UNCP5541: Into the Woods

Bonnie Rudner

English Faculty

This course is also offered as EN670

Bruno Bettelheim claims, in his landmark study of fairy tales The Uses of Enchantment, that as human beings seek to find meaning in their lives, there is no better source of enrichment and enlightenment than the fairy tale. In fact, the German poet Schiller wrote, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales taught to me in my childhood than in the truth taught by life.” Fairy tales are a unique art form, and their deepest meanings are as varied as their readers. But all readers, young, old, and in between, share the experience of wonder when confronted with them.

The splendor of the fairy tale is its ability to speak to both our pleasure in the fantastic, and to our concerns about the real world. The dimension of wonder creates a huge theater of possibility, anything can happen in the world. This very boundlessness serves the moral purpose of the tale, it enables a person to consider the nature of boundaries and responsibilities. Dreaming, of course, gives pleasure in its own right. It addition, it allows us an arena in which to experiment and to learn from our mistakes.

Fairy tales entertain and teach by their use of metaphor. Little Red Riding Hood journeys into the woods in order to visit her grandmother. She leaves behind her indulgent mother, she dawdles, and she takes risks along the way. There are many dangers in the woods but Little Red Riding Hood learns quite a bit about life, and wolves, during her journey. In most of the versions her knowledge enables her to free her grandmother and herself, without the help of the hunter, and she is then ready to embark upon the rest of her life. Fairy tales do not bring about total closure, instead, they suggest possibilities. The characters, one always imagines, return to ordinary life. The genre is characterized by a “heroic optimism.”

Wallace Stevens believed that fantasy worlds help us to visualize actual worlds. The metaphor of the journey into the woods seems like an ideal one for our students to consider as they prepare to leave Boston College. In order for each student to evaluate his/her experience in the “woods,” he/she will have to look backwards, as well as forwards. Looking backwards we will ask, Who was I before I came to BC? What place did I come from? What does "place" even mean? What was my connection with place? What were my expectations in coming to BC? Why did I choose this place for my journey? Have I been connected to the BC community, or is my sense of place connected to the larger city of Boston? How have I participated in shaping my education? The metaphor of the journey through the woods is also a helpful one in our assessments of our relationships. How have my relationships changed since coming to BC? How do I envision these relationships in the future? What do I think about the idea of "going home" now? How has my sense of that place changed? The hero of the fairy tale leaves the woods with a renewed commitment to his community. We will ask our students how they plan to negotiate their transitions from the BC community into society, as well as to consider the way in which faith, or spiritual understanding, is essential to negotiating any journey through the woods. These areas will be addressed in a variety of ways:

  • Lecture, class discussions and presentations by students each week
  • Analytic paper, based on the reading, developed from your group questions
  • Weekly three-page papers, responses to reading, personal fairy tales, definitions, point of view
  • Final portfolio, includes everything you have written, revised to the best of your ability
  • Final five-page evaluation of your experience in the woods


Folk and Fairy Tales

  • Don't Bet on the Prince
  • The Alchemist

Traditional Fairy Tales

  • The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault

Contemporary Fairy Tales

  • Carter
  • Donoghue
  • Lee
  • Coelho

Shakespeare’s versions of the “woods”

  • The Tempest
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Into the Woods, by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim

In addition, we will read one work that can help provide a framework, or practical guide to the craft, personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing their own stories, Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington.

The basic premise for this Capstone seminar will be for all of us to explore the nature of the journey Into the Woods, and to figure out exactly how we hope to live “happily ever after.”


        Into the woods you have to grope,
        but that’s the way you learn to cope.
        Into the woods to find there’s hope,
        of getting through the journey.
        Into the woods each time you go,
        there’s more to learn of what you know.
        Into the woods, but not too slow.
        Into the woods it’s nearing midnight.
        Into the woods to mind the wolf. To heed the witch. To honor the giant.
        To mind. To heed. To find. To think. To teach. To join. To go to the Festival!
        Into the woods. Into the woods. Into the woods.
        Then out of the woods.
        And happy ever after!
        --James Lapine


Tentative Weekly Schedule

Introduction - Questions: interview/survey What is a fairy tale? Who are we? What do those things have to do with each other?

  • Folk and Fairy Tales, p. 23-30, 40-50, 53-76, 100-105, 117-121
  • Goose Girl (handout), Folk and Fairy Tales, p. 210-243
  • The Company of Wolves
  • Don't Bet on the Prince, p. 39, 62, 81, 95, 101, 121
  • Into the Woods Act I
  • Into the Woods Act II
  • The Alchemist
  • Midsummer Night's Dream
  • The Tempest
  • Art and the Fairy Tale
  • Conclusion

Read Stopping by Woods and Goose Girl

  1. What do you think "the woods" mean?
  2. Think of an example of a time when you have gone into the "woods" and returned.
  3. What is poetic justice?
  4. Cite an example of one time when you think poetic justice was achieved.
  5. Cite an example of one time you think poetic justice was not achieved.
  6. What does it mean to have an epiphany?
  7. Explain one epiphany that you have had.