The Forbidden Forest
The Symbolism of Forests through Folklore and Storytelling behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
By Fiona Caldwell
In an interview in 2008, J.K. Rowling said “Everything, everything I have written, was thought of for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest... it is the last truth of the story.” 1 Forests have been an important symbol in folklore from ancient mythology to modern fantasy and in this essay, I am going to examine the meanings behind their symbolism and how they have been used in different forms of storytelling leading up to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Forests played an important part in ancient mythology, and in particular in the Greek, Celtic and Native American mythologies. In Ancient Greece, they were the home of Dryads, or wood nymphs, who lived in the trees. The word “Dryad” comes from the Greek “drys” meaning oak although the word is used to describe nymphs from different types of trees, each species of which has its own different nymph. As well as spirits living in trees, they are seen as semi-divine as they are spirits of nature which played a very important role in the belief system of almost all ancient civilizations. In a Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith writes that
The early Greeks saw in all the phenomena of ordinary nature some manifestation of the deity; springs, rivers, grottoes, trees, and mountains, all seemed to them fraught with life; and all were only the visible embodiments of so many divine agents. The salutary and beneficent powers of nature were thus personified, and regarded as so many divinities; and the sensations produced on man in the contemplation of nature, such as awe, terror, joy, delight, were ascribed to the agency of the various divinities of nature.2
which could also be applicable to other ancient civilizations.
The forest is associated with change and cycles because of the changing of the seasons, which is described in John Fraim’s “Symbolism of Place” as “the time aspect of place symbolism.” 3 This illustrates the idea that time is relative, and that for ancient civilizations, time is cyclical and dependent of the seasons and natural phenomena rather than the human constructions of clocks and watches. In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest and the seasons. When her daughter Persephone was taken to the underworld by Hades, she stopped the movements of the Earth while she searched for Persephone, and life on Earth began to die because of the lack of seasons. Zeus ordered Persephone’s return which led to the emergence of spring and the four seasons. This myth illustrates the importance of the cycles of nature and “natural time” as opposed to constructed, which was the view held by the ancient civilizations. Trees also play an important part in the cycle of life on Earth as they produce oxygen needed to breathe, which also adds to their importance in the natural world.
The forest is a key feature of Celtic mythology due to the landscape of Celtic countries such as Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Celts believed that there was an “Otherworld” governed by deities and other supernatural beings such as fairies and spirits which existed in the same spatial world as mortals but had a different concept of time. In Celtic myths, this enchanted space was often portrayed in forests as they symbolized Nature, or Mother Earth. Each tree had different connotations, which shows how important tree and forest symbolism was in Celtic mythology. J.K. Rowling draws on these associations with the different woods that make up the wands in the Harry Potter series. Harry’s wand is made of holly, which is associated with life and protection whereas Voldemort’s wand is made of poisonous yew. The elder wand from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows represents sorrow and death as well as rebirth and renewal, which is significant because of the way Harry’s battle against Voldemort can be seen as illustrating the ancient view of time as cyclical as Harry’s “death” and “rebirth” lead to a new beginning in the Wizarding world.
Bruno Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment that “Since ancient times the near-impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious” 4 which is the way in which he interprets the frequent use of the forest as a fairytale setting. He uses the act of a fairy tale hero entering a forest “with an as yet undeveloped personality” and coming out with “a much more highly-developed humanity” 5 to symbolize “the need to find oneself.” 6 This follows Carl Jung’s analysis of fairy tales showing that certain “archetypes” shown in fairy tales illustrate forms of the collective unconscious which is “identical in all individuals.” 7 The idea of the collective unconscious does seem to fit with the way in which some fairy tales are common to many different cultures although they vary dependent on differing worldviews. For example, the Native American myths often describe the four elements, the seasons and the Great Spirit in Nature whereas Ancient Greek myths involve various deities and heroes. All traditional cultures seem to have accepted the idea of an “ultimate reality” but it is interpreted in different ways. According to A Dictionary of Symbols by Juan Eduardo Cirlot, “Forest-symbolism [...] is connected at all times levels with the symbolism of the female principle or of the Great Mother [...] since the female principle is identified with the unconscious in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconscious,” 8 which links the ideas of the forest as Nature and Mother Earth and Jung’s analysis of the unconscious.
In an essay called “Transformations of the Fairy Tale in Contemporary Writing” from A Companion to the Fairy Tale, Tom Shippey writes fairy tales are “set against a background of forests and peasants and kings of nameless countries.” 9 He says that, for modern readers, this “lack of verisimilitude is incomprehensible,” 10 but is could be seen as another form of archetype because the lack of specific time and space is part of what makes fairy tales so “timeless” and applicable universally. The universality of folk and fairy tales can make them seem more “believable”, not in the sense that they actually happened but that, as Bettelheim says, the forest is a metaphor for something common to all peoples and cultures. Jack Zipes expands on Bettelheim’s analysis in his book The Brothers Grimm: from Enchanted Forests to the Modern World where he writes that “Inevitably they find their way into a forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves. It is there that they gain a sense on what should be done” 11 which seems almost identical to Bettelheim’s analysis, but Zipes adds that “Nothing gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies.” 12 This idea seems a little excessive as it appears to personify the forest as something other than an archetypal setting but there is a sense in many fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm whose tales Zipes is analyzing, that the forest has “powers” of its own and is in itself “magical” although that is not specifically stated. In fairy tales, when a hero or heroine enters a forest, it can be assumed that something threatening or dangerous is going to happen, but whether the forest itself is the danger is ambiguous.
In the article “Once Upon a Time” from a magazine called Inside Journal published in 1997, Jonathan Young writes that “The deep dark forest is a common representation of the feared elements within” 13 and refers to Jung’s analysis of the “shadow”, which is a repressed part of the unconscious mind (not part of the collective unconscious – it is individual to each person) and represents weaknesses and instincts. This demonstrates the idea that fairy tales can be interpreted uniquely be different readers as well as being universally applicable. This is because archetypes can be individual as well as collective, and different people can relate to different archetypes. He continues by saying that “The monsters live in the forest. The forest can reflect parts of ourselves that are never entirely tamed, that are always somewhat dangerous and chaotic” 14 and that “They are important parts of ourselves” 15 because they lead to new ideas and creativity, which is a slightly different interpretation than Bettelheim’s because of its emphasis on creativity. The ideas of collective versus individual unconsciousness are important because they illustrate the difference between traditional folk and fairy tales as fables and the way in which they have become individual and interpreted in different ways – almost as though a “template” of archetypes were filled in. This is similar to the way in which traditional folk tales have been written into literary fairy tales, although this idea is slightly different in that both folk and fairy tales have archetypes that can be both universal and individual. The forest is something that is both universal and can be individual, as is seen in the various interpretations. The forest is also seen as a place of change and transformation, both due to the changing seasons that created myths and ideas about the psyche undergoing some form of change.
The forest can also be seen as an “otherworld” or enchanted space as is shown in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where it is the realm of fairies and magic contrasted to the world of Athens. In An Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye describes the forest portrayed in Shakespeare’s “drama of the green world” as “the embryonic form of the fairy world” 16 which links the world of Nature to the world of enchantment. He writes that “The green world has analogies, not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires” 17 which seems to fit with the idea that the forest can be individual and reflects the desires of the unconscious. He expands on Jung’s concept of archetypes by defining the “Theory of Myths” in terms of archetypes and in particular the changing seasons, which again reflects the ancient symbolism of forests as associated with change. He associates the “green comedy” with spring because it is associated with birth, death and resurrection which forms the basis of many forest myths and stories and like Jung, bases his concept of archetypes on myths. In his sections in the third essay on “Apocalyptic Imagery”, Frye describes the “vegetable world” as “the archetype of Arcadian imagery” in the Bible and associates it with the “forests of romance,” 18 but in the next section on “Demonic Imagery”, he writes that “The vegetable world is a sinister forest” and compares that view with “the opening of the ‘Inferno’.” 19 These two conflicting views illustrate further the contrasting ways in which the forest has been represented and interpreted, and how ambiguous it is as a “space” (or otherworld).
The Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series can be seen as showing various forms of these ideas. Harry’s first encounter with the Forest is in the first book of the series where he overhears a covert conversation between Professors Quirrell and Snape and the secrecy of the conversation suggests that the Forest is a place of ambiguity. The name “Forbidden Forest” also supports this and suggests danger, which is reinforced by teachers repeatedly warning students not to go near it. The chapter “The Forbidden Forest” in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is (like the majority of the series) written from Harry’s perspective and the description emphasizes the atmosphere of fear and oppression. The forest and trees are repeatedly described as “black” and “dark” and the “silence” and “rustling of leaves” add to the tension as does narration from Harry’s point of view such as “Harry kept looking nervously over his shoulder. He had a nasty feeling they were being watched.” 20 The idea that the forest has powers of its own can be seen through the centaur in Rowling’s Forbidden Forest who are linked to Nature and the forest in the series. The centaur Bane shows this knowledge when he says “we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens” 21 and it can be seen in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where the centaur Firenze teaches in the castle and makes his classroom resemble the forest.22 This links the forest and Nature to a higher power or knowledge, as can be seen when the centaurs predict the second Wizarding War with their repetition of “Mars is bright tonight” 23 as Mars is the planet associated with war.
The main significance of the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series is in the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In an interview with a Spanish reporter for El Pais in 2008, J.K. Rowling states “Everything, everything I have written, was thought of for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest” and “That moment is the heart of all of the books. And for me it is the last truth of the story.” 24 The chapter is significant in the plot of the series because it describes Voldemort finally killing Harry, but also in the ideas behind the series such as forgiveness and symbolism. In The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger explores this idea, linking it to Biblical imagery and to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He says that “the trial Harry begins in ‘The Forest Again’ parallels Dante’s three part spiritual odyssey that begins in a dark wood” 25 as Dante’s journey begins on Holy Friday and Harry’s death and rebirth in the Forest have links to the Easter story.
The first canto of the Dante’s Inferno does seem to have some similarities with “The Forest Again.” 26 The “journey of our life” is analogous to Harry’s journey as the traditional Romantic “hero” and the series and in particular the seventh book is essentially a commentary on his “journey” from child to adult and from birth to death and rebirth. The “dark wood” introduces the light and dark imagery that is also very common throughout the Harry Potter series and especially in this chapter. 27 There are repeated references to the “darkness” of the wood and how “cold” it is. On a more general scale, the series is preoccupied with the difference between light and dark, as can be seen with the Dark Lord (Voldemort) and Dark magic. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Albus (whose name means “white”) Dumbledore says “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy” 28 in reference to Lord Voldemort rising again. Line three of Inferno says “the straight way was lost” 29 which is similar to Bettelheim’s analysis of forests in fairy tales and is also relevant in “The Forest Again” where Harry has no idea which path to follow to find Voldemort and fears the unknown, echoing another quotation from Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” 30 In the interview with El Pais Rowling says that “It’s important to have light and darkness, it’s a very conventional mechanism, but to be able to create a transition between a mundane universe and the cruel and oppressive existence adds shadows” 31 which also seems to support Jung’s idea of the shadow in the unconscious. The description of the forest as “wild, and rough, and stubborn” 32 is consistent with Rowling’s description of the Forest as “tangled”, “gnarled” and “twisted”, although Dante’s description personifies the forest more than Rowling’s – for Dante, the forest itself is threatening whereas Harry fears the unknown within the Forest. Both Dante and Harry contemplate the idea of death, which J.K. Rowling said in the same interview is the key to the series. As he begins to accept the fact that he is going to die, he uses the Resurrection Stone to create visions of his parents, godfather and Lupin which calms him in a similar way to Dante’s vision of the Sun. The “Divine Love” in Dante is echoed in the Harry Potter series where Dumbledore frequently tells Harry that the inability to comprehend love is Voldemort’s downfall.
Some writers have seen Dumbledore as a godlike figure, and the “ancient magic” of love to represent the love of God, and this does have some resonance in the series, especially since Rowling has said in interviews that Harry’s doubts about Dumbledore in the final book personify doubts about faith. Granger writes that “Dante’s walk in the woods to God ends at Easter in Paradise, much as Harry’s agony ends when the Sun rises in the Great Hall ceiling at his conquest of Voldemort” 33 which seems to fit with a “religious” reading of the Harry Potter series. An argument against his analogy could be that Harry is not experiencing sin because, although he has had doubts about Dumbledore’s intentions, by this point in the story he has already discovered the truth and has accepted his own part in the greater plan. Although Harry can be seen as a “spiritual pilgrim,” 34 he has chosen to die for the “greater good” and has accepted what Dumbledore has planned rather than continuing to doubt him and has always fought for “what is right.” 35 Dante’s Inferno has several similarities with “The Forest Again”, but does not parallel exactly because, although the setting and imagery is similar, the actual representations are different. The reason Harry does not die when Voldemort tries to kill him is because his soul is “whole”, and when he enters King’s Cross, which can be seen as representing Purgatory, his soul is already “pure.” Granger explains that “The Forest Again" is simultaneously a retelling of the Crucifixion and a story of the death of a Christian Everyman36 which could be true, but the Crucifixion allegory seems to fit more with the “backstory” and values of the series, although there are elements that seem to fit with Dante.
Another children’s fantasy series which parallels the Crucifixion story is C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and there are similarities between Rowling’s chapter “The Forest Again” and Lewis’ description of Aslan walking through the forest to his death in The Lion, ihe Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis uses the forest setting throughout the Narnia series. In The Magician’s Nephew, the “Wood between the Worlds” serves as an “in-between” place that links different worlds that can be accessed by jumping into pools. This seems to support the idea that forests are a symbol of change and the unknown and also the idea that a forest setting being an archetypal “nowhere” setting that links other, more concrete places. The forest in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe symbolizes the change in Narnia itself and echoes the ancient myths of the seasons – when Queen Jadis is ruler, there is perpetual winter and it is only when Aslan arrives that the trees begin to blossom into spring. This reflects the view from ancient mythologies that the forest represented time according to the seasons, and this is shown by the way that Narnian time is different to “our time.”
The other main form of tree symbolism in the Narnia chronicles is the planting of the Tree to protect Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. This represents both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge from the Bible, and has the power to heal Digory’s mother. In a book called The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall writes that “Under the appellations of the Tree of Life and The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is concealed [...] the mystery of equilibrium,” 37 which seems to be reflected in the Narnia chronicles which advocate the pursuit of “goodness” and harmony as opposed to ambition or greed. In a subversion of the myth in Genesis, Digory is tempted to eat the apple but does not which shows his innate “goodness”. When he approaches the tree and picks the apple, “he couldn’t help looking at it and smelling it before he put it away. It would have been better if he had not. A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit,” 38 which shows how his human desires represent “unbalance” and mortality as opposed to the “immortal” balance or equilibrium.
In Harry Potter and Imagination, Travis Prinzi compares Aslan and Harry’s journeys in a chapter called “Christ in the Forest: Aslan and Harry Walk to Their Deaths.” He writes that “both Aslan and Harry serve as a Christ symbol” but distinguishes that “the two accounts highlight different aspects of the atonement of Christ” as “Aslan is clearly a one-to-one Christ parallel. Harry is a flawed human who commits himself to a Christlike sacrifice,” 39 which illustrates the way in which Rowling is using Christian ideas and imagery in her novels without giving a direct analogy the way Lewis did. In Narnia, Aslan is the same “archetypal” character as Dumbledore as he guides and to an extent directs the children’s lives in a similar way to the way in which Dumbledore guides Harry and from a religious perspective. It would be Dumbledore who would be seen as “divine” (in both meanings – Godlike and controlling destiny) whereas it is Harry, a “flawed human” who sacrifices himself and comes to represent Christ.
The Biblical imagery in Aslan’s forest can be seen in the description and pattern of events. The night before his death, Aslan does not sleep well and walks into the woods accompanied by Lucy and Susan, which parallels Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene in the gospels of Luke and John. The description of the creatures at the Stone Table seems to “personify” evil itself and its fear through ineffability as Lewis writes “creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book.” 40 This idea of the unknown in the forest again suggests the way in which it can be seen as mysterious and dangerous although Lewis would not have been writing from a Jungian perspective because he was writing a Christian allegory. The shaving of Aslan again parallels the taunting endured by Jesus, and Aslan giving himself voluntarily illustrates how Jesus did not protest against his Crucifixion.
In “The Forest Again” Harry gives himself up to Voldemort voluntarily. As a contrast to Lewis’ Aslan, Rowling describes Harry’s human fears about death which echoes back to the links to Dante’s Inferno although Harry’s thoughts are voiced through narration such as “It was not, after all, so easy to die [...] At the same time he thought that he would not be able to go on, and knew that he must” 41 which empathizes his humanness compared to Aslan as Jesus’ divinity. In The Deathly Hallows Lectures, Granger breaks the chapter down into three parts that parallel the Crucifixion: “Harry has Garden of Gethsemane desires and chooses to act in obedience as saviour,” 42 which he explains corresponds to the way in which Jesus feared his own death, and compares Harry’s fear although he “knew he must;” “Harry walks the Via Dolorosa, stumbles, and is helped by Lily, his mother” 43 corresponds to the road to Calvary walked by Jesus carrying his cross and, according to Luke’s gospel, is comforted by his mother; “Harry dies sacrificially and without resistance to defeat the Dark Lord, as Christus Victor died on the cross” 44 reflects how Jesus does not fight against his crucifixion and dies willingly.
Rowling’s forest in this chapter represents Harry’s spiritual journey and how he, as a mortal human, performs the ultimate sacrifice for the “greater good.” It seems to have influences and aspects from various sources and analyses of forests. It supports Bettelheim’s argument about the unconscious because Harry does change from when he enters to when he leaves the forest, although the actual change itself takes place in the King’s Cross “otherworld” rather than the forest itself. If King’s Cross does not exist and takes place inside Harry’s head, as Dumbledore hints, then Harry’s metamorphosis from sharing a part of Voldemort’s soul to having a whole, pure soul takes place in the forest as a place of change. From Bettelheim and Jung’s view, the forest could be seen as an analogy for Harry having got rid of his “shadow” (the part of Voldemort’s soul latched onto his) and emerged from the forest having “found himself” for who he really is, and fulfilled his hero’s journey according to the archetype of the collective unconscious.
Joseph Campbell is quoted in The Hero’s Journey as saying “You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or a path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential,” 45 which is similar to Bettelheim’s analysis of the “near-impenetrable” forest and Harry’s experience in the forest reflects this. He does not know where to find Voldemort, but follows the path guided by some other power; “his limbs were working without conscious instruction.” 46 Harry is at the “darkest point” in his life- both literally in the darkness of the forest and metaphorically as he is about to give himself up to Voldemort. He is following “someone else’s path” as Dumbledore has already “predestined” what he must do in order to defeat Voldemort. But as a contrast to Campbell’s quotation, he does “realize his potential” through his death and rebirth, although he does this because he has chosen to follow Dumbledore’s orders and die willingly, which, as Dumbledore tells him in King’s Cross “made all the difference.” 47 Campbell also spoke of entering the dark forest of the Grail Quest “where there is no way or path.” 48 He called this the myth of the Hero’s Journey, which seems to be reflected in almost all forest myths, fairy tales and fiction. Harry’s “hero’s journey” ends after his journey to death through the forest and consequent rebirth and defeat of Lord Voldemort. The forest is a very powerful symbol that has been interpreted in various ways and this reflects its ambiguity and universality.
1. Rowling, El Pais interview.
2. Myth Index, "Nymphs."
3. Fraim, “Symbolism of Place.”
4. Bettelheim, Uses of Enchantment, 94.
5. Ibid., 94-95.
6. Ibid., 217.
7. Jung, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 43.
8. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 112.
9. Shippey, Companion to the Fairy Tale, 266.
11. Zipes, The Brothers Grimm, 65.
13. Young, “Once Upon a Time”
16. Frye, An Anatomy of Criticism, 182.
17. Ibid., 183.
18. Ibid., 144.
19. Ibid., 149.
20. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 185-186.
22. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 529.
23. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 185.
24. Rowling, El Pais interview.
25. Granger, Deathly Hallows Lectures, 111.
26. Dante, Inferno, l1.
27. Ibid., l2.
28. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 628.
29. Dante, Inferno, l3.
30. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 529.
31. El Pais interview
32. Dante, Inferno, l5.
33. Granger, Deathly Hallows Lectures, 112.
35. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 628.
36. Granger, Deathly Hallows Lectures, 148.
37. Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages, 273.
38. Lewis, Magician’s Nephew, 178.
39. Prinzi, Harry Potter and Imagination.
40. Lewis, Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 151.
41. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 559.
42. Granger, Harry Potter Lectures, 113.
44. Ibid., 114.
45. Osbon, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, 22.
46. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 561.
47. Ibid., 567.
48. Campbell, Hero’s Journey, xvi.
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