Images of climate innovation

Fantasy Fiction and Forest Ecology

Welcome to the Dragon's Nest at Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest. At the University of Birmingham, we have been working with Ruskin Land to explore how fantasy fiction can engage people imaginatively with actual forests. By harnessing the popular appeal of stories, we can help people to understand, value, and care for the forests we all depend upon.

An archway of wood in a forest

At the University of Birmingham, English literature scholars have teamed up with the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) and the Ruskin Land estate in the Wyre Forest to explore how the imaginary forests of fantasy literature can help us to rethink and rebuild our relationships with woodlands. The descriptions of forests and woodland communities in stories by writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin are imaginatively compelling and psychologically satisfying.

By harnessing these fantasy forests, we can put people back in touch with the actual forests that we all depend on for carbon capture, biodiversity, and our mental and physical health. Through a unique combination of literary analysis, qualitative social science methods, and practical experience of sustainable forestry, we have been studying how the forests in fantasy fiction can complement and enrich our scientific understanding of forest ecology.

At the same time, we are trialling ways of using fantasy fiction to engage people with forests themselves, including forest trails, exhibitions, and readings on-site in the Dragon's Nest. These new engagement techniques can be put into practice at other sites across the world, whether with internationally famous writers such as Tolkien or with appropriate national or local stories.

Fantasy fiction is often dismissed as escapist, but it can help us rethink our day-to-day assumptions about what life can be like. If we are to adapt our society to be more sustainable, people have to be able to invest imaginatively and emotionally in that new way of life. Now that we are predominantly an urban species, we are at risk of losing our connection to nature.

Given its wide popularity, fantasy literature has real potential to help reverse this trend while at the same time inspiring people to conserve forest environments. Through our project, fantasy readers will gain a fresh appreciation of forests and their ecological and environmental importance, while foresters and ecologists will gain a new resource for engaging the public with their work.

Entrant: John Holmes , University of Birmingham

Copyright: Studio in the Woods 2018, Jim Stephenson

Funding: The Leverhulme Trust (through the Forest Edge Doctoral Scholarship Programme at the University of Birmingham)

Collaborators: John Holmes, Dion Dobrzynski, Will Tattersdill and Jon Sadler (University of Birmingham); John Iles (Ruskin Land)


Dion Dobrzynski profile: