Into the Woods (and out again)

Like many people, I recently saw this at the movies and was transformed both by the power of storytelling and the mythic construction of the woods as a powerful symbol within our culture. This post is not so much a movie review but a reflection on storytelling and the marvellous back drop that the woods play not only in this movie but in our lives, in our psyches and in various cultural contexts. In our own culture we have turns of phrase that are heavily symbolic that reflect on this, for example where we are warned about the woods and travelling there: “[Don’t go] into the woods” “We’re not out of the woods yet” “You can’t see the wood for the trees” and of course, “If you go down to the woods today, be sure and not go alone…”
We have to ask ourselves a number of questions: what is it that the woods really represent? What purpose does this serve? What tensions (if any) are resolved by our journeying into, through and out of the woods? And what happens if we get lost or stuck there?

I think that the woods are a symbolic space upon which we project many of the emotional tensions that we experience in our lives. This is also represented in many cultural contexts where different tensions are portrayed using the woods as well. In some parts of Asia the woods represent the playground of the gods, a place into which you would venture if you wished to meet with a deity to tap into the power of the gods to effect a transformation in your life, hence the woods are dangerous and powerful. In other parts of Asia, the forests house spiritual leaders, hermit monks who draw a following. And the woods are the place to which people flee when they go mad, only to return transformed by their encounters in the woods which empowers them and allow them to become healing practitioners or powerful spirit mediums.

In Christian Europe the woods represent the wildness and untamed nature of the psyche, a place which Christianity has not yet colonised but pre Christian demons, nymphs, naiads and nature spirits reside. The ordering power of Christianity with its roadside shrines to local saints, location of churches and monasteries in high places and control of people’s movements within ordered, structured and sacralised regimes of worship exists as a counterpoint to the woods. Christianity represents culture in opposition to the wildness of nature which is a powerful, ever-changing original force full of chaos and dynamism.

The woods are depicted too not as a destination but as a place through which one must travel through. Hence the woods are heavily symbolic of the emotional turbulence that we experience. If we have a problem in life, we always symbolically travel through the woods, through the dense, thick undergrowth [irrational fears, unacknowledged feelings], with an inability to see far ahead as we attempt to meet the challenges of our changing situations, meeting creatures [strong feelings such as love, fear and hate] who may be dangerous, ferocious and fearful to deal with. These are our bears. These are our wolves. And we are all dressed in red capes symbolising our innocence as we travel to meet adult emotions.

The woods are also depicted as a site which we must attempt to avoid, we are warned against travel there, about the dangers of the inhabitants of the woods, which fits in perfectly with storytelling. Using the woods as a place of danger fits in perfectly with the storytelling form. We use stories to teach children about how to live, what to strive for, how to achieve as well as the underside of life: what to fear, what to hate and how to deal with strong emotions. The woods with their universal trope of denseness, growth, varied light and shade, home of creatures big and small, and serving as a site in which to harbour, to hide, to shelter or flee are a perfect setting against which we can play out our own canvass of emotions.

In storytelling when we think of the woods, we think of the vulnerability of children: of Hansel and Gretel, of Little Red Riding Hood and other daughters too. We think of and fear evil preying on them personified in children’s stories by witches and wild beasts. But what are these forms of evil telling us? In the movie it became patently clear that Rapunzel’s mother was an evil witch because she did not want her daughter to grow up, to become an adult, to LEAVE HER. The witch was a personification of all the fears that parents harbour but cannot make explicit as she warned against the dangers and evils of the world. The witch herself became those dangers, those very dangers that she warned her daughter about. This speaks to ALL MOTHERS, to all our fears of fading beauty, waning fertility, shrivelling fecundity and oncoming death. In letting go of our daughters and casting them into the world, we let go of that bit of ourselves that was mirrored in our children as we are forced to acknowledge the change of status that this entails.

That’s just one part of one story, but there are many more. This is why stories from ages ago still speak to modern children, to modern audiences and are so amenable to interpretation and understanding across time. As I’m not a literary critic or analyst I offer this perspective (which is probably not original) because I was so struck by the representation of the human condition and our emotional and existential plight that I saw depicted on the screen and I wondered why it had taken me so long to recognise that I too was still in the dark, still in the woods so to speak about such a culturally resplendent, powerful yet simple way to transfer knowledge of emotions between the generations.

Seeing these stories depicted in books, in film or on the stage allows us to work through (a hackneyed phrase I know, but in this context so good) challenging emotions, challenging ideas: what if we went broke and had to sell everything? What if the person or people who cared for me died? If I couldn’t have children, what would that mean for my life? What would I become? What if a promise were broken? What if I got eaten up by … death?  Stories allow us to address these universal themes and offer a way for us to talk to and teach our children about them too.

Now, let’s get started on another one: how about keeping the wolf from the door?


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