Forests have long been significant in literature. Dark, enchanted, haunted woods carry a special meaning and signify an important stage in any journey. They both – add up to the atmosphere of a story by making striking landscape features, and can help us understand characters and their doings better.
The image of an enchanted forest is prominent in many tales. It’s no wonder that a lot of literary characters have to encounter such a place in their travels. Dark mysterious woods are home of magic and the unknown. To enter a forest is to go into the realm of Faerie, which can be as dangerous as it can be enlightening. Thus enchanted woods present a test to characters’ abilities, a challenge to their courage and, as a result, lead to important inner transformations: if a character enters such a forest, they won’t be the same on leaving it. When left one on one with hidden fears, weaknesses and doubts, a person has to overcome them – and thus overcome themselves – to get out of the forest alive. In the light of this, mysterious forests seem to be able to aid characters in finding the meaning and their true selves, to awaken the traits that were asleep before and the lack of which makes it impossible to continue with the journey. With the dangers often being unseen, entering a wood is like entering one’s subconsciousness, getting to know oneself better and from a different perspective, unveiling previously hidden abilities and casting light on the dark spots. Getting lost in a forest and then finding a way out of it is like discovering answers to previously unanswered questions, solving the riddles of the unseen. That’s why overcoming the mazes of treacherous forests means a moral victory over oneself in the first place.
In Tolkien’s works dark haunted forests occupy a special place and become the embodiments of real dread. In his essay on «Smith of Wootton Major» the Professor calls the Forest his symbol for Faery (1). When mortals enter the Forest, they go into the land of Faery. Tolkien refers to the Forest as to «the regions still immune from human activities, not yet dominated by them (dominated! not conquered!)» (Smith of Wootton Major, p. 116). Going further into the land of Faery is «passing further and further away from a familiar or anthropocentric world» (ibid). There are different kinds of forests just as well as there are different regions of Faërie. While Faerie is perilous for mortals by default, dark forests present a danger increased. In the present essay I would like to concentrate on three haunted forests in Middle-earth: Taur-nu-Fuin, Mirkwood and The Old Forest.
Taur-nu-Fuin is the horror forest of the First Age. Situated on the northern slopes of Dorthonion, the forest becomes gradually corrupted and turned into a place of real horror by Morgoth’s evil:
….and all the forest of the northward slopes of that land was turned little by little into a region of such dread and dark enchantment that even the Orcs would not enter it unless need drove them, and it was called Deldúwath, and Taur-nu-Fuin, The Forest under Nightshade. The trees that grew there after the burning were black and grim, and their roots were tangled, groping in the dark like claws; and those who strayed among them became lost and blind, and were strangled or pursued to madness by phantoms of terror.
(Silmarillion, p. 180)
A short description and a few mentions in The Silmarillion are enough to present Taur-nu-Fuin as a very unwelcoming place. It takes after Morgoth in everything – darkness, dread, delusion. The forest seems to consider anyone attempting to go through it as an intruder and thus worthy of severe torture. It looks and behaves like a predator and seems to delight in leading intruders astray. Later Taur-nu-Fuin becomes even worse after Sauron starts to abide there and fills it with horror.
However, there are characters who dare a road through this place. First, Lúthien and Huan travel through Taur-nu-Fuin to find Beren, who prepares to go into Angband to recover a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. Having cast ghastly forms upon themselves, Lúthien and Huan pass through the forest and «all things fled before them» (Silmarillion, p. 210). Beleg is not baffled by the mazes of the forest either and when he goes to find Túrin captured by the Orcs, «not even in the dreadful woods of Taur-nu-Fuin did he swerve from the trail» (Silmarillion, p. 246).
Neither Lúthien and Huan, nor Beleg are bewildered by Taur-nu-Fuin and remain unaffected by the forest’s evil. They win a victory over the forest long before entering it by belonging to the world of Faërie and having a clear sense of purpose, knowing where they’re heading, so nothing can confuse them.
In the Third Age Taur-nu-Fuin becomes reincarnated in Mirkwood. In the Old Norse Poetic Edda there’s a place called Myrkviðr and the name Myrkviðr cognates with the English word Mirkwood. It is a compound consisting of two words: mirk/murky + wood and is applied to a dark, haunted forest. In Edda Myrkviðr is referred to as «great», «untracked» and at a certain point is even called «home of darkness». This forest is believed to separate the human world from the supernatural world of Gods. Entering it means showing great courage, which signifies a victory in a fight of a mortal being against the forces of the wild lands and is, in a way, a fight with the unseen without a weapon. Here is what Tolkien has to say about the forest:
Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations. It was probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion. In some traditions it became used especially of the boundary between Goths and Huns. …… In O.E. mirce only survives in poetry, and in the sense ‘dark’, or rather ‘gloomy’, only in Beowulf 1405 ofer myrcan mor: elsewhere only with the sense ‘murky’ > wicked, hellish. It was never, I think, a mere ‘colour’ word: ‘black’, and was from the beginning weighted with the sense of ‘gloom’. It seemed to me too good a fortune that Mirkwood remained intelligible (with exactly the right tone) in modern English to pass over: whether mirk is a Norse loan or a freshment of the obsolescent O.E. Word.
(Letters, № 289)
Mirkwood strongly resembles Taur-nu-Fuin in almost everything. First, it has the same fate. Being originally known as Greenwood the Great in the Second Age, the forest turns into a place of dread when Sauron founds Dol Guldur in the south and his evil poisons the forest. One of the transitional names of Mirkwood is actually the Elvish one – Taur-nu-Fuin. The image that the First Age’s namesake evokes in its time is also very threatening:
The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.
As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.
There were queer noises too, grunts, scufflings, and hurryings in the undergrowth, and among the leaves that lay piled endlessly thick in places on the forest-floor; but what made the noises he could not see. The nastiest things they saw were the cobwebs: dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree, or tangled in the lower branches on either side of them.
There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy.
The nights were the worst. It then became pitch-dark – not what you call pitch-dark, but really pitch: so black that you really could see nothing…..Well, perhaps it is not true to say that they could see nothing: they could see eyes.
(Hobbit, p. 163-164)
Mirkwood is dark, unfriendly and very hostile. It bewilders, constantly watches the trespassers and makes their journey rather unbearable. Bilbo and the Dwarves grow to hate Mirkwood and the forest seems to hate them back. The sense of it being never-ending, going on and on just makes the image of Mirkwood even more dreadful. The forest reminds of a labyrinth more than anything else. To make the matters even worse, Bilbo and the Dwarves lose not only their way, but also the track of time: they have no idea how long they’ve spent in the Mirkwood mazes. To them it seems like ages. So it’s no wonder that the travellers eventually get lost, attacked by the spiders and later captured by the Wood-elves.
At this point Mirkwood demands an ultimate show of courage on Bilbo’s behalf. It’s in the forest that he actually has to use his sword for the first time and later apply all his skills to saving the Dwarves from the Elvenking’s dungeons. These events mark a turning point in his character – the one which fully awakens the Tookish side in him and makes a substantial contribution to Bilbo’s character formation. It is a certain coming of age for him, if you like, which also earns him more respect from the Dwarves. It is in Mirkwood that he discovers the qualities that will help him a lot later.
The Wood-elves, though unfriendly to the intruders just like the forest is, are the only creatures who have no fear of it. They live in the north-east of the forest and feel rather at ease in a place of such bewilderment. Even though most of them are descendant from those Elves who never visited Aman and are «more dangerous and less wise» (Hobbit, p. 194), they still belong to the world of Faërie. The Wood-elves never get lost, move through the forest at any time and even hold a feast in the depths of the wood. Fair to say, they feel at home in Mirkwood.
Being much smaller than Mirkwood and lying east of the Shire, the Old Forest boasts a dreadful reputation for being a queer and scary place. Just like the other two, it is hostile to strangers and makes passing through it a very tough business. However, the Old Forest’s hostility is of a very different kind than that of Taur-nu-Fuin and Mirkwood. It is not under the power of a mighty Dark Lord, but displays its nasty character due to the felling of the trees (Mortals’ attempt to dominate and conquer the forest, isn’t it? Hence the forest’s aggressiveness) and the evil nature of the Old Man Willow dwelling in the heart of the forest:
But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you.They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer. But at night things can be more alarming, or so I am told. I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge. I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind. They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.
But something makes paths. Whenever one comes inside one finds open tracks; but they seem to shift and change from time to time in a queer fashion.
…They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity.
(Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 145-147; emphasis original)
If that all is not enough, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin end up losing their direction and track of time, not seeing far ahead through the mists and with the trees barring their sight. The air is hot and stuffy and the Old Forest itself is quiet and still with the sort of quietness and stillness one would not like to encounter. Being only at the beginning of their journey and still unsure how exactly to proceed, entering the world new for them, the Hobbits betray their lack of confidence to the forest. Their future, like the view in the forest, is covered in mists for them. Moreover, the Hobbits are afraid and not overly fond of the Old Forest.
It is this forest that becomes their first serious danger and challenge, the Black Riders’ pursuit aside. The first fruits of the forest test become visible very soon. Note how different the view for the Hobbits is upon their leaving Tom Bombadil’s house. It’s clear in all the directions and they can see really far away. Where previously there were mists, now appears a clear perspective. The Hobbits may not sense it just now, but it’s there – yet unseen, but very important. When they get trapped in Barrow-downs and fall under the horrible spell of the Barrow-wights, Frodo’s reaction is significant: he displays strong will-power by refusing to succumb to the circumstances, gathers all his courage and eventually manages to save his friends by summoning Tom Bombadil.
Tom Bombadil is a unique and mysterious creature. He is not baffled by the forest’s treacherous nature. He goes through it without losing his track, dreading no evil spells and saves the Hobbits from the Old Man Willow using the power of the song. When we first meet him in the book, Tom makes an impression of someone totally familiar with the Old Forest and what’s more – being on rather friendly terms with it, knowing how to negotiate with it and how to handle its spells. It’s very much his realm – the realm of Faërie.
So, if you look carefully, you’ll see that Taur-nu-Fuin, Mirkwood and the Old Forest have a lot in common. Let’s first look at their images. All of the three forests are darkened places with confusing paths, tangled roots or branches to create a claustrophobic and uncomfortable feel. Mirkwood and the Old Forest in particular are both stuffy, hot and very still. The three are reminiscent of mazes – endless, confusing, treacherous. They fit perfectly into the image of an impenetrable wood with strange creatures living in them, queer trees growing and weird noises heard.
Another similarity lies in how the forests behave. They all act like living beings with their own wills, desires and characters. The trees whisper among each other, listen to and watch the travellers. There’s treachery in these forests: they cannot be trusted. The dangers in them are not seen – they are felt. The forests scare and lead the travellers astray on purpose. It seems that it’s not the travellers who lose their ways but rather the forests that force them into getting lost. The sense of dread and uncomfortableness overcomes most mortals who enter them. The forests are very hostile to mortal creatures and do everything to make their journeys as tough as possible.
This leads us to one more similarity between the three places. It seems that only those who have a magical nature – the dwellers of Faerie – are not lost among the treacherous paths and trees. Lúthien, Huan, Beleg, Wood-elves and Tom Bombadil all encounter their respective forests without any serious problems. They find their ways among the winding paths and are able to withstand the evil powers of the woods. With forests being magical places, regions of Faërie by default, even though evil they might be, the creatures of Faërie are not led astray even by the worst forests. Being the inhabitants of Faërie, belonging to that world they are not bewildered by the forests’ evil spells and nature.
It is very different with the Hobbits and the Dwarves, though. Being mortal, their entering the realm of Faërie is a serious challenge. They have to make their ways through the spells and enchantments, which is not common for them: they don’t encounter magic on a daily basis and their worlds are just very different. Unsurprisingly, they not only lose their ways, but also – the track of time. Time in Faërie passes differently from the time in the lands of mortals, so both – the Hobbits and the Dwarves feel as if they spend ages in their respective forests. But having to face such a challenge in their journeys, all the characters thus prepare for other – more serious dangers.
Woods play an important role in Tolkien’s works. They are the places where the evil and the unknown dwell, where characters get lost only to find a new sense of purpose, a clearer view of the road ahead and which become the points of their crucial transformations. One of the scariest things about haunted forests is losing one’s will. To go through a dark forest and not to lose it is an ultimate victory which gives a valuable trophy: extra strength – moral, not physical – which is necessary in further travels. Tapping into the most common fears – of the dark, of the unknown, of losing one’s way, touching upon uncertainty and lack of confidence, the dark forests of Middle-earth become serious challenges for those mortals entering them and make the characters face their fears to overcome them and become stronger.
(1) Faery is spelt so in the original essay by Tolkien.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien — The Silmarillion; edited by Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Smith of Wootton Major; Extended Edition; edited by Verlyn Flieger; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2005.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.