“The Thing in the Forest” takes place in the real world, but the story has supernatural elements, and therefore blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy. This blurring effect is heightened by Penny and Primrose’s frequent questions about whether they really saw anything in the forest as children. One of the reasons they return as adults is to clarify for themselves what is real. As they seek to confront the loathly worm, they are, on some level, seeking to answer deeper questions for themselves about what is real and what is imagined. Their confusion is often shared by the reader, and is further highlighted by Byatt’s use of magical realism.
Byatt describes the forest as a place of mystery and enchantment, a place where reality bends into fantasy and illusion. Penny and Primrose wonder what is real, and after seeing the loathly worm, they repeatedly question what they saw, giving them a motive for returning to the forest as adults. The story’s first sentence—“There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest”—establishes that the forest is a place of uncertainty and confusion. This uncertainty provides the main conflict of the story: the girls return to the forest to verify, and confront, a terror from their past. The forest is described as “inviting and mysterious,” “a source of attraction and discomfort, shading into terror,” and a place where “something that resembled unreality had lumbered into reality.” This language suggests that feelings of terror and excitement are often interrelated, just as fantasy often contains elements of reality and vice versa.
When she returns to the forest as an adult, Primrose remembers stories she told herself as a child, which comfort her, leading her to abandon her search for the loathly worm. In the final scene, she begins to tell the children about the worm, relegating it to the realm of fiction, where she has power over it. In this way, she takes advantage of the blurred line between fantasy and reality to triumph over her trauma. Penny is a psychologist specializing in children who are autistic—and who often have trouble sharing their dreams, expressing their imaginations, or reporting on their senses. All of this poses the challenge, for Penny, of determining how to access the realities and experiences of these children. This problem echoes the question that has haunted Penny all these years—the question of what, if anything, she saw in the forest as a child. The need to answer that question is what drives Penny back to the forest as an adult.
The central question of the story is in many ways the question of whether Penny and Primrose actually saw the loathly worm. Byatt uses several elements beyond the women’s own uncertainty to further weaken the boundary between fantasy and reality. When Penny and Primrose return to the mansion as adults, they notice that “there was all that history, but no sign that they […] had ever been there.” The thought strengthens the women’s resolve to return to the forest, as much in an effort to prove their own reality as in an effort to prove the reality of the worm. Penny and Primrose discuss Alys, “that little one,” who they suppose was killed by the worm. They have no evidence she existed, noting that “nobody ever asked where she was or looked for her,” yet they think she did, just as they think they saw the loathly worm. Thus, Byatt uses Alys’s character to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy.
The question of whether the worm is real—and of whether the two girls actually saw it—is ultimately left unresolved. Speaking about the worm, Penny says that “there are things that are real—more real than we are—but mostly we don’t cross their paths, or they don’t cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they’re doing in ours.” In this way, although the worm’s reality is in question until the story’s end, it remains, in the mind of Penny at least, more real than reality—a seeming paradox. Although Primrose seems able to resolve this paradox and leave behind the nagging questions about the reality of what she saw in the forest as a child, for Penny the worm remains not only a source of confusion about the boundary between reality and fantasy, but a reminder that fantasy can have a kind of power over individuals that renders even objective reality irrelevant.
Reality vs. Fantasy ThemeTracker
Reality vs. Fantasy Quotes in The Thing in the Forest
There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.
They remembered the thing they had seen in the forest, on the contrary, in the way you remember those very few dreams—almost all nightmares—that have the quality of life itself. (Though what are dreams if not life itself?)
I think, I think there are things that are real—more real than we are—but mostly we don’t cross their paths, or they don’t cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.
“Sometimes I think that thing finished me off,” said Penny to Primrose, a child’s voice rising in a woman’s gullet, arousing a little girl’s scared smile which wasn’t a smile on Primrose’s face.
She believed in Father Christmas, and the discovery that her mother had made the toys, the vanishing of magic, had been a breathtaking blow. She could not be grateful for the skill and the imagination, so uncharacteristic of her flirtatious mother.
Primrose knew that glamour and the thing they had seen, brilliance and the ashen stink, came from the same place.
It was the encounter with the Thing that had led her to deal professionally in dreams. Something that resembled unreality had lumbered into reality, and she had seen it.
When it came, she would look it in the face, she would see what it was. She clasped her hands loosely in her lap. Her nerves relaxed. Her blood slowed. She was ready.
Primrose sat on the edge of the fountain. She had decided what to do. She smiled her best, most comfortable smile, and adjusted her golden locks. Listen to me, she told them, and I’ll tell you something amazing, a story that’s never been told before.