The Mystic Geography of the Woods


Boria Sax, Ph.D.


As I grew up in Chicago, everything was mysterious beyond the city lines. Occasionally my parents would leave the city and drive through the cornfields of Illinois--endlessly monotonous, endlessly strange. Then, when my parents stopped the car, I would stray out for a while into those cornfields. Through the window, they had seemed almost flat. Up close, the stalks were taller than I. They were a miniature forest, a wood for little boys.

In the distance, beyond the cornfields were the real woods, filled with grown‑up trees. I thought that they must go back endlessly. Sometimes I imagined that if I were to leave the car and walk off through the corn into the woods, I could simply walk on forever. The fantasy comes back to me at times. 

In the forest, we always seem more alone. Trees in the forest appear to work against community, to be intent on separating people. When even small groups of people enter a forest, however carefully tended, that has no paths, they must constantly walk around trees, and so they are in danger of losing sight of one another. As any guide knows, even in the relatively tame woods of today, remaining together as a group requires constant attention. If people are too distracted either by the beauty of the woods or by practical tasks, they are likely to be lost.

Space, in consequence seems different in the woods, not a matter of fixed coordinates but of discontinuous points. This was even more so before the discovery of the compass. All one could do was stick strictly to the path, at least if there was a path. Once this was lost, there would be no forward or back. There would be no East nor West, North nor South.

History begins as people leave the woods. One of the greatest mysteries of Northern Europe is the battle of Teutoberger Forest, where the Germanic tribes, commanded by their chieftain Hermann, annihilated an entire Roman army, led by a legionaire named Varus, in the year 9 A.D. The Emperor Augustus, it is said, ran through the halls of his palace shouting "Varus, Varus, give me my legions back!" Textbooks speculate that this battle marked the limit of Roman expansion. The soldiers of the Empire, at any rate, later built an enormous wall, the Limes, along the West bank of the Rhine to keep the Germanic warriors out.

And yet the battle itself remains far more shadowy even than the fall of Troy. We know of it almost exclusively through the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, a relatively accurate source for his times but hardly infallible documentation. While he gave a date, Tacitus never gave a precise location for the battle. The so‑called “civilized world” had been largely mapped, yet there was no way of accurately estimating distance through the forest. The battlefield was not found until the mid-eighties.  Before that, it lay somewhere between myth and history, fixed precisely in time yet lost in the mystical geography of the woods.

Time seems changed in the woods as well. Today, of course, we wear watches, to remind of us the chronology we left behind. But, since the horizon is not visible in the woods, the only time of day we can identify by the sun is noon, when the sun is directly overhead. Otherwise, there are only large chunks of time: day, evening, and night.

Those who are lost in the forest can easily lose track of hours and days. It is hard, for example, to know if one has just slept for ten minutes, ten hours or not all. Entering the woods, we seem to approach a realm beyond time and place, known in folklore as the otherworld, fairyland, the land east of the sun and west of the moon, the land beyond the thrice nine kingdoms.

The laws governing civilization seem to be placed in abeyance in the forest. Old tradition in the Northern regions of Europe is that only land which has been cleared may be owned. In the forest, there can be no property. It was known as “no man’s land.” As people became more aware of wood as a limited resource, the Holy Roman Emperors claimed such lands as their own.

According to the Roman poet Virgil, queen Dido and her followers, after escaping from the city of Tyre, arrived on the African coast. Of the natives, Dido asked only so much land as she could enclose with the hide of a bull. Thinking this almost nothing, her hosts readily agreed. Queen Dido then cut the hide into thin strips and surrounded a large piece of land, which became the great city of Carthage. The same trick, according to accounts from the seventeenth century, was used by the first colonists on Manhattan, who asked the Indians for a piece of land that could be contained by the hide of a deer, to claim a vast tract for their homes.

Yet suppose the Colonists had, instead, asked for, say, a square mile? Would the Indians have understood? More likely they, like the first inhabitants of Carthage, thought land could no more be measured than be owned. The strips of hide are like a tape measure, turning forest into numbers and, thereby, into cash. The Indians did not object, since there was still plenty of unclaimed land. Yet exacting measurement, and the commerce it would bring, could long not be done simply with strips of hide. It would require clear, straight lines, and trees blocking them would have to be cut down. Even today, people feel, in a very visceral way, that forest belongs to nobody and to all. Laws in Finland, Germany and Sweden still prohibit owners from barring others from walking on wooded land.

For those who lived near the edges of a forest at a time when they were dense and hardly mapped, the danger of being lost forever in the forest was real indeed. The original human communities of prehistoric Europe were temporary clearings in the forest, often created by fire. The woods themselves were a vast boundary, in which the rule of law and custom was uncertain at best.

Being lost in the forest has, ever since, evoked a terror and disorientation that goes beyond physical fear. Dante evokes this in the opening lines of The Divine Comedy:

Midway through life's journey

I found myself in a dark wood,

Because the direct path was lost

Ah, how can I say what it was like or how long it lasted,

That forest, savage, bitter and intense,

When the very thought brings back my fear.

The journey out of the forest took Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.


Dante never explains how he entered the dark wood. Scholars sometimes compare the forest in which Dante begins his pilgrimage with the Wood of Suicides which he later visits in Hell. There, men and women have been changed to trees, whose speech is blood flowing from a broken branch. But forests of that time, in general, must have seemed, literally, like Hell, not only because of the darkness but also the company. The only people one was likely to encounter were vagrants, outlaws and adventurers who entered to escape society. There might be an occasional hermit who retreated for communion with God. Otherwise, the aristocrats would generally only venture into the deep woods for the sake of hunting.      

The hunt today is almost always pursued in a solitary manner, relying on surprise. This, however, involves a risk of getting lost, made tolerable only by modern technologies. The nobility of the middle ages preferred to hunt in large parties that had to be carefully coordinated. The hunt was surrounded with ceremony and sometimes pursued with almost religious intensity. It was a way of reaffirming a sense of community and the social order. Tasks were delegated according to rank. When killed, the game was ceremoniously distributed, with everybody receiving an appropriate portion, from the lord of the manor to the dogs.

Part of the challenge of the hunt was always to remain together. The very excitement of the chase was also a source of danger. Concentrating on pursuit, a hunter could sometimes lose track of his men and his location. He might then find himself isolated in the woods. Many romances and fairy tales begin in this way, as a hunter becomes so intent on the chase of a stag or boar that he finds himself lost in the depths of the forest.

One of the most poetic of these stories is told, in several versions, of Louis the Pious, eldest son of the Emperor Charlemagne. By one account, Louis and his hunting party saw an enormous stag, which began to lead them ever deeper into the woods. Since the horse of Louis was the strongest, he soon left the other men and the dogs behind. The stag leaped into a river and began to swim across. Louis followed on his horse, but he was swept away by the violent current and lost consciousness as the waves threw him about.

When Louis came to, it was night. He had been washed up on the opposite shore, but there was no sign of either horse or stag, let alone his hunting party. He called out repeatedly, but the only answer was his own voice echoing among the trees. He could barely make out the forms of the enormous trees in the darkness. All around him were the sounds of owls and other nocturnal animals, unfamiliar to one who had entered the forest only during the day.

Louis wandered until he lost all track of time and place. Finally, tired and hungry, he caught sight of a single bright point of light, where the appendage of a tree caught the moonlight. He took the crucifix from his neck, placed it upon the twig, made a small altar and prayed until at last he fell asleep.

When he awoke, it was day. The point of light revealed itself as a thorn of a large rose bush. It had snowed during the night, and the crucifix that Louis had suspended from the thorn was fastened by ice to stem. Roses blossomed amid the snow. Then Louis heard the horns and calls of the hunting party, which had been searching for him all night. He ordered that a chapel, which eventually became the cathedral of Hildeshime, be built around the rose bush at that place.

There are other legends about the rose bush at Hildeshime, the oldest in the world. According to legend, it was planted in honor of the Norse goddess Freya or else planted by Charlemagne to commemorate a visit from the Caliph Haroun al Rasheed. At any rate, it survived bombing during the two World Wars and continues to blossom luxuriantly.

But the legend of Louis the Pious illustrates the poetry and the fear associated with the deep forest in medieval times. As Louis is drawn ever deeper into the forest, time seems more uncertain. Finally, even the seasons merge, in an anticipation of eternity. The roses of summer thrive in the winter snow.

Some of the most famous medieval tales begin in a similar way, as a hunter is lead by an animal away from the society of the court. One is the story of the water fairy Melusine. The pursuit of a boar takes the young man Raymond and his count into the deep woods. The count is accidentally killed, but the young man is saved by Melusine, beginning a long series of adventures that provided a mythic origin for many aristocratic houses.  Similarly, the quest for the Holy Grail, in one version of the tale, begins when knights of Arthur follow a White Stag into the woods.  

The view of the forest in Northern Europe was far more positive than in Dante's Florence, but, there as well, to enter the forest was to surrender control to providence. In medieval romances, knights in search of adventure would often ride off into the forest without a plan and without direction. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, written about 1200, the castle of the Grail, Montsalvaesche, lies in the middle of a dense wood, in which no tree has been cut for miles. It can only be found by providence, never by looking.

Similarly, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the last decades of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain sets out to find the Green Knight without plan and without direction. He comes across the castle of the Green Knight, who bears name of

"Sir Bertilak," in the middle of a primeval wood.

Medieval castles, particularly in Northern Europe, required prodigious quantities of wood. There were, of course, no synthetic materials, so wood was used for almost everything not made of metal or cloth. This included all furniture, bowls, barrels for storage, doors and buttresses of buildings. Wood staves were needed for weapons and for household implements. Huge amounts of wood were needed for the building of ships. More than anything else, however, wood was needed to heat living quarters during winter. A large castle in the middle of a primeval forest was, therefore, a practical impossibility, yet such castles are found in medieval romances. The location was a sign that the castle could not have been built and maintained in the normal way, but could only have appeared by magic.  

Similar castles set in the depths of the wood are common in European fairy tales. Perhaps the best known is the story of Sleeping Beauty, recorded in many versions including ones by Giambatiste Basile, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. It is a bit like those medieval romances in which a knight comes across a mysterious castle in the depths of the woods, except that it is written from a different point of view‑‑that of the castle rather than the knight.

In the versions of Perrault and Grimm, an entire kingdom is enchanted and sleeps for a hundred years, waiting for a hero who is destined to marry the princess. A fairy hides it in a wall of thorns. Pretenders are kept away or killed, but when the right prince approaches, the wall of thorns opens of itself. The prince wakens the princess, and the two fall in love. The castle is, once again, filled with life.

In the fairy tales of Grimm and others, we think of the forests as almost impassable. In relatively untouched forests, however, the canopy can block sunlight from the woodland floor, leaving the ground relatively bare of vegetation. The forests, however, can be rendered virtually impenetrable, when they are deliberately cut so as to grow back in as countless intertwined branches, much like thorns. Early Celtic and German peoples or Europe sometimes cut the woods in this manner, to create a sort of natural wall for defense. This could hide and, when necessary, also protect a settlement. The warrior Hermann may well have used such barriers in his massacre of the Roman legions at Teutoburger Forest. It could also be part of the origin of the story of Sleeping Beauty.

The story of Sleeping Beauty represents a perennial dream of people throughout the modern world, from tourists to romantic painters. That is to find love, fortune or simply a sense of belonging in some remote area that had miraculously preserved its innocence through the ages. Folklore and popular culture both tend to place this lost kingdom in the darkness of a forest.

We generally think of the forest as a primeval state. This may be because, in most regions, forests are so persistent in returning whenever land is neglected. In a sense, however, the forest is no more primeval than desert, tundra or grassland. The forests of the Northern latitudes may be old, yet they have not been there forever. Their story, in fact, is closely linked with that of human beings. With the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, both forests and human beings began to greatly expand their range. Trees spread through vast areas that had previously been tundra or covered with ice. Hunting became, in consequence, more difficult, since game was not readily visible. Human beings gradually began to develop agriculture and to domesticate animals.

The trees, from the start, were both partners and rivals to human beings. As they covered greater areas, men and women began to cut them down, creating settlements, first temporary and later increasingly permanent, in the woods. They used wood, on a growing scale, for fuel and for a variety of tools. Very likely, they slept in the hollows of trees, as well as in the mouths of caves.

The story of Sleeping Beauty seems to go back to the Norse Eddas. The god Odin pricks Brunhild, the disobedient Valkyrie, with the “thorn of sleep,” then he surrounds her with a wall of flames, which only the chosen hero may ride through. Somehow, as the story was retold, the flames turned into trees, while the thorn became a spindle and a wall.

Closely linked with trees, in fact as well as in symbolism, is fire. Wood, of course, is the major fuel of fire. A basic way to start fire, used by early men and women, is to rub pieces of wood together. Fire is also the means to clear forests, on a large scale, for settlement and for agriculture. Even the woods of the American continent were formed and cultivated by American Indians, for example, by deliberately starting fires in order to open up certain areas for hunting. We know no more about the ancient forests of Northern Europe than about those of pre‑Colombian America, but these woods were surely cultivated as well. The darkness and perhaps even the size of the folkloric forests of Northern Europe may be partial illusions created deliberately to keep intruders away.

If this is so, we need not love, lament nor celebrate the woods any less. The woods are not less of a natural wonder. But they are also, simultaneously, a monument of the human imagination. They are, more exactly, a union of humanity and the natural world, so harmonious, we hardy know where the one leaves off and the other begins.                                        

                          Selective Bibliography

This bibliography is intended mostly as a fairly informal list of suggestions for further reading. I have not included the best known works such as those of Dante (the translation of lines is my own), Grimm and Perrault, since these will, in any case, be easy to locate.    


Beechman, Roland. Trees and Man: The Forest in the Middle Ages. Trans. from the French by Katharyn Dunham. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Gordon, Jean. Pageant of the Rose. New York: Studio Publications, 1953,

Opie, Peter and Iona. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxfrd U. Press, 1974.

Perlin, John. A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization. Cambridge, MASS: Harvard U. Press, 1991.

Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales and Anecdotes of Animals. New York: Pace. U. Press, 1990.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Shepard, Paul. Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature. College Station, TX: Texas A & M U. Press, 1991.

Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. Trans. from the Latin by H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford. New York: Penguin, 1986.

------ The Annals of Imperial Rome. Trans. from the Latin by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin, 1989.

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