The Land of In-Between


The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

Robert Frost’s words pull at our very beings. Stand by a dark wood filling with snow, and something primeval whispers to us. Our mind’s eye is hard-focused, whilst our bodies seem lost in some dream state, haunted by a sense of unreality.

I have just read that passage of The Hobbit to Felix: the one where Gandalf leaves the dwarves, and they must send back the ponies which have helped them thus far. They take on great backpacks and turn their back on the light and walk with grudging purpose towards the trees and darkness of Mirkwood.

It is a moment of change of which Tolkein is adept: he pulls at our hearts like a puppet master, because his knowledge of myth and legend tells him that the forest has a singular place in our unconscious minds.

The forest has a quality which someone only found a word to express sometime early in the 20th century. It was anthropologist and father of the French study of folklore, Arnold Van Gennep, who coined the adjective ‘liminal‘.

His renowned work on rites of passage gave this description to a middle stage in any great change. It is a time when one leaves what one has known and been behind, and enters a middle state when all rules and boundaries seem to seep away; who you were, and the social pecking order, dissolves and what was once taken as certain becomes riddled with doubt.

And in this terrifying melting away of order, a brand new way of being is born. A brave new world.

Forests, in folklore, are endlessly, whisperingly, hauntingly Β liminal. Think of Hansel and Gretel’s disorientation and terror; of Beauty’s father lost in the forest when he finds the beast’s castle; of the Baba Yaga stories and how many of them are set in the great dark Russian forests which ache with solitary cruelty and seem to offer cold, merciless death at every wrong turn. Red Riding Hood meets the wolf in the woods, and even one of the oldest stories ever recorded has its hero, Gilgamesh, travelling to a Cedar Forest where they must battle monsters and cut down the trees.

Mirkwood is no different. It is a ponderous, Wagnerian forest, a mirthless dark grim labrynth of evil heavy with its association with the great tales of the past. And Felix and I watched the dwarves and Bilbo make a conscious decision, not to turn back to the light and the safety of allies they had made; not to follow their friend and mentor Gandalf ack towards the sun; but to move forward.

Why? Why choose such adversity? Why move away from all that is comforting and familiar, towards the haunting twilight land of In-Between?

The question is as old as the hills, and the answer hidden in every fairy tale. For the dwarves and the small hobbit are bound for a great conflict with Smaug, the cause of desolation, the one who robbed a whole race of their home and so much of their identity. And if they can brave the terrors of In Between, they will emerge with a new, grounded sense of themselves. They will once more be a people with a home, they will ahve reclaimed the treasures of their race. It will be a golden age.

Adversity is grim indeed, and In Between a place of nightmares. But brave the liminal forest, and you emerge from your rite of passage the victor, say the fairy tales.

I wonder of that is true?


49 thoughts on “The Land of In-Between

  1. I believe it is true. Mankind cannot move forward, evolve, without stepping outside that over used term, ‘our comfort zone’. Harry Potter had the Dark Forest also. In space we have the scarey unknown, in science we have quanta. In life we have the future. Must be the nature of the beast, at least the brave ones. What makes a man get on a wee wooden boat and sail off into uncharted waters. It has to be intrinsic. Oops sorry for going on.

  2. I like to think it is true, Kate, this business of being brave in the liminal forests of life. Sometimes, for me, being brave and being scared seem to be one and the same. Hope all is well at the Shrewsday Mansion and that your dad is better.

  3. His renowned work on rites of passage gave this description to a middle stage in any great change. It is a time when one leaves what one has known and been behind, and enters a middle state when all rules and boundaries seem to seep away; who you were, and the social pecking order, dissolves and what was once taken as certain becomes riddled with doubt.

    And in this terrifying melting away of order, a brand new way of being is born. A brave new world.

    I experienced this sort of passage when I left home and entered college and also when I left the practice of law without knowing what I might do next. Both times, the known faded away and doubt rose up.

    And in the melting away of the known, a new way of being was born.

    Wonderful post, Kate! Thanks so much.

    1. Before I read your post, I shared the following quote on SLTW today:

      he journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place. ~ Barbara DeAngelis

      1. What a lovely quote, Nancy, and thank you for your words which I read carefully but – apologies – have just not had time to sit and reply to until now. I loved your post that day. Here’s to that new way of being, of continual rebirth into a renewed joy in life.

  4. The woods are lonely, dark and deep. Truly we each enter, gather our courage, and walk the path that leads into and through those dark moments, filled at once, as you say, with fear and courage. We emerge into the light and carry on, reborn, renewed, less burdened, having used some of what we brought in with us, to carry us through. Beautiful post.

    1. Thank you, Joss, and for taking the trouble and time to read and comment today. I have to say my favourite bit is the emerging into light bit: and this seems to be happening to me right now. Wonderful.

  5. What a great post. I love thinking about the liminal- the threshold, the in-between, the thin spaces. Thank you for sharing great and encouraging thoughts on this topic. . . .

  6. There is such a conflict between the ominous forest and the sheltering one. They both have their places in legend, myth and mystery, as well as in our own hearts. I suppose it is simply that some of them are Mirkwoods, and some Sherwoods.

  7. Beautiful writing Kate – you are very talented πŸ˜‰ I think one should only go into the darks of the forest if the motivation is high and the goal a worthy one – sometimes humans should just get the hell out of the forest! We have a forest or ‘bush’ as we call some woodlands in Australia that is impenetrable – I wouldn’t go in there unless I had to find something prescious (like a lost child or a naughty dog) πŸ˜‰

      1. I have never met a bush I did not feel comfortable walking freely with, so long as I had not seen fresh bear tracks near them. Yet, at the same time, I would feel awkward going to a meeting of strangers in a city.
        Funny thing about that is, I have spent most of my life in cities. Each of us relates to our own reality our own way, I guess.

  8. Aren’t we all in the forest all the time — surrounded by trees and animals we don’t even see? That’s why change is so scary, because we can’t see very far ahead of ourselves or behind either. Philosophy and fairy tales. Ben n Jerry don’t make such a good flavor! Thanks for you thought provoking blog. I enjoyed all the references to beloved fairy tales. Those authors could see the trees.

    1. Hi! Thanks for taking the time to read today. You’re right: philosophy and fairy tales walk very close together indeed. I feel a little as if I have been in a forest for a while and am emerging. I hope this is the case!

    1. What an intriguing idea, Carl. For whether we are in a good present or a bad present, we are still on our way somewhere. But I think there are moments in my life which have been all settled routine, and others which have been desconstructed and disorientating . The latter, I would call the forest.

  9. I think of forests as places for transition. Whether allegory, metaphor or just story, there’s movement from one place to another, one thought to the next, and time for changes in our very complex way of being. This was really quite delicious, Kate.

  10. I love Robert Frost’s poems about the woods and the road not taken. Growing up, our property adjoined state land. It was a pleasure to hike into the woods, to go off and enjoy the solitude – a chance to “hear” nature and maybe to see it as well.

    Your analogy is excellent, Kate.

  11. Beautiful thought provoking post Kate and very timely for me. I’m taking my first steps into the dark forest, and though its scary and lonely I know I have to go there as its the only way for me to get to the other side. I love bathing so I call it a “forest bath”

  12. Hello, Kate,
    I want to let you know that the podcast for the episode “Liminal Leap” on the Ear Candy radio show that includes your piece “The Land of In-Between” is posted and available to listen to from this link:

    Just go to “Podcasts” and open “Ear Candy”. There is a link available for that episode once opened.

    Thanks again for use of your work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s