Under pandemic lockdowns, many Germans have flocked to the woods within cities such as Berlin and Munich and to the forests of Bavaria and the Harz Mountains, among many other green spaces in Germany. What they are seeking, reports this BBC article, is Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to ‘solitude in the forest’. This term refers not simply to being alone in the forest, but a host of associated feelings of tranquillity and sublimity as well as isolation and melancholy. Waldeinsamkeit has deep historical connotations in German culture, all the way from the love of the woods in ancient Germania (as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus) to Grimms’ fairy tales, Goethe, Heidegger, Hitler, and the Germanophile American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Let us turn to the first uses of the term in Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 short story ‘Der blonde Eckbert’ (‘The fair Eckbert’), set in the Harz Mountains and which could be subtitled (to the tune of Canada’s national anthem), ‘Within glowing Harz, we see trees rise.’
Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) was a poet, critic, and writer of prose fiction who lived in Berlin, Jena, and Dresden, and is considered a father of German Romanticism. He visited England as part of his lifelong championing of Shakespeare’s works–part of the German Romantic cult of Shakespeare. His 1797 tale ‘Der blonde Eckbert’ features the term Waldeinsamkeit in several places, a compound word combining Wald, ‘forest’, with Einsamkeit, ‘solitude’ or ‘loneliness’. The ambiguity of Einsamkeit reflects the combination of peacefulness and lonely isolation in this term. Moreover, it denotes supernatural terrors in the forest as they appear in the story. In other words, Waldeinsamkeit means that besides spruce, pines, beech, and oaks, the Germanic forest is populated with plenty of fear trees.
The story of ‘Der blonde Eckbert’ is eerie and unsettling. In the middle of the Harz mountains lives a knight nicknamed ‘Fair Eckbert’ and his wife Bertha. They are reclusive but happy: for them, home is where the Harz is, and they feel both rooted and branch-ored there. Still, in their isolation, Eckbert welcomes the boon companionship of a frequent visitor, Walther. One evening, Eckbert feels that Walther should listen to his wife’s strange tale which features much to-ing and fro-ing the woods, as a way to relieve a strange burden in his soul, but presumably also to prevent arbor-edom with the paucity of good TV shows in early modern Germany.
Bertha relates her unhappy childhood, subjected to the verbal abuse of her shepherd father and his wife. In desperation at the age of eight, she flees her village and plunges into the forests and mountains. Eventually, she is taken in by a mysterious old woman and becomes a surrogate daughter, housekeeping and tending to both the woman’s friendly little dog and a songbird during the old woman’s frequent absences. The woman’s hut is an idyllic oasis of tranquillity in the middle of a forest, as reflected in the bird’s song of Waldeinsamkeit: ‘O solitude [Waldeinsamkeit] / Of lonely wood, / Where none intrude, / Thou bringest good / For every mood, / O solitude!’ She stays in this state of forest-fulness for many years.
She begins to be forest-less, however. The old woman warns her not to stray; but she is tempted by the magic eggs laid by the bird which contain pearls and gems, as a means of supporting wanderings through the world. She abandons the woman and dog, keeping only the bird with her. She eventually arrives at her old village, but everything has changed and her parents have passed away. The bird changes its tune, now singing, ‘O solitude / Of lonely wood, / A vanished good / In dreams pursued, / In absence rued, / O solitude!’ She chokes the bird to death and fears that the old woman will still wreak revenge, even in her isolated home with her husband. For flying the coop and killing the bird, then, she fears some punishment for her eggs-cesses.
Walther appears unmoved by the story, and Bertha falls mortally ill. Eckbert suspects Walther of some involvement in his wife’s death, and accidentally–or not–murders Walther while hunting one day. He befriends another knight named Hugo von Wolfsberg, but begins to be suspicious of him as well, particularly when Hugo’s features start to resemble those of Walther. He flees into the forest and comes upon the old woman, hearing the song, ‘O solitude / Of lonely wood, / Thou chiefest good, / Where thou cost brood / Is joy renewed, / O solitude!’ Eckbert is unable to discern whether he is dreaming or only dreamt of a woman named Bertha. The old woman declares that the punishment has been served, that she was Walther and Hugo, and that Bertha was Eckbert’s sister–who, due to her father’s shame at begetting a daughter with a woman other than his wife, was sent to be brought up by a poor shepherd. In his delirium, Eckbert dies to the sounds of the old woman, dog, and bird. Perhaps he thought his wife was an ideal partner and companion, but she turned out to be an Oedi-pal.
Given this disturbing and tragic story, then, what are we to make of the current taste for Waldeinsamkeit? Do Germans seeking the solitude of the forest realise that they are risking madness, incest, and untimely death? For anyone under the delusion that they can escape pandemical terrors by wandering in the woods, Waldeinsamkeit ‘leaves’ much (and mulch) to be desired.
Do check out the 2021 issue of the Early Modern Studies Students’ Society journal Babel, hot off the virtual press, which you can read here! You’ll find papers on everything from Shakespeare and Milton to Labé, Pascal, Frankenstein, anatomy, and dye production.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Waldeinsamkeit-flying Studies Program