The sea, the desert, the forest: these elemental expanses seem to have a mythical quality by virtue of existing; and if, to Romans, the Germans themselves constituted a myth, then the forest was a compelling part of it. Germany was terra silvis horrida, as Tacitus observed, and horrida means both bristling and terrifying.
To Germans themselves in modern times, the forest has myth in different ways, shown in Wagner’s Siegfried, when in the forest the hero finds what he is called to do by the song of the woodbird, accompanied by the orchestral Forest Murmurs, music so evocative that people who hear just the music for the first time know at once what it signifies. To Siegfried the forest is a place where things are revealed.
So it is for Dante, who by entering a forest is shown the secrets of human afterlife: he cannot tell how he entered this selva selvaggia ed aspra e forte, because he was full of sleep: but as he wanders, he meets Virgil, who is to be his guide.
Aeneas in Book VI has to enter the ancient forest to find the Golden Bough which will enable him to enter the underworld, where to him too the mysteries of life after death will be revealed: he is led to find the bough by doves sent from Venus to guide him.
The forest can be a place of refuge, as it is for Duke Senior and his company in As You Like It: later his daughter Rosalind, in threat from her usurping uncle, follows him into the forest, disguised as a boy.
Charles: They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world. As You Like It, Act I, Scene 1
And in this forest Shakespeare sets a play that is really a pastoral romance.
This romance of the forest, recurrent in German literature, appears in English, even in the 20th century:
Who goes amid the green wood
With springtide all adorning her?
Who goes amid the merry green wood
To make it merrier?
Who passes in the sunlight
By ways that know the light footfall?
Who passes in the sweet sunlight
With mien so virginal?
The ways of all the woodland
Gleam with a soft and golden fire—
For whom does all the sunny woodland
Carry so brave attire?
O, it is for my true love
The woods their rich apparel wear—
O, it is for my own true love,
That is so young and fair.
—James Joyce, Chamber Music