THE FOREST… Into the Trees.
The Cure. ‘Into the trees.’
Where there’s mystery,
myth prevails, we humans
can’t help it, metaphor
begins with us.
Oh we homo-sapiens, how quick we are to apply upon an object, image or phenomenon our own symbolic reference in which, to our un-innocent eyes, a something, a tree, a cloud or a shining lake, lends itself to symbolic use, we must call it other than itself.
As with Odysseus long ago, sailing on uncharted seas that just had to be inhabited by monsters of the deep, Scylla and Charybdis and where there was land, sirens and one-eyed cyclops, so with the vast forests that once almost covered the land and still exist extensively, forests of Europe and the New World, the Brazilian Amazon and African Congo, mystery lends itself to myth. Why, even in the eighteenth century, there were few cities like London or Paris and travel by night was a wild, hazardous business between settlements, better to rest awhile at a way-side inn.
And so, for the ‘forest,’ a dictionary definition encompassing no error, ‘what is it in itself ?’ ‘A forest: extensive vegetation zone in which tall trees predominate. A large treed-area inhabited by wild-life ‘… Has to be large trees, else-wise it is woodland, has to be extensive … people have been known to get lost in forests, and not just in fiction.
And on to metaphor, (what humans do) and to human metaphors concerning ‘the forest,’ the metaphor most universally preferred, the metaphor of ‘darkness.’ We day-visioned homo-sapiens are lovers of light; metaphors of dark and light draw upon our deepest biological impulses, and as metaphors of human value, light and dark are probably the central metaphors of western philosophy, light and enlightenment associated with ‘the good,’ darkness, ‘the not-good,’ associated with mystery, confusion, savagery and grotesquery.
So let us begin with the lesser of the four evils, ‘mystery and confusion’ and characters in literature losing their way and having strange encounters in the forest. Herewith Tolkien and Shakespeare and …
The Enchanted Forest.
Back in the Third Age of the Middle Earth you’ve got a small band of hobbits. One of them named Frodo, here they are traversing The Old Forest…
‘Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes, straight or bent, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths….The ground was rising starkly and as they went forward, it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. There was no sound, except an occasional drip of moisture falling through the still leaves. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike or even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow.’
In Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the mysterious life lurking in the forest is located within the trees themselves, this is their world and hobbits and other living creatures from beyond the forest that enter their domain are not welcome and likely to be harmed.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Below the level of daylight awareness, the forest as Fairyland, Shakespeare’s forest experience, a midsummer night’s dream. All flowery groves and bowers, take the trees as a given, it’s a tale of humans lost in a shadowed maze, star-crossed lovers and sundry artisans subject to the ploys of fairies immersed in their own dramatics, King Oberon and Queen Titania having a domestic, and trickster Puck testing cupid love potions on the hapless humans. Lots of mistaken identity…
Hast thou the flower there? Welcome, wanderer.
Ay, there it is.
I pray thee, give it me.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
Take thou some of it, and seek through this grove:
A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes;
And look thou meet me ere the first cock crow.
But do it when the next thing he espies
May be the lady: thou shalt know the man
By the Athenian garments he hath on.
Effect it with some care, that he may prove
More fond on her than she upon her love:
The Enchanted Forest, well it’s enchanting, and despite the comic confusion, induced changes of affection, even transmogrification of appearance, Bottom the Weaver as ass, alas, all ends well and when they emerge from the forest, a nice speech about events from Thesius, Duke of Athens. (First part now, more later.)
‘More strange than true: I may never believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys,
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason comprehends.’
More than cool reason comprehends…What’s cool reason got to do with your darkness metaphor, with mystery, confusion, savagery and grotesquery? Exemplar of the latter, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they’re grim.
The Dark, Dark Forest.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, populated by witches, giants, trolls and malevolent goblins, a few wandering princes and princesses, usually bewitched, and bears and wolves. Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and you’ll likely agree, ‘don’t go into the woods today,’ but they do, or worse still send their children there, like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
Little Red Riding Hood, what is her mother thinking of sending a small child off to visit her aged grandmother in the middle of a dark forest inhabited by wolves? (There’s Little Red Riding Hood skipping along the path, iconic image, doesn’t have to go too far before she meets one,) and what’s her grandmother doing living alone in the forest? Any wonder they both get devoured by the wolf and it’s only by the deux ex machina intervention of the woodsman killing the wolf that the two emerge from the dead beast’s innards unscathed.
Context of the Brothers’ Grimm tales of grotesquery, those folk tales go way back, even before the Middle Ages, and hunger is a focus, eating and being eaten a common theme. What events of calumny when scarcity falls on the land, as in the story of Hansel and Gretel!
Pillow talk between the children’s father and step-mother, overheard by Hansel and Gretel:
What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?
I’ll tell you what, husband, early tomorrow morning we will take our children out into the forest to where it is thickest, then we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one piece of bread more and leave them alone. They will not find their way home again and we shall be rid of them.
The compliant husband gives in to the evil step-mother even though he thinks wild beasts may devour the children!
Plan put into action next morning. When Hansel’s counter plan to find a way out of the forest goes awry, hungry birds eat the bread crumb trail he leaves, the children can’t find their way home and wander in the forest until they come across the witch’s gingerbread house, – a lure for lost children.
The witch locks Hansel in a cage and plans to fatten him up and eat him… Your cannibalism was not unknown in olden times when scarcity fell upon the land, witches being particularly prone to savagery. Lucky that Gretel is shrewd enough to trick the witch into putting her head in the oven and pushes her in and shuts the oven door. Happy ending? …The two children manage to find their way home to their weak-willed father who welcomes them, the wicked step-mother has died, – so all’s well – Oh well…
And Going Deeper into that Dark Forest…
More of savagery in the forest, this time in Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness,’ a journey into darkest Africa – or is it?
Joseph Conrad wrote ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the latter years of the nineteenth century, the century of British and European imperialism in Africa and the East, which was also a period of religious questioning and doubt. In ‘Heart of Darkness,’ we follow protagonist Marlow in his shadowy and ambiguous journey into the interior to rescue the mysterious company agent Kurtz, said to have civilizing ideals, suggesting parallels with Stanley’s journey into Africa to rescue David Livingstone. But is this journey into the dark continent or a journey into the human subconscious? For Marlow, piloting a steamboat up the River Congo, it becomes both, a physical journey and Marlow’s own inner journey, a quest for enlightenment.
In this journey Joseph Conrad employs the metaphors of light and darkness, relating light with knowledge and civility, and darkness with mystery and savagery, but these boundaries become blurred as Marlow describes his experiences, and the language seems calculated to obscure rather than enlighten the reader, who, like Marlow himself, must try to negotiate the shifting focus of this journey and its unanswered questions.
In Marlow’s account of his experiences, the metaphor of darkness equating to savagery relates more to the actions of the white traders in ivory than to the African population. Marlow describes the muddle of the station in Leopold’s Congo, run by a rapacious manager whose only talent is a talent for intrigue. He describes the futile destruction involved in the building of a railway, the blasting of a cliff that ‘was not in the way or anything…but was the only work going on.’ Marlow is horrified by the sight of chained prisoners working on the railway and in the shadows, dying prisoners: ‘Black shadows crouched, lying within the dim light, in all the attributes of pain, abandonment and despair.’
Conrad uses the imagery of obscured light, ‘fog,’ glow’, and reflected light, ‘halo,’ ‘moonshine,’ to suggest the difficulties of ‘seeing’ or understanding what is happening, as when the pilgrims on the steamboat fire blindly into the fog or when Marlow finally meets Kurtz. Trying to understand and describe to us his understanding of the man. Marlow repeatedly uses the words ‘see’ and ‘dream’ to reveal his frustration. ‘I did not see – you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name anymore than you do.’
Marlow’s journey becomes a quest to understand Kurtz, the reality behind the rumours and when they meet in the final pages of the novel, Marlow describes how the man presented himself as a voice, that of all Kurtz’ gifts, this was the only one that gave a sense of his real presence, ‘the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.’
Meaning for us, as for Marlow, is to be found ‘enveloping the tale as a haze.’ Kurtz’ megalomania is suggested through Marlow’s comments at second hand. ‘Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my’ – everything belonged to him.’ We learn, filtered again through Marlow’s recount of a Russian adventurer’s story, of Kurtz’ raids for ivory with the local tribe following him as a god. Kurtz’ impenetrable moral darkness is never made explicit in the novel. Marlow tells us of the shrunken heads on stakes outside his station, the grief of the wild woman, ‘savage and superb,’ who wears bizarre witch doctor charms, ‘she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her.’…What lies behind Kurtz’ dying words, ‘The horror! The horror!’ we can only guess.
For Marlow the journey into the wilderness is to discover where lies darkness, and it is in us, and only the restraint of strong beliefs or principles prevent people who journey into a wilderness from reverting to the primitive. He recognises that behind Kurtz’ magnificent eloquence there was nothing ‘ to restrain the gratification of his lusts.’ The actions of the traders and pilgrims also revealed this hollowness. For himself, Marlow tells us that being forced to attend to the surface reality of keeping the boat afloat saved him from facing the inner truth of his own heart of darkness. He says, ‘But I felt it all the same.’
The light/ darkness metaphors in Conrad’s novel in the end lead us to the ironic conclusion that ‘enlightenment’ or understanding in ‘Heart of Darkness’ equates, not with ‘light’ but with ‘darkness.’ Marlow’s enlightenment and ours is the recognition of how easily we cast off our civilized values and revert to the primitive and savage. Without the controls of civilization, or restraints of firm beliefs or principles, we are likely to succumb to the heart of darkness that is in us all.
The Forest versus the Town.
Controls of civilization versus wilderness is also a theme in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ but with a different emphasis than in Conrad’s book. Here the drama involves town versus forest. Its events take place in a lonely western outpost in the New World, the Puritan settlement of Boston, cut off from civilization on one boundary by an ocean and by an unexplored wilderness on the other. The dramatic events of the novel have as much to do with its setting, which bears directly on the story of Hester Prynne, the main character of the ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ as with the interactions of the four characters involved, Hester Prynne and her past lover, respected and spiritual pastor of the little community, their child, born out of wedlock, and Hester’s elderly husband, believed dead but now arrived in the town, his identity known only to Hester, whom he swears to silence.
The theme of adultery is easily presented as melodrama but in this novel it is not, it is a psychological and moral study of human transgression that is judged within the strict moral confines of the Puritan settlement, its vision of Utopia contrasting with the surrounding forest where no human laws obtain.
‘We have sacrificed all things,’ says one of its leaders describing its creation, ‘and come to a land whereof the old world hath scarcely heard, that we might make a new world unto ourselves, and painfully seek a path from hence to heaven.’
Not a heaven on earth this, but a preparation for the life to come, any wonder that punishment of transgressions are meted out without fear or favour, and that the cemetery, the gallows and the prison, are prominent features of the Puritan Utopia. Here is Hester Prynne at the beginning of the novel emerging from its prison portals:
‘The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and gristly presence of the town beadle, with a sword by his side and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender. Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right hand upon the shoulder of a young woman whom he thus drew forward, until on the threshold of the prison door, she repelled him by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character and stepped into the open air, as if of her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison.’
The young woman was tall with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. Her dark and abundant hair was so glossy that it threw off sunshine with a gleam. On the breast of her gown the young woman wore a token of her crime, ordered by the authorities but which she has wrought herself in prison, an embroidered scarlet letter ‘A,’ denoting the crime of Adultery. She is a fine needle-woman and has created her mark of shame with ‘elaborate and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy’ and flourishes of gold thread so that it far exceeds the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
At the outset Hawthorne introduces a parallel of contrasts between the forest and the town, the grim, grey settlement contrasting with luxuriant nature. He sets off the prison ‘black flower of civilized society,’ with the wild rosebush’ that blooms by the prison door. Each side of the tableau has its parallel words, ‘iron’ for the town, man-forged metal, ‘iron clamped door,’ ‘iron-breasted company,’ and ‘wild’ for the forest, freedom from human constraint, ‘wild flowers,’ ‘wild energy.’
The human actors are part of this tableau by way of their preferences and different temperaments. Belonging to the town, Arthur Dimmesdale, the settlement’s pastor, the father of Hester Prynne’s child who fails to confess the relationship, and Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester, who conceals his own identity and relationship to Hester… Those who do not belong to the town, Hester Prynne and her child, living in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of the town.
Be true, be true, be true…
In the duality that Hawthorne creates in his novel between Puritan justice and the lawlessness of the forest, he deliberately enlists our sympathies for Hester and her child and exposes both the hypocrisy of the unknown father of her child and of the husband who resolves to unmask him.
The deception. When the pastor falls ill as a consequence of his weight of guilt, Roger Chillingworth, scholar and physician, takes an interest in his condition, and recognising its mental origins, initially begins an investigation he imagines ‘he will take with the integrity of a judge desirous only of truth and helping his patient.’ Not so. Soon he is sensing a guilty secret that he gropes stealthily to uncover. As he guesses what this secret is, the physician is now bent on revenge and becomes the pastor’s nemesis, (and also his own.) He seeks to distress the pastor further by speaking of confession as balm for sick men’s souls. Double-deception: in his reply to the physician, Arthur Dimmesdale reveals his own hypocrisy…
‘It may be that such men are kept silent by the constitution of their nature. O – can we suppose it? – guilty as they may be, retaining nevertheless , a zeal for God’s glory and man’s welfare they shrink from displaying themselves black and filthy in the view of men : because, there-forward no good can be achieved by them: no evil of the past be redeemed by better service. So to their own unutterable torment they go about among their fellow creatures looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves.’
Hawthorne having weighted the argument heavily on the feeling side, doesn’t settle for an easy conclusion. In the child, Pearl, (symbolic naming by her mother,) beautiful and intelligent, but mercurial and wilful, we see, as her mother observes, a child more elfin than human. She needs the father as well as the mother, as the child herself intuits when she and her mother returning from a sickbed visit, meet with the pastor at a midnight vigil at the town gallows where he calls them to join him. She challenges him: ‘And will you stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noon-tide?
In the novel’s conclusion, it is neither town nor forest, iron or wild rose but something encompassing both that must prevail. Be true, be true, be true, man made laws defined by nature’s reality.
Time to conclude with those promised lines by Theseus, Duke of Athens, from the Bard’s ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.’
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!