In the penultimate act of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, three witches predict, via the apparition of a child holding a tree, that Macbeth will only be vanquished when Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. The reigning king is reassured, but he hasn’t accounted for Macduff’s plan to disguise his army with branches from Birnam wood as they creep up on Macbeth’s castle. The forest thus becomes integral to the story, one of supernatural and macabre events that take extreme and unlikely turns. Eleanor Catton’s recent eco-thriller Birnam Wood is based around a guerrilla gardening group of the same name.
Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812–1858)
The Brothers Grimm
In German folklore, woods – particularly those dense with oaks – were a place to be feared and avoided, associated with outlaws, hunters and wolves. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that enchanted forests serve as the backdrop for the majority of the folk tales popularized in this classic collection, from Snow White to Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel to Sleeping Beauty. Frogs, owls, hedgehogs and other inhabitants of the forest populate these stories, as do elderly women living alone in the woods. As told here, the tales are far darker and steeped in blood than their wholesome Disney counterparts.
The Bloody Chamber (1979)
In a feminist reappropriation of traditional fairy tales, Carter subverts gender stereotypes while teasing out the medium’s unnerving erotic undertones, telling twisted tales of timid young girls and evil Marquises, ravenous wolves and alluring vampires. The woods are reconfigured here as places not only of danger but also desire and transgression; in The Erl-King, the forest is personified as a sinister elf figure, who at first seduces then tries to trap an innocent maiden. A seminal text on folklore and myth, it is a precursor to works such as Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
Correspondances (from Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857)
“Nature is a temple in which living pillars / Sometimes give voice to confused words; / Man passes there through forests of symbols / Which look at him with understanding eyes,” writes Baudelaire in this poetic outline of his symbolist aesthetic. In this study of reality, perception and meaning, “perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond”: both the innocent and the corrupt coexist in uneasy harmony. Although the poems in the collection largely focus on scenes of decadence in industrialized Paris, Baudelaire repeatedly turns to nature imagery – as in the title, The Flowers of Evil – finding beauty in the squalor of the scenes he depicts.
Henry David Thoreau
Walden; or, Life in the Woods, is an account of Thoreau’s time in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Following some fairly lengthy digressions on the failings of his compatriots, he describes his simple life there in great detail, speaking of the joys of isolation and the majesty of the forest around him. Along with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson he was a proponent of transcendentalism, a movement which exalted nature and self-sufficiency. The title of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, about a woman living in seclusion on the west coast of Ireland, nods to Thoreau but takes a wildly different approach.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Laura Willowes, known as Lolly, is a middle-aged spinster whose life is dedicated to serving those around her. So she does what anyone in her situation would, and goes off into the woods to make a pact with the devil (“The Loving Hunstman”), giving up her soul in exchange for freedom from housework, and from her nephew Titus’s constant demands on her time. Here, the forest surrounding the fictional village of Great Mop provides respite from a stifling, patriarchal society; Lolly’s repudiation of that world and subsequent initiation to witchcraft made her an early feminist figure of 20th century literature.
The Crystal World (1966)
The science fiction writer also known as the “Seer of Shepperton” imagines a forest that is gradually transformed by a deadly but transcendent force that crystallizes everything it touches, creating a world of “jeweled crocodiles” and “heraldic salamanders”. The novel tells the Heart of Darkness-like story of physician Edward Sanders, who arrives in Cameroon to reach a leprosy treatment facility. But as he heads deeper and deeper into the jungle, which is afflicted by this mysterious disturbance, his terror turns into something like ecstasy. A must-read for fans of Alex Garland’s cult film Annihilation, in which scientists investigate a quarantined zone affected by ‘The Shimmer’.
The Overstory (2018)
This sprawling, multi-narrative book seeks to tell the great American novel from the perspective of trees. The complex interlinking plot lines, divided into sections titled Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds, start in the mid-19th century and span the years until the present day, taking the reader from the hard lives of immigrant farmers to visionary virtual reality worlds. The characters move the action along, but at the core of the story are the magnificent chestnuts, mulberry trees, redwoods and Banyan trees that shape their environments. A central conceit of the novel is trees’ ability to communicate with each other underground, a theory for which dendrologist Patricia Westerford is first mocked, then celebrated.
The mystical ancient spirit of Dead Papa Toothwort, a shape-shifting being that is sometimes malevolent and constantly watching, moves through an English village and its surrounding woods, savoring the sights and sounds of the idyllic yet ominous countryside. Lanny is a young boy with a sweet temperament who starts drawing lessons with renowned local artist ‘Mad Pete’, until one day he goes missing, plunging the village into a frenzied search and even more frenzied gossip. Lanny’s close relationship with the wilderness marks him out from those around him, who view him as eccentric and “away with the fairies”; it also makes Dead Papa Toothwort take a peculiar interest in him.
In this darkly comic, Nobel prize-winning tale by Polish author Tokarczuk, an isolated community is shaken by a series of grisly murders. Local eccentric and William Blake enthusiast Janina Duszejko is convinced that it is the inhabitants of the forest – particularly a group of suspicious-looking deer, she is at pains to point out to the nonplussed police force – who are taking out their revenge against the region’s hunters and poachers. As the central mystery is revealed through Janina’s unreliable narration, readers are invited to reconsider their own relationship with the natural world; perhaps, it suggests, humans ought to see themselves as part of the ecosystem rather than above it.