanted Forest is both a familiar place and also strange and unexpected because each tale reveals new wonders and dangers within it. The Enchanted Forest is ancient. Medieval romancers wrote of it--often turning known forests into places filled with magic: “The enchanted Forest of Broceliande in Brittany may be considered as a type of all that is best in romance, and the legends connected with it teem with the chivalry of bygone ages.” (Porteous 1968, 21). Even before the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne, enchanted forests appeared in Norse, Sumerian, Celtic and Roman mythology, among others. In The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life Thomas Moore writes “in fairy tales the answer to the riddle of life is often found in the forest, the place where trees congregate and cast their spell.”
Entering into the Enchanted Forest is a quest for self, for wonder and for transformation. And we can each find these things in our own forests, for in the end they are all part of the enchantment.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York, NY: ROC, 1991.
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1968.
—. The Other Wind. New York, NY: Ace Books, 2001.
Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2002.
McKillip, Patricia. Solstice Wood. New York, NY: Ace Books, 2006.
—. The Book of Atrix Wolfe. New York, NY: ACE, 1995.
Moore, Thomas. The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1997.
Porteous, Alexander. Forest Folklore, Mythology and Romance. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
—. The Two Towers. London, UK: Harper Collins, 1997.