Into a Summer Woods

In fairy tales and fables, woods are often depicted as dark and dangerous...but, in reality, woods can help us connect to a greater spiritual world around us.

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Not that the woods always appear so friendly and inviting. They can also be dark and foreboding—a place where one can get dangerously lost, as Dante famously tells us in the first lines of his Divine Comedy:

Midway on the journey of life,
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straight path
had been lost.
How hard it is, even to speak
of that savage place
The very thought of which
renews my fear.

Those dark woods of Dante’s appear in countless fairy tales, where characters like Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood discover to their dismay that the forest is crowded not with comforting, godly presences, but with wolves, witches and other unfriendly characters set on doing them harm.

Ultimately, there’s no getting away from this double nature of the forest—its role as a place of both unexpected darkness and danger, and equally unexpected joy and light. That mysterious duality is, in fact, the real source of its power. In medieval Europe, seekers of the Holy Grail—the legendary chalice Christ and his disciples drank from at the Last Supper—knew that before they had a chance of attaining the Grail itself, they would have to pass through a forest full of dangers designed not only to test them, but also to purify and strengthen them. Sometimes, the spirit of the forest took on human form in the figure of the Green Man—a creature whose body was made entirely of leaves, twigs and acorns.


As pagan and unchristian as the idea of a man made of leaves might sound, the face of the Green Man graced the façades of countless European churches in the Middle Ages. The more scholars learn about this figure, the more it appears that he was not only a dark, wild and dangerously untamed figure, but also, paradoxically, an angelic and beneficent one.

Nowhere do we find this double nature of the wilderness expressed more powerfully than in the Bible. The word “wilderness” doesn’t always mean woods or forest when it appears there. Instead it often means desert, or simply a place set apart from human dwellings. But whether they featured actual forests or not, the stories we find in the Bible of men and women who journey into the wild and come back changed are the true inspiration behind countless legends and stories of forest journeys that came along later.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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