Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Into the Woods

If you go into the woods today . . . you may not come out tomorrow, and the person who comes out may not be you. The term ITW describes those glens or woods or Forests (including the Wild Wood) which – when journeyed into – mark a passage from one life to another (> Rite of Passage), one time to another (> Time in Faerie), one place to another (> Crosshatch; Portals; Thresholds). The most famous example of the significance of the term, and quite possibly the first literary example as well, comes at the beginning of Dante's The Divine Comedy (written circa 1307-21), whose first lines (in the 1979 Kenneth Mackenzie trans) provide a central version of the theme: "Midway upon the journey of our life/I found that I had strayed into a wood."

The term has been a catchphrase from time immemorial, and the basic range of Transformations it points to have been routinely taken as dramatizing significant life-choices. The sexual threat of enforced transformation implied in the Topos is particularly acute; it is a threat which has traditionally applied more frequently to women, and even in nonfantastic novels like In a Dark Wood (1977) by Marina Warner the use of a form of the term implies a significant conflation of challenge and uncertainty. But when a person's entrance into the woods turns out to have been coerced – if the protagonist is being manipulated or "played" by a force beyond his or her comprehension – the topos becomes a move in a different kind of story (> Godgame for further discussion).

The most familiar 20th-century exploration of the concept of travelling ITW as Rite of Passage is probably the musical comedy Into the Woods (1987) – music by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine – where a number of Fairytale characters – Cinderella, the Beanstalk Jack, Little Red Riding-Hood, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White – either enter the eponymous woods (upon a variety of Quests) or have always inhabited them. Within the woods, they each get their heart's desire, though to ominous effect (> Answered Prayers), as the second act depicts their subsequent lives under threat of the Giant. This ominousness has been prefigured in the first act through the chaotic interaction of various Stories.

The attempted upsetting of Prospero's reign over the magic Island of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) by William Shakespeare constitutes an early Carnival rendering of the ITW theme, as do (more mildly) the transformations enacted in A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600). More commonly, though, the journey is solitary. It is a journey, as well, which is often undertaken; the ITW topos is very frequently found. The title character's self-mutilating excursion in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) is typical. In Sarban's The Sound of his Horn (1952) the protagonist wanders through a pine forest only to emerge into a glen of broadleaf trees under a transformed Moon, 100 years hence. In Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three (1964) Taran pursues a pig into the woods near his home, where he is rescued by a Hero and begins the adventures which will (several volumes later) reveal him as a Hidden Monarch. Young Gwyn, in Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967), follows Alison into the woods where dwell those previously possessed by the Underlier tale of Llew Llaw and Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers; is deluded by will o'the wisps; and finds Alison on the cusp of Metamorphosis. Robert Aickman's "Into the Wood" (1968) carries its protagonist into a sanatorium, into her unconscious, into unsleeping walk through the circular woods that may end only in her death. The central wood in Robert Holdstock's Ryhope Wood sequence combines various features of the topos into a knotted whole. Exactly halfway through the text the self-deluding protagonist of Steve Szilagyi's Photographing Fairies (1992) escapes some gypsies by heading "back out into the woods", where he is knocked unconscious and awakens in a place where he may find himself and his heart's desire. Sondheim's musical is directly quoted at the point of Jane Yolen's Briar Rose (1992) when the heroine is about to plunge deeply into a transformative investigation of her family past (and to fall in love). At the heart of the woods in Ursula K Le Guin's "The Poacher" (1993), through the briar which serves as the boundary of a protecting Polder, another Sleeping Beauty rests; but the poacher, on finding her, stops the story at a point of ecstatic stasis. The Weald, in Paul Hazel's The Wealdwife's Tale (1993), devastatingly transfigures those who enter it into Mirrors of their former selves, doomed to repeat, with variations, a tragic story. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.