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 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?