The Forest Dark As Archetype

The Forest is often seen as a symbol of the unconscious. It’s used as a metaphor for entering the unknown: “In the middle of our walk of life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost”.
Dante, The Divine Comedy

Transformation is usually part of the story. The hero enters the forest and discovers something about himself. Luke Skywalker meets his father in the forest. Often the hero is tested. Sometimes he doesn’t survive the confrontation with the unknown.

This is a very common interpretation for many stories, particularly fantasy. Indeed it seems that nearly every movie or novel like the Lord Of The Rings fits into this pattern.

Isn’t it a bit too easy to say that even the old stories about the forest deal with an encounter with the unconsciousness? If we could not come up with simple rational explanations we say it’s all psychological.

These interpretations are certainly true to a large extend of fiction and some other creative productions since the forest got established as kind of a metaphor for a long time. Writers might introduce the forest as symbol for the unconscious even purposely, since the reader already knows about the metaphorical meaning of the forest.

But, aren’t we thinking in circles? Because the forest is used very often as a symbol it doesn’t mean necessarily that it works the same way every time. There are endless real forests in this world and not everything is related to man. And because some movies and stories repeat the same concept with the same meaning again and again we can’t say that the forest is a symbol in general for encounters with the unknown self and that even if you enter the forest in the real world you meet your own unconscious. No. There are different stories here and perhaps another truth.

It’s indeed a bit narcisstisic if we interpret anything in the outer world as part of our own inner psyche. What if the forest has a life of its own? The forest might have some sort of deeper meaning but it isn’t necessarily related to man.

The Forest Dark is sometimes said to be an archetype.

It’s incredibly difficult to come up with a proper definition for archetypes, a term which is used very often, but often people mean very different things when they speak of an archetype. C.G. Jung had a very specific idea about archetypes and wrote a book about it. But even with studying the huge volume of Jungian readings it’s not easy to explain what an archetype exactly is.

There is an interesting aspect here, when we not only think of archetypical images of so-called living agencies, which have a living on its own in the human psyche. There is one interpretation of archetype which resembles Plato’s idea of the eternal “forms” – something which cannot seen in itself but is expressed in many variations (there are endless variations of tables but only one basic idea what a table is).

According to Plato the forms or the archetypes exist in an intelligible realm. “In the Phaedrus the Forms are in a ‘place beyond heaven’ and in the Republic the sensible world is contrasted with the intelligible world in the famous allegory of the cave…Socrates postulated a world of ideal Forms, which he admitted were impossible to know” (Wikipedia).

In other words the archetypes or the forms exist in the Otherworld. Our world is a corruption of the real world. What we are seeing are shadows of the real thing.

If we translate the example of the table we might say that there are endless variations of forests but there is only one ideal forest, which is not part of our own world. We cannot see it in itself but we can develop a sensibility for the “Forms”, we might feel them and artists can create images of its various aspects. We long for the ideal image, maybe the luminescent forest in Avatar was in some way an artistic expression for our deepest wishes.

Like with many other things we are in danger of losing the idea of the forest as more as we cultivate the last resorts of this planet and industrialize the forest. That’s maybe why we are drawn sometimes to the wilderness, we want to remember what we have lost (why do we travel so much, looking for the perfect landscape and never become satisfied?).


It’s not necessary to reinterpret the idea of the forest as a symbol of the unconscious, but remember one thing: if you are deep in a Forest Dark and you can’t see much because it’s a moonless night your reaction is usually not a journey to the inner self. Instead your senses get sharpened. Survival instinct awakes. You want to know who else is there when you hear the many noises between the trees. You calculate how far you away from civilization, and you ask when you have taken the wrong path.

That’s maybe the important aspect here: the forest is also a symbol or an archetype with both positive aspects since you find beauty (and sometimes something to eat) but also troubling aspects as a zone where we don’t know what’s really going on. Maybe this is the important aspect of the archetype – the forest is the place where we can get lost, but not only in the depths of the own psyche but in a sense that we become aware that we don’t know a lot, that our very idea of reality could be shattered any time. We don’t see the forest for the trees. However, rather than becoming repressed or even depressed the Forest Dark as archetype makes us active in a way of becoming alert, and in the end we learn that we need to explore if we want to survive.

In some sense things could be seen the other way around: the forest is not so much part of your inner psyche but it can be something which enters your life from the outside – by walking through the forests of our world we get in touch from time to time with agencies, which exist in another realm but radiate their energies from their world into our own, even into our deepest self. We become aware of creations which belong to another plane of existence.

And sometimes it means not literally walking into the forest to get into a situation where we don’t see the forest for the trees. Like Dante Alighieri said there are moments in life where we found ourselves in a maze and have lost directions. It may be a result of our own decisions but not necessarily.

I have to admit that I am not an exception from the rule, and if I create a scary story set in the woods enounters with inner demons or some dark stuff from the unconscious is always a promising path. However even with this concept we should not rule out intrusion from the outside – think of astronaut Bowman’s treacherous reality in 2001 with a virtual world set up by aliens. If there is somebody out there who knows our deepest self, what if he could create these encounters with the darkest sides of the unconscious?

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