Trees in Fantasy – Part Two: Trees as Characters
In the first part of this series we looked at trees as symbolism in fantasy literature. We discussed the role of individual trees in mythologies and creation stories around the world, deforestation as a representation of the declining age of nature, and trees as a symbol of natural magic.
As we have seen so far, mythological world trees – such as the Norse interpretation, Yggdrasil – have become archetypal images that represent the natural cycle of life and death. These trees, revered through their individual names, biographies and spiritual rituals, are known so intimately that many have developed their own personas, taking on projected roles in order to play their part in the story or myth. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that so many fantasy authors and storytellers have drawn on the associated impressions of trees as symbols of wisdom, knowledge and natural power to create tree-ish characters within their fiction.
Sentient trees have appeared in various guises throughout all sorts of tales, often fulfilling the role of the wise and ancient advisor. Grandmother Willow from Disney’s Pocahontas is a classic example of this character; the tree anthropomorphised by a gnarled but animated face and a limited ability to move roots and vines to gesture and trip people up when necessary.
Trees-with-vocal-chords can be a useful plot device for supplying information and guidance to protagonists, particularly rumours and “local news” as they tend to be notorious gossips, which is shown to full effect in the enchanted wood (Wisha-wisha-wisha) of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories. They are also handy for moral vignettes – as seen when Dorothy tries to pick apples in The Wizard of Oz – because of their inability (usually) to move beyond their rooted location. The use of tree-characters provides the wonderful advantage of setting and character combined, which brings an enchanting atmosphere to fantasy tales. Their inclusion sets the tone while allowing the hero to get the information they need and be on their way.
Sometimes, tree-characters are used for more divine purposes. Their worship dates back before recorded memory, and so trees taking special-guest roles as the embodiment of a god is a common occurrence across myth and folklore. The Green Man is an image that appears engraved in the architecture of medieval churches all over England, and similar carvings can also be found throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor. There are many theories about the face, which is emerging from – and often largely made up of – leaves and branches, but many agree that its origins tie in with the worship of pagan gods as the transition was made to Christianity. Countless folkloric stories relate to the Green Man, with connections made to Robin Hood, the Green Knight, the Jewish prophet Elijah and even Father Christmas, but the image is most strongly related to vegetative deities from various cultures and features heavily in spring and May Day celebrations signifying rebirth and the cycle of growth.
In ancient Greek mythology, trees from the Dodona grove had the ability to deliver prophecies. When the trees were cut down to build the Argo – the ship Jason and the Argonauts sailed on their mission to retrieve the Golden Fleece – the wood retained this ability and was able to forewarn the crew of impending calamity, an idea that Robin Hobb loosely explored in her Liveship Traders trilogy. A modern(ish) exploration of this theme is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where the heart trees of the pagan godswoods depict a face so that the old gods can witness important events through the tree’s eyes.
Because of the common motif discussed in part one – that occurrences of deforestation often represent the decline of nature and the rise of civilisation, and therefore evil is denoted as that which destroys nature – we may be inclined to think of trees as generally “good” characters, but more often than not it is less black and white than this.
Old Man Willow, a tree abiding in the Old Forest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, is a malicious character who may have once been an ent or Huorn (a species halfway between trees and ents). A force of natural evil, Old Man Willow’s hatred of “walking things” sufficiently influenced the other trees in the forest, making the land a danger to any two-legged trespassers.
The Whomping Willow from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has no verbal consciousness so can’t really be seen as “bad” but it still proves to be a punishing obstacle to characters that cross its path. A magical species of tree, the Whomping Willow reacts violently to anyone or anything that gets within range of its branches, which it uses as club-like arms to knock trespassers senseless. Its brutal nature is harnessed to work as a naturalistic disguise – protecting the tunnel out of the Hogwarts grounds so that no one will accidentally run into Remus Lupin in his werewolf skin – the tree acts as a different kind of guardian and demonstrates the power of natural forces and their link to magic in Rowling’s world.
In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the Raven King is said to have enchanted the forests surrounding his capital city in the North of England to act as defending armies. The trees of this story are able to form allegiances and devour anyone that stands against their side, making them an extremely dangerous example of the connection between nature and magic.
Often, anthropomorphised trees will have the same moral dilemmas as human-like species – although perhaps with different priorities – because their tangled fates have forced them to interact with each other, such as Tolkien’s ents and the trees of Fangorn Forest in their march against Isengard. Occasionally, however, the natural and “civilised” worlds collide when enchantments cause human characters to exist within, or become, trees.
One of the tales of Merlin’s downfall in Arthurian legend tells that, as a result of falling for the nymph/sorceress, he became trapped in a tree, suffering either death or incarceration to await his return. In Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne was transformed into a Bay laurel by her father when she asked to remain unmarried. Apollo, enchanted to love her eternally, used his powers of youth and immortality to make her an evergreen and vowed to tend her forever. In Middle Earth, ents that don’t move around much grow roots and become “tree-ish”. The transformation of a character into a tree is even seen in the 80s sitcom, Dinosaurs, when Earl Sinclair’s soul is swapped with that of a rather charming tree that he is supposed to destroy in his role as a “Tree Pusher”, resulting in his brief sympathy for the plight of nature and small ecosystems.
Other characters simply inhabit trees in such a way that the tree appears as the physical embodiment of the creature. The best example of this is the Cthaeh from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. Terrible and malicious, the Cthaeh is an omniscient being that influences people to bring about destruction and suffering by telling them their inescapable futures. Lurking unseen in the branches of a giant tree in the fae realm, the creature utilises the symbolic attributes of trees to lure in unsuspecting victims and therefore appears even more sinister to the reader as a result.
One of the most effective minor characters in fiction is that of the crowd or mob. Working as both setting and character, mob mentality is a force to be reckoned with. As a collective, forests and woods grow their own personalities, combining the various personas attached to individual trees to create intense natural forces of “good” or “evil” that can strengthen a narrative by representing any number of things.
The Greenwood in Middle Earth became known as Mirkwood when the appearance of evil things began to influence the trees that grew there. The trees of the enchanted wood are a protective and nurturing influence, happy to share their secrets to protect themselves and the child protagonists of the Faraway Tree stories. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the forest beyond the wall is harsh and untamed, holding onto memories of a past age of magic and ancient species.
The woods of our favourite tales become characters in their own right, affecting the stories through their presence and what they represent. In the final instalment we will discuss trees as setting in myth, folklore and fantasy fiction.