Fairy tales are rightly seen by many authors and critics from Jung to Bruno Bettelheim as repositories for archetypes and for vital social messages. Additionally, they must be seen as a literary genre by themselves, and elements which may be seen archetypically must also be taken in terms of their literary function. In this light, one can study the role of the forest in fairy tales both as a reference to the archetype of the dark forest and as a social reference to the land outside civilization, and simultaneously be aware of the way in which the forest operates as a literary device to isolate the characters quickly from their familiar world by placing them into another realm. The ways in which forests seem to function in fairy tales to isolate the characters ranges from the very physical to the very esoteric. The forest is something that isolates the characters by nature of its physical properties, which puts them outside the confines on civilization and the realm of human experience, while symbolizing the subconscious and representing the death and rebirth of the characters; this isolation in turn creates a world in which the improbable and the insane becomes both possible and necessary.
Jane Tompkins writes that forests are important in literature because when a person enters into a forest, he or she becomes in a sense automatically lost by virtue of not being able to see through the trees. The vertical composition, competitive detail, and obscurity of the shadows lends a sense of physical confusion. This sense of physical lostness is important in many of the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. For example, in the story of Snowdrop (also known as Snow White), the little princess gets physically lost in the woods and her physical sense of confusion is a large part of the reason she becomes so vulnerable. She is quickly taken away from everything that seems safe and comfortable to her and left in a disorienting environment. It is perhaps partly because she is so disoriented physically that she is willing to so quickly trust her stepmother in all those disguises, because any other human in this alien landscape is somehow more trustworthy than the unknown woods.
According to Robert Harrison and his book on Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, the forest is important because it is always that space which defines the limits of civilization. He explains that civilization has always taken place in a clearing in the middle of forests, and that this sylvan fringe is what limits and defines civilization. Civilization ends at the fringe of the forest, and so those that step beyond it symbolically step beyond the protection of the civilized world. This meaning of the forest is apparent in fairy tales such as Little Red-Cap, where the woods between grandmother's house and the home of Red Cap are the domain of wolves who will eat the little girl. One line in Grimm's version as translated Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes says that the wolf has "such a wicked look in his eyes, that if they had not been on the public road she was certain he would have eaten her up." The forest from which the wolf comes is fundamentally opposed to the civilization represented by the road.
In addition to such physical aspects as the forest's relationship to civilization and its tangled way of confusion wayfarers, the forest is also generally thought to symbolize the subconscious. Bruno Bettelheim speaks of the importance of the forest in fairy tales, as a place which symbolizes a great inner darkness that must be confronted. He says that since the most ancient of times, the impenetrable forest represents the impenetrable world of the unconscious, and that being lost within the forest is representative of being lost in life without the structure which our socially constructed super-conscious might give us. Those who are able to emerge from this shadow have a higher and more evolved humanity. One could theoretically cite any reference to forests within fairy tales as referring to the subconscious and the inner structure of the mind. In particular, one can see such an idea of the depths of the subconscious being present in the story of Briar Rose. In this tale, the princess and all her court fall asleep for a hundred years under the enchantment of a fairy. During their sleep, a great forest of briars rose up all around the castle. So the secret women inside the castle, who are sleeping, might be seen to represent the slumbering subconscious. The briars which surround the castle are the dangers of transgressing between the conscious and the subconscious, and the bones among them represent those who have failed to make this journey. The prince is leaving the comfort of his own masculine and conscious way of thinking, and entering into the forest which shelters the feminine unconscious way of being.
The forest may also serve as a symbol of death and rebirth. J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols speaks of the Dark Forest (or the Enchanted Forest) as a threshold, and that the soul entering there enters the unknown. This unknown is not only the unconscious mind, but also the great unconscious: it is the realm of death and mindless nature, and in some ways going into the forest is a symbolic death that is followed by the initiation of rebirth. This idea of death and rebirth in a fairy tale is perfectly played out in the story of Rapunzel and her prince. Rapunzel goes forth into the woods when she is cast away from her sheltered life, and the Prince is told that she is dead. In a way then, in word if not in fact, she has died. Yet this death leads to birth, as she becomes a mother to twins. In a similar way in this story, the Prince is cast down among thorns which put out his eyes. He then wanders into the woods blindly (heightening the sense of physical disorientation and separation from society), and in so doing on sees a significant break between his old life of light and honor and his new status as a blind beggarly figure. This is a sort of death that is followed by a rebirth as Rapunzel's tears restore his eyes to sight and he becomes able to see again.
One might also be able to speak of the forest in fairy tales as representing various sexual or gender issues. Entering the dark forest might be associated with entering puberty, or the coming knowledge of sexuality. One could most certainly make a reading of Little Red Cap in this way, where the wolf's predations take on a sexual nature. Likewise stories such as the Frog Prince, in which the little princess "put on her bonnet and clogs, and went out to take a walk by herself in a wood; and when she came to a cool spring of water, that rose in the midst of it, she sat herself down to rest a while," (Grimm) could be read to imply an illicit transgression into the realm of adult sexuality. This is heightened by the way that the Princess drops her ball down a long hole and sends a little frog climbing down it after promising the feed him and sleep in a bed with him. (This is the prince she will eventually marry, one is reminded) A hole is obviously a traditional symbol that might be used to refer to female genitalia. This tale of a girl being grossed out by a frog and then coming to a place where she is willing to marry him, after begin forced by her father to sleep with him for four nights, could definitely be seen as a story of sexual initiation which begins with a foray into the forest. Even tales like Briar Rose and Snowdrop can take on sexual connotations if one so seeks to apply them. In such an interpretation, the woods serve as a symbol of that which is mysterious and dangerous in that which is illicit, and as the character enters them they become lost and confused -- but emerge with more knowledge and usually with a spouse or children!
So these are all very good and important aspects of the role of forests in fairy tales, but they do not in themselves explain the way in which the forest functions as a literary device. Of course being archetypical and serving as a powerful symbol is no small part of the literary role of the forest. However, it also has an important role to play as a plot device in that in itself the appearance of the forest serves as a kind of call to adventure, a removal from the ordinary which allows the characters to undertake adventures which they might not otherwise have accessed. The forest serves to distance the characters from their…