BY SARA CLETO AND BRITTANY WARMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN PAULY

The concept of hygge is all about creating cozy, safe, and happy spaces. Embracing hygge means cultivating a refuge away from the grind of the busy world, the dark forests of our experience. Though fairy-tale forests are home to many dangerous people and places, they can also host the most enchanted of secret shelters. In these special havens, journeying protagonists are allowed a moment of pause by the fire, a warm cup of tea or a bowl of soup, and a chance to rest before renewing their commitment to adventure. Here we explore a few of our very favorite fairy-tale forest sanctuaries.

Snow White

Perhaps the most famous fairy-tale refuge to be found in the dark woods is the home of the seven dwarves in the Grimms’ tale “Little Snow-White.” After the seven-year-old Snow-White escapes from her stepmother’s murderous machinations, she runs through the forest until she finds the dwarves’ little house. Soothed by the neatness and comfort of their home, she nibbles the bread and vegetables set out on their seven little plates and tries each of their seven beds until she finds the coziest one. When the dwarves arrive home, they offer Snow-White sanctuary for as long as she likes, in exchange for her help in running the household. The care and hospitality of the dwarves allow Snow-White to survive this chapter of her tale, offering warmth and kindness to bolster her against the chaos of her family.

“The Old Woman in the Wood”

In this more obscure Grimm tale, we find a very different kind of forest home. Here, hidden inside tree trunks, there are secret comfortable bedrooms and closets filled with beautiful dresses, with doors that can be opened only with little golden keys brought by enchanted doves. Though there is a witch’s cottage later in the tale, it is these small but comfortable tree houses that leave readers enchanted.

“The Hut in the Forest” In the Grimms’

“The Hut in the Forest,” coziness and comfort are to be achieved only alongside kindness to animals. Those who ignore or neglect the hen, cock, and cow inside the house are given just a taste of hospitality before facing confinement in the cellar. However, the young heroine who feeds and waters the animals before enjoying the abundance and warmth of the house is rewarded with a castle and a handsome prince. For comfort to be true and lasting, this tale tells us, all creatures must be respected.

“Thumbelina”

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the tiny protagonist, lost and alone, eventually comes upon the den of a kind field mouse. There she lives in hygge style, with warm rooms and plenty of food stored against the cold of the coming winter. In exchange for sheltering poor Thumbelina, all the mouse asks is that she help her keep the home clean and tell her stories. They spend a lovely winter together, at least until the mouse, thinking she is doing the best thing for her, tries to marry Thumbelina off to a mole!

Baba Yaga Tales

The Slavic witch Baba Yaga has a most remarkable home. While many who approach it feel terror rather than the conviviality of hygge, we suspect that Baba Yaga herself feels that her little house is quite comfortable and cozy! Her cottage is perched atop chicken legs, making the entire forest a potential front yard. The kitchen is well-stocked with everything she needs to wield her craft, both culinary and magical. Sometimes this little cottage is a solitary respite for Baba Yaga and sometimes it provides shelter to neglected peasant girls, but it is always a place of enchantment and a warm hearth against the cold.

Though there are homes to fear in fairy-tale forests—the house of sweets in “Hansel and Gretel,” the robbers’ hideout in “The Robber Bridegroom,” and the witch’s home full of kidnapped girls and birdcages in “Jorinde and Joringel” all come to mind—there are also places of peace, kindness, and safety. So come curl up with your own book of fairy tales, a cup of tea, and your softest blanket, and explore them from your favorite chair while the snow falls gently outside your window.

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Sara Cleto is a Ph.D. candidate in English and folklore at the Ohio State University. She also teaches courses on fairy tales, legends, and more at the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic (carterhaughschool.com). Her poetry and prose can be found in Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny Magazine, Goblin Fruit, Faerie Magazine, and many more. You can find her at saracleto.com.

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