Books about magical forests have captured the imaginations of fantasy authors and readers for generations. You probably don’t need to think for long before a few of your personal favorites come to mind.
There’s a long history of classic tales involving forests and mythical trees. Some authors include forests as a background setting. Some will add a mysterious or even dark element to the forest in their story. Others make the forest (or a specific tree) a key magical component.
Have you ever wondered why so many fantasy books include magical forests and/or trees? Are authors simply compelled to follow in the footsteps of famous fantasy authors like J.R.R. Tolkien? Are they trying to evoke the timeless appeal of classic fairy tales? Or maybe there are deeper reasons for the continued popularity of books about magical forests.
If you take time to explore the history of the fantasy genre, you’ll soon discover both the ubiquity and importance of trees and forests. And for good reason. Trees play an important role in many cultures—from the food and resources they supply to the stories they tell all the way back to creation narratives.
Consider the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for example, in the creation narrative of Judaism and Christianity; the Bodhi tree beneath which the Buddha reached enlightenment; or Yggdrasill, the World Tree that connects the universe from Norse mythology. These are but a few examples that are deeply ingrained in human culture. It’s no surprise that such narratives find their way into fantasy fiction.
This huge topic is beyond the scope of this blog post, but if you’re interested, there is an excellent 3-part study on the fantasy-faction.com website that explores Trees as Symbol, Trees as Characters, and Trees as Setting.
Briefly, here are some examples in popular fantasy books with trees as magical characters:
- Old Man Willow (and also the trees of Fangorn Forest) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
- The One Tree in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series
- The Summer Tree in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry series
- The Cthaeh in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles
- The Ellcrys in Terry Brooks’ Shannara series
- Avendesora in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series
- The Weirwood trees in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series
- The Whomping Willow in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
The list goes on (feel free to add more in the comments below). The sheer volume of books about magical forests is staggering.
In our own Maidstone Chronicles, the Arden Forest serves as a magical portal through which Will and Morgan enter the fantastical world of the Fourwinds. There they travel through the Epping Forest and eventually pass through the edges of the massive, mysterious and forbidding forest known as the Hollowtangle, home of the ancient Druid Forest as well as the Maidstone tower itself.
Why are there so many books about magical forests and trees?
Human cultures have lived among and depended on trees since the beginning of human life. We are deeply connected. The more high-tech our lives become and the more time we spend in urban settings, the more we long for the simplicity, the mystery, and the wildness of the woods. And the more we cut down and consume our forests—especially the ancient trees—the more separated from the natural world we become. We lose our way in the city and we long to reconnect with the history, wisdom, and mystical quality of the woods. Books about magical forests help us reconnect.
In her excellent article, “Into the Wild Woods: On the Significance of Trees and Forests in Fantasy Fiction,” Weronika Łaszkiewicz writes:
“Arguably, fantasy fiction is the contemporary means through which writers can recapture the perilous forests of fairy stories and allow modern readers, often disconnected from nature, to experience the transformative dread of a venture into the heart of the wild woods.”
“The transformative dread.” What a great phrase. When was the last time you ventured into the woods and paid attention to the wild world surrounding you? It can certainly be transformative if you let it. Great stories with trees as primary characters or simply as a setting for an adventurous protagonist help us recapture a sense of adventure stirring within us. The forest can be a place of transformation and reconnection with nature, ourselves, and maybe even the divine.
Sometimes portrayed as dark and sinister, sometimes as a haven and friend of wayward heroes, magical forests and trees in fantasy books continue to draw readers into the incredible worlds of an author’s imagination. But they also allow us to remember our connection with nature and with our mutual creator or source of life beyond our simple life. Venturing into the woods also reminds us of our responsibility to care for the natural world of which we are part.
Again Łaszkiewicz says:
“Forests are places of reprieve and mystery, which stimulate our imagination with their green shadows. To ignore all of that is to disrupt our connection with the world around us.”
If you’re sensing a call into the woods, consider stepping away from technology, going outside and finding a local forest or even a special tree in your neighborhood, and spending some time in its wild and magical presence. Then, return home and curl up with a book that features a magical forest or tree, be it a new adventure or an old favorite.
If you need some inspiration, the following are a few modern titles with book covers that have recently captured my attention.
June 2021 Giveaway
Everyone on our mailing list as of June 30, 2021 will be entered into a draw to win a print edition of one the fantasy books mentioned in this blog post (max. value $20 USD).
by Michael J. Sullivan
My introduction to the works of Michael J. Sullivan started one day while innocently browsing the fantasy shelves in a local bookstore. The massive tree on the cover lured me in. I then discovered that Sullivan was just beginning this new series, so I started with the Ryria series instead. But, oh the power of a forested book cover!
by Ursula Le Guin
Colonization Science Fiction
This book is probably better classified as science fiction, but this cover of the original title will hook many fantasy readers as well. The book, first published in 1972, is often thought to have inspired James Cameron’s incredible film Avatar, although Le Guin said that the film “completely reverses the book’s moral premise.”
by Robin Hobb
You might need to look closely at the cover art, but talk about “the transformative dread of a venture into the heart of the wild woods!” A suspension bridge leading through a massive tree trunk into a dark forest. The post-colonial themes in this series, explored through the eyes of the protagonist, are suggestive of the struggles of our own world!
Note: This cover is from the Kindle edition. Much better than the print edition IMHO.
by Seanan McGuire
Although the Wayward Children series can be read as standalone books, I recommend starting with the first (Every Heart a Doorway). But the cover of Book 4 is as beautiful and full of longing as the story.
by Shannon Hale
Teen & Young Adult Fiction about Self-Esteem
Sorry, another Book 4 that will redirect you to the start of the series. But there’s something about this cover that draws a reader into that creepy forest!
“In this final book in New York Times bestselling, Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale’s beloved YA fantasy series Books of Bayern, Rin will leave the forest she loves behind to find herself.”
by Heather Mackey
Children’s U.S. 1800s Historical Fiction
The beautiful cover art does a fantastic job of communicating that although this is a book for younger readers, all are welcome into this story of adventure, fantasy and ecology.
by Jason Denzel
Coming of Age Fantasy
You might not have heard of this author, but Jason Denzel is the founder of Dragonmount, a popular online community for Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” series.
by Thoraiya Dyer
Greek & Roman Myth & Legend
An intriguing trilogy set in a lush rainforest world. The cover says it all.
by V.F. Sharp
Fairy Tale Fantasy
As the artwork on the cover suggests, the forest could be more than a setting for this new series for all ages. If you prefer to read entire series back-to-back, be aware that (at the time of writing) book 2 and 3 of the trilogy have yet to be published.
by Sara C. Roethle
Coming of Age Fantasy
I’ve been intrigued by this cover for years before I finally started reading the book. The series is now up to seven books. Based around Celtic mythology and folklore, it’s full of woodland adventure and, as the book description says, “less-than benevolent Fae and Fairies.”
by Kay L. Ling
The cover art is not the best quality, but the concept does a great job of portraying the main character’s curiosity and caution at the edge of the forest.
“In this fantasy debut, a gemologist discovers a hidden portal and finds that family secrets are the key to saving more than one world.”
by Alyssa Wees
Teen & Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Here’s an example of a story where a forest is portrayed as dark and sinister. The cover art captures that mood perfectly. “Into the woods like never before.” (Kirkus Reviews)
by Paul Kearney
The artwork for this portal fantasy trilogy is brilliant. You can almost feel your world being turned upside-down. Interesting that readers compare this to other classic forest fantasy novels that would have been in this list if the covers were more “woodsy” – Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and the works of Charles de Lint (okay, I’ll include the Kindle edition cover of de Lint’s Greenmantle below this—it’s wonderful!)
by Charles de Lint
Paranormal & Urban Fantasy
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (April 1989) wrote: “…with Greenmantle, [de Lint] shows that, far from being mere escapism, contemporary fantasy can be the deep mythic literature of our time.”
More Books About Magical Forests
This list is a small sampling, and I’m sure I’ve left out some of your favorite books about magical forests and trees. Feel free to add them in the comments below, especially if they have enchanting woodsy cover art!