Updated: Oct 18
Featuring Elizabeth Allison's latest installation at Bee in the Lion, Nezka Pfeifer, Museum Curator of Missouri Botanical Garden writes about our fascination with fairy tales and the role of the enchanted forest in our cultural narratives of the heroic exploits.
Many of us grow up with fairy tales. When you think of these stories, what is the first image that comes to mind? Is it a princess befriending seven dwarves, or meeting Prince Charming at a ball? Or a boy who comes to possess a magic lamp inhabited by a genie? These tales of magic and wonder are well known in our global culture today, but what exactly are fairy tales? Why have these stories endured through time, across cultures and generations?
Fairy tales began as stories told through oral tradition thousands of years ago, emanating from all social classes, to communicate and share wisdom to enable people to survive and overcome a dangerous and challenging world. Fairy tales (and folk tales) are found in cultures all over the world, with recognizable elements of challenges, hardships, helpers, and heroes and heroines; these motifs are tied to myths and ancient belief systems. These stories have withstood the test of time because they embody collective truths about how to transcend the human experience, and work through inner conflict. Fairy tales express metaphorical protest against the societal status quo, as protagonists succeed despite obstacles in their path.
As spiritual narratives, fairy tales symbolize sacred truths, as parables in which the materialistic desires of life are controlled or conquered multiple times, transforming characters through the wisdom imparted by wise teachers to achieve enlightenment.
Despite appearances, fairy tales are not the purview of the young. They have been the focus of adult entertainment and education for hundreds of years; in the Western arena, the first published editions of literary folk tales were intended for adult audiences. For example, the Brothers Grimm re-edited and republished seven editions of the compendium of German fairy tales, shortening and sanitizing them in each version, due to the clamor and public outrage that the original edition was too gruesome to be shared with children. Other historical fairy tale manuscripts have also been rediscovered and published, and interest has spread to recording more tales in every known culture. Writers have also created new fairy tales that have inspired the imagination and devotion of readers globally. Artists have found rich fodder in the elements of fairy tales for expression in their works, and explore the many themes that resonate with individuals, as well as the wider society we know.
When we meet a fairy tale’s protagonist at the outset of the tale, we learn of their unique challenge and situation and then they are given the opportunity to undertake a quest, tackle a problem, or find themselves propelled on a journey that they must complete in order to survive. Once they begin this journey, the protagonist comes to a crossroad. Crossroads themselves were often considered forsaken places in medieval Europe—often where outcasts were buried—at a time when the Church held power and control over social interactions and delineations of sacred and profane space; the Church felt similarly about trees, shrines, and holy wells because they were all tied to pagan, non-Christian energies, beliefs, and practices. And yet, the benevolent associations with trees continued.
In many fairy tales, the crossroads often appear in the enchanted forest, when the protagonist has found themselves on their journey and in the midst of a lonely, dark, and hopeless place. The forest then becomes a place of magic and mystery, and where protagonists find themselves at a juncture full of fearsome tests that they must work through and complete. Forests have always figured in our psyche and have long marked the edge of human organization in community. Humanity has carved out niches to create domesticated space and the forest has often had a strong association with the unconscious. Forests are also free from control and cultivation, where vegetable life thrives and often darkness reigns as the trees obscure the light of the sun.
When fairy tale heroes and heroines arrive in the enchanted forest, where they become lost but have the chance to gain wisdom, and find solutions to their challenges. The forest is a paradox—a place of danger or refuge—and filled with magic and mystery, and creatures who aid (or sabotage) the characters on their way. The characters one meets in a fairy tale forest are not always human, and these animals impart wisdom or create challenges for the protagonist. These anthropomorphic creatures are rooted in the ancient animal gods and goddesses of the earliest pagan religions, whose forms developed into symbolic roles in fairy tales. Each animal represents different qualities found in human behavior, and depending on the cultural origin of the fairy tale, these have either a positive or a negative connotation and influence on the hero/heroine of the story. Interestingly, across cultures, birds are often vehicles of prophesy, fox are clever and trickster characters, wolves are usually villainous, and snakes are often symbols of fertility.
No one ever gains control over the forest, but it has the power to change destinies, if the protagonist has the tools and intelligence to interpret the signs it provides. In many cultures, forests were the first places in nature to be dedicated to the ritual activities for the gods and where offerings were placed. The forest is a place that belongs to all often people, making everyone equal, and yet it cannot be fully possessed or given away. Psychologically, the forest represents the dark, hidden world of the unconscious with fears and anxieties that must be addressed and overcome to emerge an evolved human being.
It is in the forest that the fairy tale protagonist must accomplish a handful of tests set before them as the goal of the story. Usually three in number—three is a sacred number in many cultures, representing the mind, body, and spirit—the tests demonstrate that the hero or heroine has achieved each level of knowledge: controlling materialistic desires, emotional longings, and lastly, spiritual enlightenment. At the completion of the final test, the fairy tale illustrates the unfolding of the character’s development, and he or she reaches their ultimate destination, whether it be a reunion with their true family, love and marriage, or attaining a peaceful status quo, happily ever after.
As individual elements that compose a forest in multitudes, trees also play an important role in culture and spirituality. Wood serves as a primary building material, as well as a tool and fuel, but the power of trees has also been manifested in their gifts to people, and with their longevity, they have also been worshiped as gods and become symbols of communities and cultures. They are symbols of life, fertility, regeneration, and resurrection. In many cultures, forests were among the first places in nature to be dedicated to the cult of gods, or were places where offerings were suspended from trees. But as forests disappear due to climate change and development, individual trees are becoming even more dear to us—to our collective consciousness but also to us in the realm of daily life—as we have the time to watch and witness their changes and renewal in each year’s cycle, and sometimes also their destruction.
Elizabeth Allison, Requiem Series, 2021
The work “Requiem Series” by artist Elizabeth Allison offers an intimate look into the artist’s relationship with a tree but also her interaction with it. This tree, which evokes the image of a barren one on a winter’s day, is given a new and different life as the artist engages with it and adds beautiful pieces of paper (also her own watercolor works) as well as some gold pieces, which add a colorful, shimmering impression for the viewer. Each engagement the artist has with the tree, is part of the challenge—or quest—she is trying to solve or process. Of course, she does this more than three times—as many fairy tale protagonists do—but with each step and addition, she is in control and changing the tree to illustrate her own meditation and thinking, and to succeed in the quest of making the artwork, the tree sculpture.
Shop Elizabeth Allison's works
Allison walks through a wooded area every day as part of her travels from her home in Manhattan to her studio in the Bronx and, as she comes through this forest, she is energized, with her heart and mind set to create. She is inspired by the landscape in which she lives and works, and brings the elements of the living world into her paintings, invoking the power of the ephemeral weather and light to change the scene and timbre of the finished works. She found this tree after it had broken off during a storm, and brought it to her studio and started working with it.
Allison is a talented and thoughtful painter; she often uses several media in her work, but in this case, she used watercolors, at which she excels. Elizabeth uses them to build the image on the paper, manipulating and changing the colors once they are added to the surface, so that the work is adapting as she continues to build the shapes and images towards her final goal. Watercolors embody the need for time in execution, in the application of the pigment to paper layering and waiting for the pigment to dry before the next layer is applied and dripped, as it runs in rivulets off the surface often times.
Elizabeth's installation process at Bee in the Lion
In creating the sculpture, the artist respects the tree and its former life, and yet transforms it in her own way in her vision of beauty. The act of painting watercolors on many pieces of paper, taking the tree and creating a base for it, and then slowly adding each of the painted papers are steps in a meditation that the artist reveals to the audience as she beholds and interacts with this tree taking time to methodically create something new and beautiful. The building and growth of this sculpture embodies the act and time of creation, as the cells of the tree would have pushed water and nutrients to all its extremities, and slowly built energy to create new growth—buds and branches—and it reacted to the sun and its environment.
The natural elements of trees and forests can be used in our daily lives to enjoy their growth and lifecycles, reminiscent and reflecting our own passage through life and time. We can also view the challenges we face as these dark woods in our lifetimes in which we need to gird ourselves, prepare for battles (whatever form they may take), and navigate these tests we deal with in order to understand and strengthen ourselves for more tests in the future. The poet Dante Alighieri began his Divine Comedy (ca. 1321) with this opening line: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” We all have these times and places to deal with, and perhaps turning to trees and forests, and fairy tales, stories, and literature and art, we can find the creativity, thoughtfulness, wisdom, and energy to understand, absorb, and surmount these challenges, wiser and better prepared for the next time.
~Nezka Pfeifer, Museum Curator, Missouri Botanical Garden
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Greystone Books, 2015.
Zipes, Jack, ed. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press, 2014.