A forest is a place where we go lose ourselves — and, sometimes, find ourselves. A forest is a thicket of metaphors. A forest is a labyrinth: a confusing, bewildering territory, where one quickly becomes disoriented. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard observed: “We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of going ‘deeper and deeper’ into a limitless world.” The edge — the way out — can be terrifyingly elusive. A forest is an untamed version of its much more disciplined, domesticated cousin, the hedge maze. The paths of a maze are delineated and finite, and designed by human hand. The forest, by contrast, is wild and uncanny. Who knows what imps and witches, what monsters and nymphs, might be found in its glades? Will we ever find our way?
In the fairytale Hänsel and Gretel, the children are taken by their father and stepmother into the woods and abandoned. However, having overheard the grown-ups’ plan, Hänsel has collected shining stones, which he drops behind them so they can navigate their way back home through the dark and deceptive forest. Hänsel’s pebbles are like the red thread of Ariadne: the yarn the Cretan princess gave to the Athenian prince, Theseus. She instructed him to use it to find his way out of the original labyrinth of Greek myth, the one concealing the Minotaur at Knossos. She also gave him a sword, so he could kill the creature, her own half-brother.
Hänsel and Gretel reach home successfully, but the relief is only temporary: the very next day their father and stepmother take them out again, deeper and deeper into the forest. Having no stones to drop this time, Hänsel scatters crumbs, which are eaten up by the birds. The children try to find their way anyway. They walked for “an entire night and day from morning until evening, but they never came out of the forest,” recounts the Brothers Grimm story. Instead, Hänsel and Gretel encounter their own kind of Minotaur — the witch in the woods, with her gingerbread house and tempting sweets and cakes with which she fattens Hänsel up, planning to eat him. This time it will take all Gretel’s ingenuity and bravery to kill the monster and escape.
Dante’s Inferno begins:
“At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost”
The narrator is wandering in a “wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild”. He has been “full of sleep”. His disorientation is not just physical but spiritual; he has been in a state of sin. He can see a beautiful mountaintop far ahead of him. He tries to head for it, but his way is barred. He cannot go there directly. (The first rule of labyrinths and mazes is that to reach your destination, you must first turn away from it; it is always the indirect route, the circuitous path, that will get you there.) Instead he is conveyed to another labyrinthine space, that of inferno, or Hell, with its “ruinous topography”, as Jorge Luis Borges described it, of “crypts, pits, precipices, swamps and dunes”. Once, Borges said he thought of “the world’s literature as a kind of forest… I mean it’s tangled and it entangles us but it’s growing, a living labyrinth, no? A living maze”. Books, forest, labyrinth: all blur into one idea. He thought of libraries as labyrinths too. Pluck a book from a shelf — take another path through the woods — and you can be transported, imaginatively, to another world.
Dante’s guide through Hell is a fictionalised version of the real Roman poet Virgil, who knew his way around the shadowy, confusing geography of the Underworld, having created a version of it for his great epic poem the Aeneid. Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, also has to navigate a forest before he can reach the portals of the land of the dead. “The entire heartland here is thick with woods,” his guide, the Sibyl of Cumae, tells him. In order to guarantee his exit from the Underworld, he must first find and pluck a golden bough that grows in a “deep shaded tree”. Everything in this liminal, strange territory between the lands of the dead and the living is dusky, shadowed, overhung by trees. The Underworld itself is like a wood:
“On they went, those dim travellers under the lonely night,
through gloom and the empty halls of Death’s ghostly realm,
like those who walk through woods by a grudging moon’s
deceptive light when Jove has plunged the sky in dark
and the black night drains all colour from the world.”
The forest is not always quite so grim, or Grimm. Shakespeare, in his marvellously free and indirect way with Greek myth, has his Theseus taking a version of the Cretan labyrinth home with him to Athens in the form of the wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the setting for the play’s love games, confusions of identity and transformations. Here, Titania falls in love with Bottom, who has magically acquired a donkey’s head, and a quartet of lovers are sent on a bewildering, circuitous chase after each other, thanks to a potion mistakenly administered by the fairy Puck. It is, according to Titania, a “mazed world” — though it is also a world of enchantment that, in the end, the human characters can safely leave, when this midsummer night ends, for the sane and everyday city. But still, the wood changes those who have entered it. No one leaves the labyrinth unmarked.
Charlotte Higgins, March 2020
Charlotte Higgins is an author and journalist. Her latest book is Red Thread: On Mazes And Labyrinths. She is the Guardian’s chief culture writer.