Although rarely at the forefront of fantasy novels, trees, forests and tree-like beings are a feature of many works of the fantastic. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at trees in particular (as distinct from forests), with some mention of creatures that have tree-like characteristics.
Trees have been a feature of mythology for thousands of years. They are powerful symbols and represent life, strength, nature, endurance, wisdom, rebirth, protection; they symbolise the axis mundi, the link between heaven and earth.
The ancient Greeks imagined trees were inhabited by wood nymphs or dryads (which latter actually signifies ‘oak’). Norse mythology has Yggdrasil (‘Odin’s horse’) or world tree, an ash tree that supports the nine worlds (and with which the modern Christmas tree is identified). Trees of life such as Yggdrasil are common in many traditions. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is another famous mythological tree, the eating of the fruit of which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the garden of Eden.
Sacred groves feature in many religions, such as the grove of olive trees outside the Academy in Athens. India has thousands of sacred groves associated with Hindu gods. Celtic druids tended groves, called nemeton, and they were the site of religious rites such as animal sacrifices; some oak trees were thought to be oracular and could be consulted by druids.
Trees and forests have also been associated with mythical beings such as the Green Man and the woodwose, or wild man of the woods.
In the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first sources of light were destroyed by Melkor, the evil Vala, another of the Valar, Yavanna, made the two trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These trees shed light across the land until they too were destroyed by Melkor. A flower from Telperion and a fruit from Laurelin were saved and these became the moon and the sun. A reproduction of Telperion spawned the White Tree of Gondor.
One of the most well-liked characters in The Lord of the Rings is Treebeard, or Fangorn, who is an Ent. Ents are giant humanoid creatures that resemble trees (the word ‘ent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘giant’). Along with the passing of the elves from the world of Middle Earth and the final journey of Frodo and Bilbo to the western lands, the situation of the Ents forms part of the major theme of The Lord of the Rings: the end of an era and the rise of Men.
In the trilogy, the Ents are a doomed race. They are guardians of the forests, but they are entirely male. Their womenfolk, the Entwives, lived a different life and were the progenitors of agriculture. They have been lost for many years since being attacked by Sauron. Thus, in Frodo’s time, there are no more Entings, young Ents.
Ents were created at the behest of Yavanna to protect the forests from Dwarves and other dangers. They are extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Ents are subject to diminishing into treeishness – if they cease moving for long periods they grow roots and essentially revert back to being trees.
Ents are a popular feature of roleplaying and other games, where, for copyright reasons, they are often known as Treants or Treefolk.
In the world of Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, trees also play an important role. Woodhelven are tree villages – villages housed in or on the branches of an enormous tree and occupied by woodhelvenin, who are skilled in lillianrill lore – wood magic. Here is a description of Soaring Woodhelven from Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series:
Their approach gave Covenant a good view of the tree village from some distance away across a wide glade. He judged the tree to be nearly four hundred feet high, and a good thirty broad at the base. There were no branches on the trunk until forty or fifty feet above the ground, then abruptly huge limbs spread out horizontally from the stem, forming in outline a half-oval with a flattened tip. The whole tree was so thickly branched and leaved that most of the village was hidden; but Covenant could see a few ladders between the branches and along the trunk; and in some tight knots on the limbs he thought he could make out the shapes of dwellings. If any people were moving through the foliage, they were -so well camouflaged that he could not discern them.
The Land, the setting for much of the Chronicles used to have vast forests, which have dwindled over time (much like the forests in Middle Earth). These forests are protected by forestals, immortals who appear human and are capable of powerful magic.
In the Second Chronicles, the characters – having lost the Staff of Law – decide they must travel to the One Tree, from which the wood that made the original Staff was taken, to make a new Staff of Law. The One Tree grows on an island that is protected by a guardian. Once the characters arrive there, their efforts to secure a limb from the tree temporarily rouse the Worm of the World’s End, causing the island to sink into the sea.
Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time features its own Tree of Life, also called Avendesora. Like the White Tree of Gondor, a sapling of the tree is cut down by a king, prompting a large war. In the first book, The Eye of the World, the heroes are helped by the Green Man, the last of the Nym, a giant humanoid made of vines, leaves and other tree elements. The Ogier live in Stedding, magical forests, and when they stay in cities prefer to live in Ogier groves.
Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle is set in what appears to be a small area of woodland from the outside, but inside is a near infinite realm where mythical beings are real. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, one of the main characters, Digory, must plant an apple in Narnia, which grows into a tree that protects Narnia from the White Witch. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ygg is a talking tree that guards the border between Order and Chaos. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin has weirwoods, trees with blood red leaves and sap that were once worshipped all over Westeros in godswoods, groves sacred to the religion of the old gods.
Magic trees are emblems of the reverence in which people hold nature in general, and forests and trees in particular. Many of the fantasy trees mentioned above are set in a melancholy context of the advance of civilisation bringing an end to an old order dominated by the natural world. Fantasy writers can draw on this trope to evoke great sympathy with a dying way of life; it seems to me, though, that no one has done this as well as J R R Tolkien.
While Ents are a favourite denizen of Middle Earth, it’s a little surprising that subsequent writers haven’t incorporated similar beings into their works in the same way that Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins have been embraced and adapted.
What are your favourite trees in fantasy fiction? What other magical trees do you know of? What other authors have used them in their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.