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Sacred Woods

Forests: The Shadow of Civilization

by Robert Pogue Harrison
University of Chicago Press, 304 pp., $12.95 (paper)


The seventh square on the chessboard, the Red Queen warns Alice, “is all forest.” When Alice arrives on its outskirts, in the looking-glass world, she finds its darkness disquieting.

Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the—into the—into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word…. “What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it’s got no name—why, to be sure it hasn’t!… And now, who am I? I will remember, if I can!”

But Alice can’t remember. She has entered what the Gnat has already told her is the wood where things have no names.

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner identifies this forest as the universe itself, untouched by symbol-manipulating humans who insist upon labeling portions of it because (as Alice recognizes) “it’s useful to the people that name them.” The world by itself contains no signs. Lewis Carroll, however, whose own idiom was less semiotic, must also have been thinking of the classical words hyle and nemus. For Aristotle and other philosophers, hyle, the Greek word for “forest,” also meant “chaos”: primordial matter, shapeless, and with only the potential of forms. Nemus, one of the Latin terms for a wood, is linked by its shared Greek past with nemesis, but also, by association, with nemo (no one), which is what individuals are all too likely to become when astray in a forest. Virgil uses it tellingly of the one through which Aeneas gained access to the underworld, the quintessential place of non-being.

In Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, Robert Harrison sets res nullius (belonging to no one), another ancient woodland designation, against res publica: the open, public place—preeminently the city—of human social structures and institutions. The rigorous separation and hostility, over the ages, of forest and city, the wild and the tamed, is one of the major preoccupations of his rich and imaginative book. At its center lies Giambattista Vico’s fable, in The New Science (1744), about the moment when the giants who roamed the primeval forests of earth first looked up through the canopy of foliage—in response to a terrifying flash of lightning—and saw the sky. From that chance glimpse of a clearing, religion was born, and civil society. The forest became monstrous, obscuring the prospect of god, its oaks needing to be felled to make room for civilization and quite different, genealogical “trees.” This pattern, Harrison suggests, has repeated itself endlessly, both in fiction and in fact. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, was suckled in his infancy by a she-wolf, but the city he established destroyed the forests of Latium which had sheltered him. Now, thousands of years later, in South America, the last rain forests crash to the earth, for commercial reasons, day by day.

Yet the city has for centuries been linked imaginatively with the forests it fears and systematically destroys. Harrison points out that “historically the natural boundaries of the Roman res publica were drawn by the margins of the undomesticated forests.” A wild “otherness” antagonistic to human civilization has always in the past defined that civilization. This is partly because, as he insists, any “historical age reveals something essential about its ideology, its institutions and law, or its cultural temperament, in the manifold ways in which forests are regarded in that age.” The Enlightenment, however, brought a significant change in sensibility. Cartesian rationalism stripped the medieval and Renaissance forest of the numinous and the strange, reducing the scene of the Wild Hunt and the love-madness of Launcelot and Orlando, the home of talking animals and dark gods, to a sum total of harvestable trees, preferably planted in straight lines. This was also, one might add, the moment when cloth (as Michel Pastoureau has shown)1 finally displaced wood from its symbolic position as materia prima among the substances used or worked by man. When, after the industrial revolution, cloth yielded pride of place to metal, wood was to sink even lower in the hierarchy.

Much Romantic literature did try to restore potency to forests. Harrison writes well about Rousseau’s contradictory attitude to them: in Corsica, purely a resource to be exploited, but at St. Germain, where he actually walked beneath the trees, something he felt to be “the imagination’s storehouse of images of remote antiquity.” I have some doubts about Harrison’s attempt in this section of his book to enlist Wordsworth as a forest poet. Neither “Tintern Abbey” nor “Lines Written in Early Spring” is really a woodland poem, despite Harrison’s rather strained attempt in the latter case to persuade the reader that “a natural enclosure, a grove, a bower” is “in short, a forest.” One reason, surely, why Wordsworth’s alpine vision, in Book VI of The Prelude, of “the immeasurable height/Of woods decaying, never to be decay’d” is so memorable is that it is untypical. In an England largely deforested, even in the north, such colossal, ancient woods did not normally figure in this poet’s experience. Harrison is on surer ground with the Brothers Grimm, passionate apologists for the surviving German forests which, for them, symbolized a lost cultural unity, folk traditions recoverable only by a spiritual return to their depths.

Even now, at the end of the twentieth century, some sylvan mystery lingers, if only in the sinister woods of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, where the owls are not what they seem. Harrison interestingly poises the perversely circular trajectory chosen by Beckett’s Molloy as he tries to escape from what seems to him a dark and “towering” wood—a “progress” repeating, with a difference, Dante’s discovery that to follow a straight path in the selva oscura of the Inferno is only to go astray—against Descartes’s limiting insistence that the only way out of “a forest of randomness and confusion [is] by following the straight line of method.” But, as he gloomily points out, today’s conservationists, defenders of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “wildness and wet,” have been forced for the most part to adopt the language of the enemy: to talk about the material usefulness of forests to society, not about their value as a habitat for plants, birds, and animals—let alone the human imagination. Yet the loss of forests involves far more than the loss of ecosystems.

Across the centuries, some human beings have reversed the direction of Vico’s giants and returned to live in the wilderness, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Especially for people estranged from the social order—Harrison lists “the wanderers, the lovers, the saints, the persecuted, the outcasts, the bewildered, the ecstatic”—forests have traditionally provided an asylum. They might even, as in the case of heroic outlaws, shelter an alternative society operating according to principles in true justice neglected or travestied in the world outside. When the outlaw is, like Robin Hood, “a guardian of the law’s ideal justice,” his woodland refuge becomes in a very special sense “the shadow of civilization.” But it is impoverishing, Harrison argues, even for those who placidly remain in the city, and obey its laws, to ignore or seek to obliterate their relationship with the forest—that “outside” in the absence of which “there is no inside in which to dwell.”

Harrison makes an eloquent and passionate plea for the survival of “wildness and wet,” because he believes them to be a psychological and cultural necessity. Tautly written and argued, his book draws upon an astonishing range of material: myth and fairy tale, architecture and painting, literature from the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh to Beckett and A.R. Ammons. Yet it never seems pretentious. That is partly because of its unquestionable honesty; but also because Harrison is not only a formidable scholar and historian of ideas but a quite exceptional literary critic, responsive to poetry and prose in a number of different genres, languages, and periods. He writes with brilliance and sensitivity about writers as diverse as Virgil, Dante, Boccaccio, Conrad, and Sartre. Or about concepts of poverty and freedom in the poetry of John Clare, seeing (for instance) that the sonnet beginning. “The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone” is really another in Clare’s series of “nest” poems, the gypsy camp in the snow-filled forest “as gathered and as vulnerable as the pettichap’s nest on the side of an open road.” He can make a poem as familiar as Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” suddenly seem new. Written, as Harrison reminds us, in a wood near Florence, the ode evokes “a great cosmic forest that embraces land, sky, and even the subsurface life of the sea.” It is not just a political stalemate, but his exclusion from this forest of “primordial correspondence,” the “universal cycle of death and rebirth,” that the poet, imprisoned like all of us within linear time, laments.

Inevitably, in a book so wide-ranging and bold, readers are likely to question Harrison’s readings of some works and regret others left out. He seems to me on shaky ground when he claims that in Shakespeare “forests become innocent, pastoral, diversionary, comic,” savagery being displaced to the city. Even As You Like It‘s Arden and the wood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are less “innocent” and simple than this implies. And he ignores the ruthless woods of Titus Andronicus, or those “moist trees,/That have outliv’d the eagle” among which Shakespeare’s Timon retreats to live as a wild man, wishing not only that cities, but all cultivated land (“thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas”) would dry up and disappear, the world becoming once more a vast, unbroken forest. Timon of Athens—like Frost’s “Spring Pools” and Faulkner’s “The Bear”—is a work that seems to cry out for a place in this book. Harrison does pause briefly over Birnam Wood, at the end of Macbeth, arguing that it symbolizes, as it moves toward Dunsinane, not only “the forces of natural law” but Banquo’s issue, “the family tree…vanquishing its sterile enemy.” The idea is ingenious. But surely, for Shakespeare’s audience, the visual image of Malcolm’s soldiers enveloped in “leafy screens” would have evoked something far more tangible and familiar: celebrants on May morning, emerging from the woods festooned with leaves and branches—and so, the return of spring to a Scotland unnaturally arrested in winter by the usurper.


In his preface, Harrison states that “it is hard to believe that just six years ago, when the idea for such a book first came to me, there was very little talk about forests in the news.” Now, as he says, the fate of the earth’s remaining forests has become a major, worldwide issue. He is thinking of ecological protest here—a protest to which he adds another powerful voice. (“Sooner or later we will have to come up with a less ironic name than “greenhouse effect” for the choking of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide…. The color is ashen.”) But his book also takes its place in a steady build-up over the last decade of work on the symbolism of forests. Many of these books have been linked to the idea of the hunt: Corinne Saunders’s The Forest of Medieval Romance (1993), the French collection Le Château, la chasse et la forêt (1990), edited by André Chastel, in which the Pastoureau essay mentioned above can be found, John Cummins’s The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (1988), or Anne Rooney’s Hunting in Middle English Literature (1993). There is a wealth of material in these books to support Harrison’s claims about the imaginative necessity of forests. Roger Manning’s Hunters and Poachers, however, breaks significantly new ground.

Manning does so partly because he addresses himself to a later period—primarily the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England—but also because the material, much of it archival, that he has so meticulously sifted through radically alters our social and historical understanding not only of legal and illegal hunting in the period, but of a number of major literary texts. Manning himself—the author of Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England 1509–16402—is a historian, not a literary critic. Only rarely does he glance aside to the kind of literature that for Harrison is central. Yet the two books are wonderfully complementary.

Harrison, writing about John Manwood’s Laws of the Forest, a treatise circulated privately during the reign of Elizabeth, finally published in 1615, states that in the royal forests of England the carefully protected “beasts of pleasure”—mainly deer—were meant to be hunted solely by the “one ravenous beast left: the King himself.” That, as Manning’s book reminds us, is not strictly true. Not only the sovereign but other licensed persons killed game in these forests by warrant, or by order, to supply the royal household or to be bestowed as gifts. England was unlike the continent in that venison (at least in theory) could neither be bought nor sold. It was supposed to be given away, by the king, or by substantial landowners, many of them the fortunate possessors of either an enclosed deer park, or a chase—usually defined as a small forest in private hands. Such presentations underlined the status of the donor and the social hierarchy, served to confer favor, establish obligations, and strengthen local bonds. Otherwise, the only way to eat venison was to poach it, whether for oneself and friends, or for the thriving black market that sprang up in London after 1600.

It is clear from Manning’s researches that poaching, however illegal, was not regarded as socially disreputable. In England, especially during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was cheerfully engaged in by an over-whelming number of the gentry and nobility, and even (on one occasion) Queen Elizabeth herself. For such people, venison for dinner or the black market tended to be a secondary consideration, if it figured at all. Heavily armed, in many cases, as though going into battle, accompanied by a remarkably democratic mixture of friends, eager household servants, and people from the local village—sometimes including the vicar—men who often possessed well-stocked deer parks of their own regularly broke into those of their neighbors, viciously assaulting keepers and killing more deer than they could carry away. They did it for fun, although, as Manning demonstrates, family vendettas, some of them extending over half a century and more, might also be involved. Poaching, then as now, encouraged male bonding and machismo. It also became, under Elizabeth and the pacific James, not only “an occasion to display power,” but a substitute for military action, something of which many of these men felt deprived. There is evidence to suggest that it was subtly encouraged by the queen.

Manning reserves judgment on the truth of the old tale, first recorded in the late seventeenth century by Richard Davies, then quite independently by Rowe, that Shakespeare in his youth, “having fallen into ill Company…made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing.” Seized on with delight by the Baconians—there’s the man of Stratford for you, a common poacher sneaking about with other local louts in Sir Thomas Lucy’s Charlecote Park—it’s been something of an embarrassment to Bardolators ever since the nineteenth century. But it is apparent, by the end of Manning’s study, that however cross Sir Thomas Lucy may have been, Shakespeare’s putative depredations would not have been regarded by contemporaries as socially discreditable: “poaching was a usual rite of passage for the youth who wanted to assert his manhood or lay claim to genteel status.” It would seem that even Chiron and Demetrius in Titus Andronicus, reluctant though one is to say a good word for them, were only behaving like normal young men of their class when they boasted of having “full often strook a doe/And borne her cleanly by the keeper’s nose.” Not until after the Restoration, when poaching became a characteristically plebeian activity, did attitudes change.

Although Manning, who entitles one section of his book “Poaching as Theatre,” is shrewd and interesting throughout about the psychology of unlawful hunting in the period, its representation in fictional works, including drama, lies almost entirely outside his scope. Literary historians and critics, however, are likely to find the material in this book invaluable. Manning’s researches shed new light, for instance, on Falstaff’s illicit activities in Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire deer park just before The Merry Wives of Windsor begins. Never mind about that ancient bone of contention, the “dozen white louses” (as Parson Evans puts it) adorning Shallow’s coat of arms, and their possible malicious reference to the “luces” borne by Shakespeare’s old enemy at Charlecote. More interesting is the way Manning now allows us to understand and place Falstaff’s activities as a poacher.

Since 1430, he points out, no one had been legally qualified to hunt anywhere in England who did not have an annual income of forty shillings from freehold land. The game act of 1603 upped it to ten pounds. A prodigal son who has never returned home—if indeed he still has one—the Falstaff who habitually lives in inns and tavare in Nixonry’s debt for food stamps land. Hunting, therefore, was a pleasure from which he, like many younger sons of the gentry and even mobility, would be debarred. That partly explains his resentment of Shallow in 2 Henry IV. Originally from a lower social class, a man who was never page to Thomas Duke of Norfolk, or hobnobbed with John of Gaunt, Shallow has not only become a justice of the peace, but a country “squire”: “Now has he land and beefs,” Falstaff grumbles. All Falstaff can do is poach.

Venison, in 2 Henry IV, was not one of the treats on offer in Gloucestershire, among the pigeons, short-legged hens, joints of mutton, and “pretty little tiny kickshaws.” In The Merry Wives, Shallow seems to have acquired a prestigious private deer park. But it has been broken into, an indeterminate number of animals killed, his keepers beaten, the lodge vandalized, and he has come up to Windsor to “make a Star Chamber matter of it.” (Gentlemen poachers, as Manning points out, were customarily arraigned, if at all, before this court, offenders of lesser rank being dealt with in the quarterly assizes.) Shallow is even inclined to press the case for a “riot,” although that is going to be harder to prove. Unfortunately, he arrives at Windsor to discover that Falstaff, the man responsible for all this, is even now sitting in Page’s house calmly eating a hot venison pasty. This appears to be all that is left of the “ill-kill’d” deer Shallow sent Page as a gift. Even more irritatingly, neither Page nor Parson Evans seems inclined to take Falstaff’s trespass seriously. They only want to smooth matters over. Nor do they suggest that Falstaff is wrong when he tells Shallow that he will only make himself absurd if he tries to prosecute.

Accompanied (one assumes) only by Pistol and the shambling Bardolph and Nym, Falstaff is unlikely to have inflicted horrendous damage. With real-life poachers, the story was often very different. Forests and deer parks had always been particularly vulnerable in England during periods of popular unrest. They were attacked in 1381 as part of the peasant revolt against Richard II, and again in 1549 and 1569, when pales and fences were torn down and game destroyed. In the next century, the outbreak of the Civil War was heralded by riotous poaching, first in Suffolk and then, by April 1642, in Windsor Great Park and Windsor Forest. Although some of this venison was eaten, statements of another and political kind were also being made. The commons, however, were neither the only nor the worst offenders.

In Star Chamber complaints and family papers, Manning has discovered a use of the word “havoc” unknown to the Oxford English Dictionary. Normally a military term meaning to give the enemy no quarter, it also came to be applied during the last quarter of the sixteenth century to another kind of warfare: the wholesale and wanton destruction of someone else’s game. Deer were said to have been “havocked” when poachers with grey-hounds broke into someone else’s park or chase and systematically slaughtered everything in sight: stags, does, fawns, indiscriminately, and in such numbers that the carcasses could not be collected but were simply left on the ground to rot.

This, effectively, was what Elizabeth and Leicester did in 1572 to Henry, Lord Berkeley’s deer. Suddenly deviating from the route of the royal progress, they rode into his park in the owner’s absence, and killed twenty-seven red deer stags on the first day alone. After that, the keepers seem to have lost count. When Berkeley returned to confront the carnage, he impetuously “disparked,” returning the land to open country. Elizabeth would find nothing to kill the next time she came that way. He thought better of it, however, after receiving an anonymous letter reminding him that his brother-in-law had recently been executed for treason and that Leicester, who had taken a fancy to Berkeley Castle, would be glad of any excuse to add it to his own domain.

Shakespeare may or may not have witnessed, or become involved in, a havocking. Even in an age less squeamish than our own, it cannot have been a pretty sight. His work displays, however, along with a considerable knowledge of hunting terms, a sympathy for the hunt’s victims—Wat, the poor hare in Venus and Adonis, and, in a number of plays, deer—uncommon in the period. And it is clear that he does use “havoc” on a number of occasions in the special sense Manning has only now recovered: “Do not cry havoc where you should but hunt/With modest warrant” from Coriolanus, for instance, or “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was not alone in exploiting the word’s associations with hounds, hunting, and (as at the end of Hamlet) a carrion feast. In Book X of Paradise Lost, Milton’s God observes “with what heat these dogs of hell advance,/To waste and havoc yonder world.” The whole passage comes into sharp focus when you realize that Milton is thinking of the world as a once paradisal deer park, invaded by “hell-hounds” who, the massacre over, are now “crammed and gorged, nigh burst/With sucked and glutted offal.” Etymologies may have assisted him here. The Hebrew word pardes had become complexly entangled during the Renaissance with the Greek paradeisos, signifying both Heaven and the Garden of Eden. Paradeisos, however, began life as pairidaeza—the Old Persian term for a park filled with wild animals.

There has always been a measure of opprobrium attached to hunting in enclosed parks, however extensive. That is both because the forest is far more dangerous and uncertain and because hunting genuinely wild animals in a forest engages the emotions (or used to) as well as requiring skill. Hunters obliged to enter imaginatively into the way of thinking and behaving of the beast they tracked might almost become the thing they sought to kill. From time immemorial, forests have been places of transformation, places where the boundary between human life and that of animals, plants, or trees was likely to become confused, or even obliterated. A large number of the metamorphoses recounted by Ovid—people turning into springs, rivers, flowers, trees, or, like Actaeon, into the stag he was pursuing a moment before—occur in them. Significantly, in the wood where things have no names, Alice and the fawn she encounters there converse as though they belonged to the same species. Only when they reach the other side does the Fawn recognize that “I’m a Fawn!” and then, with alarm, just before it flees, “And dear me! you’re a human child!”

For these and many other reasons, the forest is pre-eminently the site of contradictions. Refuge and place of exile, both sacred and profane, a realm of darkness but also of illumination, to become lost in it is often—as innumerable romance knights and fairy tale characters testify—to discover oneself. It is the home of paradoxes like the one Shakespeare’s Timon seems to recognize at the end when, with an eye on nemus as well as mere oblivion, he finds that “nothing brings me all things.” Centuries after the creation of the Robin Hood legend, the lawless violence of Manning’s Tudor and Stuart gentry-gangs could still be “rooted in highly developed concepts of justice and constitutionalism” when they turned it against courtiers who abused their warrants to hunt in the royal forests.

In The Road to San Giovanni, Italo Calvino has written eloquently about his father, a solitary hunter whose consuming passion was

to lie in ambush, in the cold night before dawn, on the bleak heights of the Colla Bella or the Colla Ardente, waiting for the thrush, the hare…or to go right into the wood, to beat it inch by inch, dog’s nose in the ground, for all the animal trails, in every gorge where over the last fifty years foxes and badgers had dug their lairs, and only he knew where…sleeping in those crude huts for drying chestnuts made from stones and branches that people call cannicci, alone with his dog or his gun, as far as Piedmont, as far as France, without ever leaving the woods, forcing open the path before him, that secret path that only he knew and that went across all the woods there were, that united all woods in one single wood, every wood in the world in a wood beyond all woods, every place in the world in a place beyond all places.

This path Calvino himself, a self-styled “citizen of cities and of history,” rejected at an early age. Yet toward the end of his life Calvino came to see his own urban journey as being oddly the same, “a repeat of my father’s, but dug out of the depths of another otherness, the upperworld (or hell) of humanity…” By that time, he had already reached out to and encompassed his father’s alien world in that haunting arboreal novella The Baron in the Trees. Calvino provides a striking contemporary example of just that creative sense of distance, evidence of the forest’s crucial importance as a shadow of civilization, about which Harrison writes so well. Perhaps the most appropriate accolade that can be bestowed on Harrison’s and Manning’s splendid books is that both are entirely worthy of the trees that, in order to produce them, had to be felled.

  1. 1

    La forêt médiévale, un univers symbolique,” in Le Château, la chasse et la forêt, edited by André Chastel (Bordeaux: Sud Ouest, 1990).

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1988.

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