I’ve never had a problem with trees. Quite the reverse – they’ve always featured prominently and positively in my life. Symbols of strength and refuge, protection and patience, enduring and recovering from the terrible wounds inflicted on them by people and circumstance, beings of great beauty, exciting climbing frames and providers of delicious fruits and nuts.
I’ve found it difficult to locate a seriously malevolent trope among tree mythology and folklore. See, for instance, the wonderful Forests and tree symbolism in folklore which is part of a series of papers on Perceptions of forests. Of the myths the most widely prevalent through time and geography is the all-embracing world tree:
The World Tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the earth, and, through its roots, the underground. It may also be strongly connected to the motif of the tree of life.
The tree of life?
The tree of life is a mystical concept, a metaphor for common descent, and a motif in various world theologies and philosophies. In mystical traditions of world religions, sacred texts are read for metaphorical content concerning the relationship between states of mind and the external experience of reality. As such, the tree is a manifestation/causal symbol – the Tree of Life representing the coveted state of eternal aliveness or fulfillment, not immortality of the body or soul. In such a state, physical death (which cannot be overcome) is nevertheless a choice, and direct experience of the perfect goodness/divine reality/god is not only possible, but everpresent.
The same centrality is obvious in folktales:
Some are cautionary tales about the perils of cutting down forests. In others, humans become transformed into trees. Trees appear in dreams. They sing and talk. They offer consolation and convey special powers. In many of the tales, a tree serves as teacher or guardian of the truth. Characters who sit under a tree or climb up into a tree are suddenly inspired to set out on a journey or receive a decisive insight. Enchanted beings, both helpful and forbidding, emerge from forest places. The world itself is shown to emerge from a tree. And, on a lighter note, noodleheads and fools are snapped to their senses through an encounter with a tree.
My particular favourite is Why Death is Like the Banana Tree.
Possibly the best-known actively malevolent individual tree is the fictional Old Man Willow created by JRR Tolkein in The Lord of the Rings:
Old Man Willow cast a spell on the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin), causing them to feel sleepy. Merry and Pippin go to lean against the trunk of the willow and fall asleep, while Frodo sits on a root to dangle his feet in the water, before he also falls asleep. The willow then traps Merry and Pippin in cracks of its trunk and tips Frodo into the stream, but the latter is saved by Sam, who, suspicious, manages to remain awake. After Frodo and Sam talk about possibly burning the tree so that it is frightened enough to release the others, Merry yells from inside to put the fire out at the risk of the tree squeezing them to death. They are saved by the timely arrival of Tom Bombadil who ‘sings’ to the ancient tree to release Merry and Pippin. The tree then ejects the two hobbits.
They are vengeful, but their methods of exacting revenge are unspecified; people do not leave the forest if the Huorns do not let them. Huorns can create darkness to conceal their movements and are capable of moving quickly. They still have voices and can speak to the Ents, but unlike Ents, they do not seem able to speak intelligibly to other races.
But Tolkein himself was distressed by any assumption that he was portraying trees in a negative light, as shown by this excerpt from one of his letters:
With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18,1 feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.
The spookiness of trees appears to derive less from their individual nature and more from when they are found in numbers – forests. Tolkein named one of his fictional forests, Mirkwood, after the forest of Norse mythology, Myrkviðr. The trope of an enchanted forest is widespread:
Such forests are described in the oldest folklore from regions where forests are common, and occur throughout the centuries to modern works of fantasy. They represent places unknown to the characters, and situations of liminality and transformation.
The unknown, uncharted, possibly gloomy or dark and potentially threatening can of course give rise to all sorts of fears and lead to thoroughgoing panic:
Legend has it that one of Pan’s favorite diversions was to torment ancient Greek travelers traversing the byways of that once-forested land. Pan would lie in wait, concealed in the bushes, awaiting his unwitting victims. When a traveler passed by his hiding place, Pan would gently rustle the bushes, engendering a sense of apprehension in the person walking by. The traveler would pick up his pace, and Pan would then scurry through the forest to intercept his quarry at the next dark turn of the path. There, he would rustle some more vegetation, and the traveler would make even greater haste as Pan’s amusement grew. By this time, the traveler would begin to breath heavily, and his heart would begin to pound, and the sounds of his own quickening footsteps would be magnified in the stillness of the forest to resemble those of a pursuing wild animal. One more rustle of the bushes from Pan and the traveler would be hurtling as fast as he could run along the dark and narrow forest path. It took no more provocation from Pan to keep the human interloper in Pan’s forest kingdom from fleeing as quickly as possible. Never would the unsuspecting traveler re-enter the forest without experiencing a wave of apprehension. Thus did the term panic originate.
One of my favourite representations of such a panicked state is Mole‘s foray into the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows. How familiar all the adjuncts of arboreal terror are – the rustling of leaves; cracking of branches underfoot; sighing, soughing, squeaking and wailing of wind in branches; the looming, moving shapes that appear full of eyes and faces, limbs and weapons.
It would seem that spooky trees are, mostly, what we have made them.
[This is my submission for the forthcoming Festival of the Trees which will be a special Halloween edition at Windywillow. Submission instructions can be found here. The current edition is up at trees, if you please.]