The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse
Existential Analysis of The Forest Dweller
The Forest Dweller, by Hermann Hesse, is a tale not only of the downfall of tyranny or the fall of the high priest it is a tale of existential enlightenment. The Forest Dweller stands as an allegory for existential thought and triumph. The story’s central thematic idea is the struggle between the individual and the herd. Kubu struggles to break free from the tribe that exiles him and the forest that holds him prisoner. Following Kubu’s development through the story, it is clear that although at first it was catalyzed by someone other than Kubu, inevitably, Kubu decides on his own to continue on his existential journey towards individuality and self-actualization.The beginning of the story describes not only the forest dwellers, but the home that they live in. Hesse describes the forest as “dark,” “a cradle, nest, and grave.” This image of darkness symbolizes the ignorance in which the forest dwellers live. Hesse describes the forest dwellers as seeking refuge in this vacuum of knowledge, going so far as to say that they not only are born here when he refers to it as a nest, but also that they die in it when he refers to it as a grave. Hesse’s choice of setting is particularly important in that the forest dwellers are forced into this herd like mentality. They do not have a choice in becoming a member of the herd, they are forced. This makes it even more difficult to break free from the herd like mentality and creates an even larger obstacle for the existential hero—Kubu.Mata Dalam creates an exceptional problem for Kubu and the rest of the Forest Dwellers. Hesse depicts Mata Dalam as opposite of what would be considered an existential hero. His actions are anything but authentic, this is especially true when taken in the context of his failing eyesight and position within the tribe. On the outside he appears to be working in the best interest of the members of the tribe. He says that he wants to keep them safe from the sun, using himself as an example. However, the narrator even alludes to the belief that Mata Dalam is actually just keeping people in a state of fear to advance only his own self interest and no others. Additionally, he bears no responsibility for his actions towards the tribe, and he is the instigator and propagator of the herd like mentality that has overtaken the Forest Dwellers and has thrust them into eternal ignorance and darkness. The existential hero, Kubu, embarks on a journey that leads him down multiple paths and into many different realms within himself. The setting of the story and the antihero all serve to spark the impending internal revolution within Kubu. He, like the rest of the forest dwellers are born into a subjugation of the mind. Unlike the rest of the forest dwellers however, he begins to question and doubt Mata Dalam. It appears as though the narrator of the story begins to doubt Mata Dalam as well. The narrator’s response of “so he said” after the introduction of the new customs indicates that the reader can believe Kubu and that he is not just a rebellious teenager. Kubu’s exile from the tribe catapults him towards his journey. He does not have a choice in his loneliness as “not a member of the tribe” will so much as look at him. The days and nights he spent in the hollowed out tree trunk serve as Kubu’s dark night of the soul. He sits and contemplates his misfortunes, the idea of “outside” and his supposed imminent death. Although it is not overtly stated within the text of the story, it is clear that Kubu is also suffering from existential nausea during this time period as well, as he sat there “terrified,” “wavering between terror and spite.” His decision to continue on his journey and find himself is part choice and part destiny. Destiny in the sense that Kubu is forced into this decision, he cannot really turn back towards his herd as he has been exiled from them. In the strictly existential sense however, Kubu embarks on a journey to become an individual. When he emerges from the dark night of the soul, Kubu’s change is stark. He begins to doubt everything he has been taught and he begins to question all that he has been told. By calling the priest’s curse “nothing,” he indicates that he is ready to progress further away from the herd. His continued questioning of the sun, the moon, life in general all indicate that his preconceived notions set forth by the herd are coming into question. Hesse’s contention that “the longer he was alone, the clearer he could see,” indicates that Kubu was transcending himself and looking deep within. He was no longer crowded by the herd; he could figuratively see what they had been blocking. His quickness to distrust furthers his journey towards individuality. It is important that Kubu’s first attack was on what is the cornerstone of the herd—the divine spirit. It is this divine spirit that gave Mata Dalam his power and wisdom supposedly and it is also the divine spirit who could strike down any Forest Dweller. For Kubu to take on such a strong and powerful belief from the start indicates just how far along on his journey he already was at this point. The conclusion that he reaches in regards to the outside being better than the inside adds to the progression to his journey. At this point, he has decided to leave the forest and see what was beyond that which was forbidden—“outside”. Kubu leaving the forest and stepping into the sun is the height of his journey. At this point, there is no turning back for him. He is about to do what no Forest Dweller in the whole of history dared. This one single act, taken apart from all others, would irrevocably turn Kubu away from the rest of the Forest Dwellers. But taken as a whole in the context of his entire journey, this not only tursn Kubu away from the rest of the Forest Dwellers, but it also propels him towards becoming an Individual. At this point in the story and journey, Kubu is almost entirely self-actualized. The last part of the story is perhaps most telling of Kubu. When he kills Mata Dalma, he does so with premeditation, but also with a sense of duty. This is the ultimate action that will forever separate him from the herd. The members of the herd would never rise up and rebel against their leader, Kubu on the other hand, as an Individual would. He is not afraid of what the rest of the Forest Dwellers would think, he takes it upon himself almost like a duty, picking his “deed,” and killing Mata Dalma. More telling than even his decision to kill Mata Dalma, is his decision to leave the hammer and the carving of the sun behind. He wants the rest of the Forest Dwellers to know that he had killed the high priest. This single action completes Kubu’s existential journey. He is a fully actualized Individual who acts on his own without the herd and accepts responsibility for his actions.The end of the story depicts images of the “outside.” The “outside,” that Hesse has continually placed into quotations to emphasize the difference between the inside of the forest and what lies beyond the forest. The stark difference between light and dark through the story comes to a climax at the end where the narrator describes in detail how the sun’s rays sweep across the world. Hesse has played the difference between these two realms through the novel. Kubu being born in the dark, dying and being reborn into the light is a perfect symbol of being born without knowledge and being reborn again with knowledge not about the earth, moon or stars, but rather, knowledge of himself and the rest of humanity. Hesse’s ending of the story is an elaborate metaphor for those who are Individuals. Calling them “liberated creatures,” “subservient to no one except the sun.” These individuals are bathed in light, while those who are part of the herd are stuck in the dark. Kubu started his journey in the dark, ignorant to everything, blinded by the herd. Kubu finishes his journey however, as one of these liberated creatures, uncaring about the thoughts of others or the herd. He successfully steps out of the dark and into the light as an Individual. Through Kubu’s journey, Hesse is able to carry multiple existential themes and motifs, but most importantly the theme of the Individual versus the herd is the underpinning of the entire story. However, he also has undercurrents of the existential journey and existential nausea, as well as the dark night of the soul and free will and responsibility. All of these themes combine to reinforce and reiterate the idea of an absurd universe; a universe where people will remain chained to the thoughts of others and subservient to all but the sun.