Trees in Fantasy – Part One: Trees as Symbols
Magic in fantasy, myth and legend usually occurs as a natural phenomenon, with its own place in the world of the story outside of what is created by mankind and civilisation. The connection between magic and nature has been a common theme in fantastical tales since the earliest days of storytelling. Trees, both individually and collectively as part of woods and forests, are an iconic symbol of this connection and feature heavily in many of the world’s favourite tales, often flavouring the background as motifs, settings and even characters in stories that have spanned thousands of years.
Trees have come to symbolise everything to do with life, from the fertility of their fruit and blossom-bearing branches to the history of their roots. So it is not surprising that creation stories from mythology and religious scripture around the world favour trees as a central and often pivotal element in the fate of mankind.
In Norse mythology, the entire structure of the universe is dependent on Yggdrasill, the World Tree. The giant ash connects all the nine worlds, supported by three roots that extend to Asgard, the home of the gods, Jotunheim, the land of giants, and Niflheim, a realm of primordial ice. Other European countries, including Germany, Latvia and Lithuania have their own interpretation of the World Tree as a home to the spirits of the dead whereas in early Indian mythology there is a cosmic tree named Asvattha whose branches grow toward the Earth while its roots reach into the sky.
The idea of the World Tree has been explored in many fictional settings including Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, and is even represented by the tower in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. The use of the tree as a uniting structure emphasises the connecting force of nature and binds together all phases of life and death in one cyclical whole.
The Norse gods held their meetings at their holy tree, a natural seat of power, and are said to have created the first man and woman (Ask and Embla) from an ash and elm tree respectively. This tale of the origin of people connects mankind to the structure of the world, giving the impression of a natural power bestowed on us by the gods, a cosmic link to nature and therefore a responsibility to the world we inhabit.
A remarkably similar idea is the Native American mythology of the heroic figure Gluskap, who created humans by shooting an arrow into the heart of a tree (thought to be a birch or an ash). The first men and women emerged from the crack in the bark and harvested the tree to make baskets as a symbol of the circle of life. In the creation story of the Persians there is a more gruesome representation of the life cycle. The tale says a tree grew from the decomposing corpse of the first human, which then split into a man and woman. The fruit of the tree then became the other races of mankind.
In other tales and belief systems, trees appear as more than a symbol of life itself, also representing what life means, particularly in regard to knowledge, wisdom and the importance of nature. In Christianity, the Garden of Eden is home to the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the book of Genesis, God forbids the first humans, Adam and Eve, to eat the fruit from either tree. When they are tempted into disobedience and taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve are introduced to sin, shame, guilt and free will and are banished before they can experience the delights of the tree of life, which would make them immortal.
In fiction, interpretations of the Tree of Life are often reached as a reward for a questing hero, or are taken advantage of by grasping villains. Both occur in the first (sequentially) chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, when Digory picks an apple which he must bury to save Narnia, and the White Witch eats one to gain immortality. C.S. Lewis mirrors Adam and Eve’s choice in Eden by tempting Digory to eat from the tree himself but he manages to resist.
While the fall of man is generally painted as a negative event, the tale carries a suggestion of inevitability as both trees are significant symbols in the human interpretation of life. The tree of knowledge symbolises human mortality as well as human error and of course the knowledge and wisdom to make the right choice in future. The Tree of Life represents the uncorrupted state of humanity before the fall and emphasises original sin because part of the punishment is the knowledge that its fruit holds the power of immortality but is out of reach.
A similar story from Micronesian mythology suggests that in their Eden-equivalent there grew two trees that were guarded by a creature called Na Kaa. Men lived under one tree and women beneath the other. One day, when their guardian left on a trip, the men and women got together under one of the trees. When Na Kaa returned he told them that they had chosen the tree of death instead of the tree of life and that is how mankind became mortal.
This division between the tree of life and the tree of death is often represented in fantasy fiction but, as life and death are two parts of the whole, the representation is frequently made by a single tree. Tales of Buddha say that he reached enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree, which reputedly inspired the Chora trees from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The great human-engineered trees of Jordan’s creation are said to have emanated a sense of peace to those who passed beneath their branches but the powerful symbolic link between nature and the price of knowledge from the tale of Eden and other mythic stories is also evident. After bargaining for his memory, a main character is “hanged for knowledge” on the branch of the last of the Chora, Avendesora, an event that was inspired by the Norse god Odin, who hanged himself to a branch of Yggdrasill to gain knowledge of death.
Death is a significant part of life and leads to another common motif that trees signify throughout fantasy. The destruction of trees and forests representing the decline of nature and the rise of human industrialisation is a concept that is seen more and more in times of heavy population and global warming but is perhaps given its most significant face in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s ents, a doomed race of tree-like giants whose role in Middle Earth is to protect the forests from destruction, are one of the most beloved of the author’s created people. The sad tale of the ents, who can’t reproduce because they have lost their entwives, is just one of the symbols of the end of the age of nature and magic and the rise of men but they provide a literal embodiment of the battle between nature and industry when they band together to protect the forest from Isengaard in a powerful last stand.
Other representations of this motif are varied but common. The treatment of the Chora tree Avendoraldera, a sapling from Avendesora, begins a bloody war in The Wheel of Time, trees, plants and flowers grow with brown leaves and petals in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and the godswoods of Westeros, that were once worshiped and revered gave way to invading religions and their people pushed back beyond the wall in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Finally, trees are a symbol of natural magic (or magical nature) that can be utilised by mankind to create a better natural world. In Tolkien’s The Silmarillion the two trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, produced the source of light for the whole world. After their destruction their respective flower and fruit became the moon and sun. The Wishing Tree from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus combines the sense of wonder that can be found in both magic and nature to enhance the enchanting atmosphere of the eponymous circus. In folklore throughout the world, trees and forests provide home and shelter for many magical beings, including dryads and nymphs, which use their own powers for the benefit of nature.
In the second part of this article we will explore trees as characters and settings in the fantasy genre.
Originally posted Jun 6, 2014.