Mircea Eliade (1907–86) considered his epic novel The Forbidden Forest to be his best work. Written between the years 1949 and 1954, the novel was originally published in French as Forêt interdite the following year. It finally appeared in Eliade’s native Romania as Noaptea de Sânziene in 1971 and in English as The Forbidden Forest in 1978.
Well known for numerous studies on comparative religion, including The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949) and Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Eliade received little attention for his fiction. Yet both his nonfiction and his fiction demonstrate Eliade’s vast knowledge of religious and mythological history and symbolism. The Forbidden Forest demonstrates major themes evident in Eliade’s scholarly work, including the ordeal by labyrinth, initiation rites, and the conflict between sacred time and historical time.
Divided into two parts and set in major European cities (including Bucharest and London) from 1936 to 1948, Eliade’s novel is Proustian in scale (almost 600 pages) and consists of a tapestry of intertwining characters and story lines. The central character, Stefan, is a handsome, thoughtful man who works for the Romanian Ministry. His daily life is tedious and routine, quite the opposite of his personal life. Stefan maintains a fl at where he pursues his interest in painting and spends much of his time eavesdropping on the conversations of his neighbors, including those of Spiridon Vadastra, an awkward lawyer with a glass eye. Stefan is married to Ioana, a young woman whom he meets after she mistakes him for her current lover, Ciru Partenie, a well-known Romanian writer. Stefan is also having an affair with Illeana, a young woman whom he initially meets on the Night of St. John, or Midsummer’s Eve. The significance of this day is central to the theme of the novel, as not only is it the day on which his relationship with Illeana begins and ends, but it is traditionally known as a night to celebrate fertility and new life.
Stefan is on a spiritual quest, trapped in a metaphorical labyrinth from which he is desperately trying to escape. Not only is Stefan torn between his love for both Ioana and Illeana, he longs to rediscover a time that transcends history, a time that is not susceptible to the terror and destructive nature of history that is so evident during World War II. It is through the wide range of people and events in Stefan’s life that Eliade gives the reader a sense of Stefan’s ordeal by labyrinth.
The first part of the novel deals with Stefan’s developing friendships and confl icting romantic feelings. Biris, a consumptive philosopher and teacher, serves as Stefan’s confidante and is able to shed light on Stefan’s preoccupation with history. Biris realizes that Stefan is horrified by historical events and that the young man longs for “the paradise of his childhood.” Yet Biris knows that man cannot escape history, for when he eventually dies at the hands of communist intelligence agents in the second half of the novel, unlike Stefan, he understands that both men and civilizations are mortal. Stefan also befriends Antime, a scholar of the works of Partenie, Stefan’s doppelgänger. It is Antime who introduces Stefan to an Iron Guardist, a member of the ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic and fascist Legion of the Archangel Michael movement and political party that existed in Romania from 1927 into the early years of World War II. After providing refuge to the guard, Stefan is placed in a prison camp and loses his job at the ministry. Eventually, however, he is released and reinstated at the ministry.
Stefan’s relationships with women are also a source of conflict. Despite the birth of their son, Stefan is unsure of his love for Ioana. His relationship with Illeana is also unstable. Unable to gain a commitment from Stefan, Illeana becomes engaged to an officer. However, her fiancé is killed in a tragic car accident, resulting in Illeana deciding to leave both Stefan and Bucharest indefinitely.
Stefan’s quest to find Illeana is the focus of the novel’s second half. After his wife and son are killed in the bombing of Bucharest in spring 1944, Stefan realizes that he truly loves Illeana and sets out to find her. After much searching, he finally finds her on the Night of St. John, 1948, in the forest where they had first met 12 years earlier. As they leave the forest together, they are killed in a car accident. Despite realizing his true feelings and finding his true love, Stefan is still a victim of history and the terrifying events it brings to mankind.
Many critics have written that Eliade’s The Forbidden Forest serves as a fictional representation of his scholarly work on religion and mythology. Ultimately, Eliade’s novel not only tells the tale of the initiation rites man must endure in order to gain an understanding of his self, but it also conveys the anxiety that permeated society during and after World War II. Long underrated, Eliade’s fiction, like his popular religious studies, should be considered essential to those who wish to gain an understanding of the human condition and the history and myth that has shaped it.
Allen, Douglas. Myth and Religion in Mircea Eliade. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
———. Structure and Creativity in Religion: Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade’s Phenomenology and New Directions. Religion and Reason 14. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.
Carrasco, David, and Jane Marie Law, eds. Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991.
Cave, David. Mircea Eliade’s Vision for a New Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Dudley, Guilford. Religion on Trial: Mircea Eliade and his Critics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.
Eliade, Mircea. The Autobiography of Mircea Eliade. 2 vols. Translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, 1988.