INTO THE WOODS
What Fairy Tale Settings Can Teach Us About Fiction Writing
A Craft Essay by Dana Kroos
Consider the phrase, “We’re not out of the woods yet” meaning “we are still in danger.” This phrase can refer to innumerable types of danger. A doctor may say to the loved ones of a sick patient: “She’s not out of the woods yet;” or in the middle of a trial that seems to be going well the lawyer may say to his client, “We’re not out of the woods yet;” in a traffic jam that seems to be moving again, a driver may say to a passenger, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The insinuation is that those involved are thinking about being out of the woods—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimpse of something safer, better, or in their control—but it is not yet certain that they will reach that light; there is still a chance that the threat—the woods—will overcome.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation.
In fairy tales the woods is often a manifestation of the unknown that is contrasted with the safety of the village, or home, where the protagonists feel in control of the setting and situation. Protagonists in these fairy tales leave the comforts of home for the unknown element of the woods for different reasons—at times in flight, and at other times in quest: Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods in order to attend to her sick grandmother; Hansel and Gretel are led into the woods and abandoned by their parents; Snow White hides in the woods to escape her evil stepmother; Jack travels up the beanstalk (his version of the woods) to seek wealth and adventure. The woods represent the world over which the people of the village and the protagonists have no control. Here the characters are literally and figuratively out of their elements. The story then becomes about a struggle to gain control over the unknown, to triumph by learning the ways of this other world, or to simply survive and escape: Little Red Riding Hood discovers the wolf’s trick and is saved by the hunter who has knowledge of the woods; Hansel and Gretel use ingenuity and cunning to escape from the witch; Snow White finds unexpected assistance and power from the woods that she uses to return home.
If the woods represents the unknown world, then the village, or home, represents the place where the characters have control over their domain: they live in town (or sometimes kingdoms) governed and tamed by people, protected by both physical and social structures. The opening scenes establish the world where the protagonists feel secure and make the reader aware of the contrast between this known world and the unknown world where the tale will reside.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey.
The idea of the village and woods in fairy tales corresponds to Joseph Campbell’s research about the Ordinary and Special Worlds in the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the protagonist begins in what Campbell describes as the Ordinary World and ventures into the Special World where he or she is faced with new challenges and must develop new skills accordingly. The accumulation of skills and knowledge prepares the protagonist for a final climactic trial. Having succeeded in gaining command of the Special World, the protagonist returns to the Ordinary World and must learn to integrate his or her new skills with ordinary life.
Most fairy tales follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to some degree, including the “refusal of the call”: the stage where the protagonist resists journeying into the unknown; and the “refusal of return”: the stage when the protagonists resist returning to the known or Ordinary World once they have become masters of the Special World, or woods. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of Hansel and Gretel, Gretel refuses the call to adventure in the unknown by expressing her fear of being left in the woods, while Hansel strategizes to avoid this fate—dropping flint stones, then bread crumbs so that they can find their way home. After a series of trials that end with Gretel killing the witch, the two protagonists begin their journey home, but are met by an impassable river that represents the refusal of return. It is when Gretel exerts her newly learned skills and independence to call upon a white bird to help them cross the river that the brother and sister are able to make their way home to their village with the treasure, symbolizing knowledge, they have stolen from the witch.
This schema can be a useful way of conceiving of plot. In present-day settings our fictional characters can venture out of, or be forced from, their comfort zones: graduating to a new grade, leaving a job due to downsizing, moving to an unfamiliar city or state for the promise of better opportunity, missing the bus and testing a new type of transportation. We grow-up, leave the comfort of our parents’ homes, trade roommates and lovers, settle homes, adapt to new co-inhabitants, grow stir-crazy again and flee comfort for independence. Or sometimes we progress more intentionally to seek adventure, or because we need a change, or are looking to find someone or something in particular. We are constantly advancing to master our situations only to decide to move on or to be pushed into new situations where we are again novices. Some people find these moves easy, while other people struggle with even the smallest shift from a known and comfortable state to something unknown and challenging. Either way, we often initially refuse the call to change or find obstacles or other people opposing our advancement; this type of resistance makes sense for our characters and reveals their vulnerabilities.
Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Worn Path,” combines elements of the fairytale and hero’s journey structures including a refusal of the call and return. The story follows Phoenix, “an old Negro woman” on a journey from her home, through the woods, to the big city to retrieve medicine for her grandson. She comes from “far out in the country” and is not accustomed to the big city, making—for her—a fairytale-style woods of the city where she is going. As with “Little Red Riding Hood”, Phoenix’s journey through the wood shows her character’s strengths and vulnerabilities; and as with the hero in the hero’s journey, Phoenix also learns from the trials she faces along the way and is ultimately able to use her new skills once she arrives in the city.
Phoenix’s Call to Adventure is the need to get her grandson’s medicine. The Refusal of The Call is “a quivering in the thicket” in the woods, something undefined and ominous that shows her fear. But Phoenix says to the unknown sounds, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals,” both announcing what she fears and denouncing it at once before she continues with her journey.
On her way she faces different tests: a “ghost” that turns out to be a scarecrow and a dog that comes out of the woods and scares her, causing her to topple over and fall into a ditch. While she is stuck, she reflects on the situation and learns a lesson: “’Old woman,’ she said to herself, ‘that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.’” The man who saves her tries to discourage her from continuing with her journey: “‘Why, that’s too far! That’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble . . . Now you go on home, Granny!’” At this moment Phoenix turns the tables on the man: she distracts him by sending him after the dog that initially scared her so that she can steal a nickel he dropped. When he returns wielding his gun, she is not afraid, “I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Here, Phoenix succeeds in overcoming her fear, defying the man’s discouragement, and tricking him out of his nickel.
When Phoenix arrives in the city she is fully in an unknown world—the woods. The first thing that Phoenix does is ask a passerby to tie her shoe: “’Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn’t look right to go in a big building.’” Here she acknowledges the new setting and its requirements. Nevertheless, the new setting is overwhelming, and in the hospital Phoenix is rendered mute and can’t remember why she has come when asked by the nurse. Then: “At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke. ‘My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.’” Phoenix has mastered this new world and gotten the prize of medicine for her grandson that she sought. But before she can leave she has a refusal of return. She persists in practicing the skills that she has mastered and which are only applicable in this new world: successfully manipulating the nurses into giving her another nickel. But she must return home to be triumphant, bringing with her the medicine and both nickels.
The village and woods can also be defined through a-stranger-comes-to-town stories. In this case, the village is transformed into the woods, or the known situation changes, undoing our careful cultivation and making that which we once controlled and understood foreign and overwhelming—the new boss restructures duties at work, the substitute teacher assigns a different seating arrangement, the neighborhood evolves and our favorite haunts are replaced by new establishments. In this way fairytales also speak about the ways that elements intrude upon the comfort of the village or the home, making the known world ominous and unknown. In “Peter and the Wolf” a wolf enters Peter’s yard and Peter must think quickly of a way to save his friends; in the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” a stranger appears to offer help to a village and later seeks revenge when they do not pay him, in “Sleeping Beauty” the forest grows around the castle encasing the kingdom in sleep; in a strange twist “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” presents an intruder from the village who both seems to be in jeopardy and menacing as she makes her rampage through the bears’ house in the woods.
In a Melanie Rae Thon’s retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” entitled “X-mas, Jamaica Plain,” two homeless teenagers break into a house where the family is away. These homeless teenagers have been cast into the woods for so long that they have become a part of the dangers of the woods: “I am your worst nightmare,” the unnamed first-person narrator begins the story, talking to the reader, and perhaps the family, as she describes sleeping in the family’s beds, eating their food, trying on their clothes. The narrator and her friend resent the family for having what they lack but also desire the family life represented by the house. As with Goldilocks, the narrator especially fixates on the belongings of the little boy, a child whom she understands is protected and loved. Their youth and desperate situations make them sympathetic and complex: they are at once the Big Bad Wolf and the child protagonists of the fairytales. Temporarily inhabiting that domestic space reinforces for the two teenagers that they do not belong in the home—or the village. Like Goldilocks, the narrator flees in fear.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers.
Fairy tales use setting to present physical, emotional, mental, and psychic tensions as concrete places, characters, and situations. In many of the best-known stories young protagonists face dangers (what Joseph Campbell would label “tests”) in the woods that force them to learn and develop skills: Hansel and Gretel are at first in danger of being lost and starving, then in danger of the witch who hopes to eat them, then in danger of not being able to find their way home. The characters must grow to meet each of these challenges in order to survive.
In many of these stories the protagonists encounter other characters native to the woods: the witch, the wolf, the hunter, the giant. This is to say that although the woods is an unknown place to the protagonists, it is a well-known place to the characters who hold dominion there. This creates an imbalance of power. Characters who are masters of the woods often use this advantage to trick the young, naïve children who are out of their elements.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence.
Fairy tales raise the stakes of ventures to the unknown world by positioning children—who are or should be cared for at home—as their protagonists. The protagonists are almost always at an age where they are on the brink of independence. The known place—the village, the family home—is a place where the wellbeing of the child protagonists is the responsibility of adult characters—a place where the child can be a child. The inciting incident is one that removes the characters from this place of comfort, either by force or choice: to save themselves, help their families, or seek adventure. The child is thrust into a world where he or she must accept and conquer adult skills or knowledge in order to survive, symbolizing a movement from the safety and security of a protected childhood to the liberation and dangers of the adult world. In the adult world the child must come into his or her own, gaining skills and ultimately becoming the master of his or her new environment—coming of age.
In addition to the obvious and direct threats that the young protagonists face, thoughtful readers sense deeper conflicts that are not mentioned by the distant narrators of these tales. While these children gain the knowledge and skills of an unknown world, they do so at the cost of their innocence and childhoods, for what child can be the same after pushing an old woman into an oven and watching her burn; or knowing that she was betrayed by her parents; or living in a world with those who wish her deep and unspeakable harm?
These stories captivate us because they make physical the internal and emotional struggles that we face throughout our lives. The situations and settings transcend metaphor to become tangible threats that the characters can describe and the reader can name. In good fiction the tensions, emotions, and fears felt by both the characters and reader are more complex than this, multi-layered, and amorphous; however, by analyzing the characters, plots, and conflicts of fairy tales, we can discover the tensions that excite and enlighten the reader: the power dynamic of a parent-child relationship in a fairy tale could easily be represented as a relationship between a boss and employee, or coach and player; the vulnerability expressed as youth in a fairy tale could also be the vulnerability of coming from a lower socio-economic class, suffering an illness, or entering a situation with less information than your peers; the tensions of risk, sacrifice, vengeance, pity, abandonment, betrayal, loyalty, and desire are tensions that also happen when spending time with family, participating in social clubs, and during mundane shopping trips. As the village is all around us all of the time, so the woods is there too, lurking beneath the surface.
Studying fairy tales that overtly represent the hardships and triumphs that make life meaningful can help us to understand what interests us about stories, the emotions and tensions that we want to explore, and the ways that we can reveal internal and social conflicts in our own fiction.
Dana Kroos received a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston and an MFA in fiction writing from New Mexico State University. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her short stories and poems have appeared in American Short Fiction Online, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, The Superstition Review, Minnesota Monthly and other literary publications. Her work is frequently influenced by her travels in Africa, Asia, South America and other places, and by her studies in art through which she also holds a MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and a MA from Purdue University. More information can be found at www.danakroos.com.