263 – Trees in Spec Fic
If someone records a podcast about trees, and no one listens to it, does it make a sound? Hopefully we won’t have to find out, because this episode is all about our leafy friends and how they fit into our stories. We talk about trees as plot devices, trees as characters, trees as gateways, and even as storage containers, weird as that sounds. Also, there will be a lot of tree puns, so have your groans ready.
- The Overstory
- Old Man Willow
- The Whomping Willow
- Poisonous Tree
- Planting Trees to Fight Climate Change
- Wolf Restoration
- My Side of the Mountain
- Koschei the Undying
- The Chronicles of Prydain
- Abandoned Chernobyl
- The White Tree of Gondor
- The Pit of Despair
- The World Naval
- The Good Place Finale
- The Sword of Summer
- Wizard of Oz Apple Trees
- Grandmother Willow
- Banyan Grove Tree
- Tree of Souls
- The Nemeton
- Roman Description of the Nemeton
- Upside Down Tree
Generously transcribed by Bunny.Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: …And I was thinking about a clever introduction to this one, but mostly I just needed to warn everybody to steel themselves for the massive puns that are coming their way.
Chris: Oh, no.
Oren: I don’t know what that means, but I think we’ll get to the root of it soon enough.
Wes: Ah, mmm.
Wes: It’s going to be a day. But I, I picked this one. I kind of knew what we were getting into. Everybody, we’re talking about trees today. All things trees in our delicious fiction, from characters to mood, to setting, to atmosphere, to all of it. So get ready. You will not leaf… Oh my god, I can’t even do it.
Oren: I think what you meant, Wes, is that you need to leaf the puns to me.
Chris: Can we just stop and cancel this podcast?
Oren: But Chris, are you going to make me trunk all these notes?
Chris: Oh, noooo.
Wes: Okay, so for the one or two people who are still listening, this was something that we just kind of thought would be interesting. Trees are everywhere. They’re in our fiction, and at least from what I could see from my research, they tend to serve kind of very similar roles. And I think that this is just kind of interesting. It seems like how we feel about trees is remarkably consistent.
Chris: Yeah. When I was thinking about it, it was remarkable just how much symbolism there is in speculative fiction around trees. We’ve talked about other recurring things in nature like forests, but no, trees. The individual trees are more iconic than the whole “enchanted forest” trope.
Wes: It’s fun to see just how much an individual tree adds flavor.Remember when Harry Potter is in the wand shop in the first book? They talk about the mix of the wands, like the yew wands and the ash wands. You’re just like, “Oh man, what are these things?” And then, of course, they talk about special trees giving special wood for special boats. If you want to sail across the waters like a Viking. It’s fun. It’s like an accessible specialist’s knowledge. That just adds so much more flavor, just based on the rich history we associate with our leafy friends.
Oren: Oh man. So on that Harry Potter note, as something of a minor boat nerd and also a minor bow nerd, I was really excited when I first read that, and I mean, probably also my first reread of it because when I first read it, I was like 10. But when I reread it as more of an adult, I was like, “Oh man, we’re going to find out what the qualities of the wood are that lend themselves to the qualities of the wand and that the wand does things better or something!” But no. None of that. I was like, “That’s such an obvious thing though. Why does it matter if this wand is made of ash or this wand is made of beech? Why does elder make the best wand?” I have questions. I have wood-related questions.
Wes: That’s just the idea. If your wand is constructed from, like, hard oak, then it gives like plus two to your combat score. Stabby stabby!
Chris: It’s too bad, because there are just enough hints to suggest that it matters. But other than matching somebody’s personality, I really have no idea what the wood means.
Oren: I would even like to know, even if it’s just the personality, what kind of wand and what type of wood goes with what personality? Harry’s wand was the one made of holly. Okay, so what personality does holly go with? Is generically brave the holly personality? I have questions. I have more wood-related questions.
Chris: See, then it wouldn’t be mysterious anymore. We have to keep it mysterious. ‘Cause the wand chooses you, you see.
Oren: Ah, yeah. Unless it’s the Elder Wand, in which case it’s just the best one.
Wes: The “mysterious” part that got mentioned is, I think, really key in this equation, because trees just bring that to a story. Think about the isolated tree. No matter where it is, if you have one tree that stands out anywhere, you’re going to wonder about it. And that could be a tree in the middle of a forest, but it’s a tree that’s unlike the other ones, as opposed to a lone tree on the moor standing there without anything else around it. That’s neat! This is just me bringing my own hypothesis here, but hey, we’re on a podcast. So there’s a story that got published, and it’s not speculative fiction, but it did very well with some awards. It’s called The Overstory by Richard Powers. And it’s about these people who study forests, and there’s just something there in how trees just outlast us. There’s nothing else as organic and as noticeable as a tree, and that reminds you of your own impermanence. This tree was here before you, and this tree will be here after you. If we blow up the world, the tree’s roots might let it regrow, right? It’s just there.
Chris: In reality, many trees don’t, actually outlive a human, but enough do to make an impression. But I was just surprised by the fact that trees come with a lot of symbolism as that, as you said, is reused in similar ways. That is really powerful. Trees’ longevity is a big one of them, where we have all of these ginormous ancient trees, and all of our stories that are there use that as symbolism for, usually, wisdom. This is because of the idea that if the tree is ancient, it has some sort of consciousness, and it uses that to transmit wisdom. Which, granted, a tree that was like an elder god that was there to remind you of how small you are… I don’t think I see those very often. Big trees are almost always benign, or at least neutral, in the stories I’ve seen.
Wes: We can talk more about specific trees, but first, a quick detour. The only real notable, noticeable malevolent tree I could find has a casual mention in Fellowship of the Ring, and then its appearance was in a short story or a novella that Tolkien wrote called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It’s about Old Man Willow.
Chris: Oh yeah! Because they run into him in Fellowship.
Wes: Yeah. It’s like, okay, there’s the Whomping Willow, but like old man Willow is like a super old tree that’s supposed to be as old as Tom Bombadil. It’s this ancient force that’s malevolent. The description was good, too. It was about how the tree has a rotten heart, but his strength is green and he sends his roots out to steal power from the ground and trap people and stuff. I’m like, “Oh, okay. Evil tree.” It’s the one evil tree that comes to mind that’s not from like a B horror movie or something.
Chris: For anyone who hasn’t read Fellowship, or read it a long time ago, there’s a section in the beginning where the hobbits have just left — was it Hobbitton? — and they go into this forest of trees that have a certain consciousness. Tolkien goes on for quite a while about how the trees seem to be herding them deeper into the forest. They find their way blocked by a tree and then they keep turning to go deeper and deeper. And so it’s a way of making the trees seem like they’re against them without them actually ever seeing the trees moving. And then, I think, one of the hobbits gets caught in Old Man Willow, and Bombadil has to rescue them. So, that’s great. That’s a remarkable example, because there’s not very many trees like that. Usually, if they’re antagonistic, they’re very feisty.
Wes: And they whomp stuff.
Oren: I mean, if I was going to put on my amateur psychologist hat for a minute, I would say that it’s fairly likely that most trees are positively portrayed because, in general, we tend to have a pretty positive relationship with trees, or I should say trees benefit us. Trees are really useful to have. They provide us with lumber. They act as filtration systems. They help firm up the soil. They’re pretty, and they don’t really hurt us in any way, most of the time. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, they’re very benign in real life. And if we don’t like them, they’re pretty easy to get rid of, as opposed to weeds, which are much harder to get rid of. So yeah, trees in general are just a fairly positive thing for humans. They’re set to be even more positive now, because one of the arms of fighting climate change is probably going to involve planting a lot of trees. That’s not going to be the only thing, just in case anyone was wondering. But that is a part of the strategy.
Chris: Although I would like to mention that, when it comes to humans and our outlook on things like trees, our relationship has to nature has changed a lot. We had another podcast where you were talking about like American folklore from the colonial times. Colonist folklore and nature is very different in those stories, because people viewed it as something to overcome. It was a powerful antagonist, potentially. Whereas today, obviously we can overcome nature if we want to. We just shouldn’t, a lot of the time.
Wes: We’re working to restore wolf populations and understand what balance is.
Oren: And I also say this as someone who’s never had to deal with roots growing into your wall, so I’m sure there are people who have had bad experiences with trees.
Wes: Sure. But that does also sound awesome, please.
Chris: If somebody has had this happen and the bill is enormous, I’m sorry! But it does sound cool.
Wes: There was a book that I probably read in elementary school called My Side of the Mountain. It was kind of like Hatchet, except I think in this one it was intentional, and all I can remember from that book is that the kid ends up living in a tree, but it’s an older tree that for some reason has a hollow inside. And he just lives in it, but it’s palatial. I dunno. It definitely was a fantasy gone awry about what a true treehouse could be.
Oren: It’s like the nature version of a bartender having a giant six-room apartment in New York City. It’s just like, “There’s no way it’s that big, but you know the fantasy, so we’ll sell that.”
Chris: One of the things that, when I was looking at the ways that trees are used, was a little bit surprising is how often they are used as containers. I mean, maybe it’s because some trees do have hollows on the inside, but our tendency to look at a trunk and be like, “There could be something in there!” was interesting, considering that most trees are used for structural support. It’s a pillar, not a container. But Merlin, for instance, was stuck in a tree, and sometimes they’re containers for spirits or other living things.
Wes: I can’t remember if it’s from the Russian folk tale with Cache, the Undying, who’s a lich, or if it was from… I can’t remember. Maybe it was in Taran Wanderer book, four of The Chronicles of Prydain, but I think there’s also in either one of those stories, a lich’s phylactery is hidden in a tree. Other things hidden inside a tree, presumably because trees are unassuming hiding places. But we know that things are hidden in there all the time, by squirrels and stuff.
Oren: Yeah, but what are you going to do? Check every tree?
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Oren: That’s gonna take a while. I mean, if you leave stuff on a tree, sometimes the tree will just start growing around it, which is kind of neat. So there’s that.
Chris: That’s true, it’s neat.
Wes: And also a cool image. It’s a good way to show how much time has passed or not. Well, I guess maybe as context, but have you guys seen pictures of like Chernobyl now? Every time I see it, it blows my mind. I’m just like, “Whoa.” It got reclaimed fast when we stopped and shut it down.
Chris: Yeah. Although, for my post-apocalyptic writing purposes, not fast enough, in my opinion. I would like the plans to be more aggressive, please, so that all of my buildings are realistically covered in plants so that they can be the way they are in my stories. Although, I have seen some really interesting things, particularly with brickworks and old clay buildings. Having those, I think the trees are more likely to really get their roots in. The most interesting is when you see trees rooting into buildings, and there are some cases where the building has completely rotted away, but the roots are still there where the building was because the tree grew into it.
Oren: Having a tree that’s grown through a building or grown over a sign is one of the ways that if people want to make trees sinister or intimidating, they will do that to show that this is a place where humans don’t live anymore. Something happened here, and the humans were all driven out or died or whatever. It creates that impression very quickly, but at least in fantasy, we have this tradition — that Tolkien at least popularized, I dunno if he started it — of using the tree is like a marker of deep primal nature. And it’s cool, it’s majestic, but also a little scary, a little intimidating because it’s not tamed or controlled in any way. And Middle Earth is absolutely full of those areas, to the point where I wonder, where do the people live? There’s gotta be some wilderness. It’s not like this is a highly urbanized population, but it feels like they should have met some people on this trip by now.
Wes: Everybody’s just hanging out around the white tree of Gondor. I can’t remember if there was a type of tree for that, or if it just was the white tree of Gondor.
Chris: The other symbol, that’s weird to me, besides trees being containers, is trees being gateways. That’s another thing. A tree is not inherently a gate, but there’s quite a bit of scenes and fantasy artwork where there’s a path leading into a tree, like in The Princess Bride. In that movie, there’s actually a door that opens in a tree where we get to the secret dungeon.
Wes: That’s great.
Chris: The movie Sleepy Hollow has this tree of the dead, and it holds a bunch of heads in it.
Wes: I remember that too, yeah!
Chris: But it’s also the doorway to the underworld. And maybe comes from, um… I’m making the mistake of reading Hero of a Thousand Faces.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: And one of the symbols that Campbell mentioned in that book is the tree as a symbol of what he calls the world navel, which is basically like a gateway to something else. And the tree is usually standing at the world navel, that kind of thing.
Wes: Massive spoilers for the end of The Good Place, if anybody needs to tune out. It’s interesting that they construct the doorway in a forest. They set it in a forest, and they build it as an archway between two trees that goes into nothing or whatever. You know, nobody knows. But that’s drawing on exactly what you’re talking about. And is it Norse mythology getting to us? I mean, it’s the Tolkien stuff, certainly, but Yggdrasil, the World Tree…
Chris: You can use it to go somewhere else?
Wes: I think the point of Yggdrasil is that it supports the entire universe. So the tree is a gateway to everything. The roots and the trees and everything, all of it is connected somehow. So maybe that’s how portals come from it. I’m not well-versed on if there’re actually portals in parts of the tree, but the tree’s supposed to contain all the realms and provide structure somehow.
Oren: In some of Rick Riordan’s books, they use the World Tree to get around, because you can climb up the World Tree and then climb onto the branch that has the world you want to go to and then emerge there. I have no idea how much of that is based on actual Norse mythology, but it was a cool image, and then they got attacked by a giant squirrel.
Chris: I mean, it seems, at the very least, a pretty intuitive place to take the World Tree. It’s holding up many worlds, then yeah, I imagine you can travel along it.
Oren: I mean, trees also often have hollows in them or holes that are mysterious, and usually there’s just a raccoon in there who’s mad at you for reaching inside. But who knows? There could be a magical world. That sounds fun.
Wes: Yeah, please.
Oren: And trees have roots which go down into a whole other world that we don’t get to see very much of. So there’s a certain level of transference involved in a tree that I can symbolically latch onto. Have you noticed that most tree characters are basically the same?
Chris: Wait, the same in what way?
Oren: They all have very similar characteristics. I’m sure not all of them do, but a lot. They’re often very slow and contemplative. Probably the one who was least like the others is Groot. Groot is more like an ogre or orc stereotype than a tree. But trees are generally very measured in what they do. They don’t do things quickly, except suddenly when they do, and they have a very ”wise old man” persona. And I mean, obviously Treebeard is a template for a lot of these. But I’ve just noticed that a lot of trees are like that.
Chris: Yeah. Maybe it’s Tolkien, because the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz, for instance, are not like that at all. They’re mad at you.
Wes: Get really upset.
Chris: And throw things at you. I feel like those are precursors to the Whomping Willow.
Oren: Whoa. Oh gosh. The Whomping Willow.
Wes: Yeah. Maybe the Whomping Willow has a personality and that is just belligerent. It doesn’t talk, but…
Oren: Just constantly mad.
Wes: It serves as just yet another reminder that Hogwarts really has safety issues that the administration needs to see too.
Oren: At first we thought it was just a normal part of Hogwarts being a death zone, but then like we found out it was put there on purpose. So it’s like, “This is even worse than we thought! This has layers to it.”
Wes: We’ve mentioned willow a few times, and another one that I was reminded of when talking to a friend was Grandmother Willow from the Pocahontas movie. But apparently willows have really strong folklore significance because they are one, very impressive and beautiful to look at. And two, just because they tend to grow near water and stuff, they had strong associations with spirits. But then, also, I read some folklore that said that willow trees apparently were safe places to basically confess. It was kind of a popular Celtic thing. You could say your secrets and they would be trapped in the willow bark, and you’d be absolved of it. And I was like, “Oh. All right. I’m going to go find a willow tree. Sounds great.”
Oren: “The willow tree won’t judge me.”
Wes: Yeah, exactly. Generally, willows are benevolent with like a few tales of them being a little dangerous, because of a fay association, but then it’s interesting to see Old Man Willow and the Whomping Willow being antagonistic. Although I think maybe Rowling just did Whomping Willow because that alliteration is quite nice. Because it whomps ya!
Chris: She does like alliteration.
Oren: She could have also gone with the Battering Beech. Or the Assaulting Ash.
Wes: Ooooh, the Assaulting Ash.
Chris: Assaulting Ash is a little too blatant.
Wes: Whomping sounds like you’re just going to get bruised up a little bit, not assaulted.
Oren: What about the Lawsuit Larch?
Oren: Just keep going. I’m never going to stop.
Wes: Oh, boy.
Chris: I think some of those trees with tree faces are a big convention. The idea that you put a face on a tree, and I’m wondering if that comes from some of the willow stuff, or the wise tree archetype. It talks to you. It’s really interesting in the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire series that we have these trees with faces that the three-eyed raven can peer from and spy on you.
Wes: But it’s interesting that those trees themselves form a massive network.
Chris: Which is also a fairly common convention for trees. It reminds me of how in Avatar: The Last Airbender, we have a tree that’s the center of a swamp. The intelligence of the entire swamp is controlled by this tree.
Wes: And how in the other Avatar, there’s a giant tree that does body transference or something. Somehow, it’s magical.
Chris: Yeah. I’m trying to think. I think the idea is that their whole planet is one consciousness and their home tree was a manifestation of that, but not the only one, so it wasn’t just one specific tree, I don’t think. But yeah, but it’s very similar. It’s just too big to be embodied in a single tree. But it’s the same concept in that we have a networked forest area, and it has intelligence. When it’s a specific forest and not like an entire planet in fantasy, it’s often embodied by a single huge tree.
Oren: You can also use trees to indicate that a certain society is at one with nature, if, for example, they live in trees, and you can do it without being racist. I know Avatar suggests otherwise, but you could have, for instance, villages made around trees and stuff like that. And you know, that’s what the ewoks do. And I know everyone loves Ewoks.
Chris: Or the elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Oren: Yeah, the elves did that. There’s a lot of solar punk art with buildings that are built into trees. Honestly, in Avatar, I wasn’t even that impressed because it was like, “Wow, this tree grows into an apartment complex. You certainly don’t need to build as many buildings if you have trees that do that.”
Wes: I mean, you don’t.
Oren: Good job.
Wes: One other thing I wanted to talk about that I think was just a cool use of a tree, was in Teen Wolf with the nemeton one.
Chris: I was so disappointed that they didn’t go further with it.
Wes: Me too. They didn’t call them ley lines in the show, they called them something else, but basically the tree is along some kind of power line or nexus. It serves as a beacon to like supernatural things and I’m like, “All right, cool.” And just how it was a stump was also interesting. Speaks to that lasting power that they have, and how it gets powered up through certain events in that show. I don’t know. I wanted more from it too, just because it was such a neat thing.
Chris: I don’t think they ever went to the history of how the nemeton was cut down, did they?
Wes: There was a flashback, though, where we saw the full nemeton before it got knocked down.
Oren: There are several flashbacks where we see the tree before it’s been cut down, and hey, writers, if you have a flashback showing the super important tree not cut down, and then in the future it’s cut down, then that’s a little thing that we call “implying that you’re going to tell us what happened to the tree, you dicks!”
Wes: Yeah, listen!
Chris: Not only that, but then later the nemeton starts growing back. Leaves shoot out of it. And then an antagonist just breaks them off and we never hear about it again. Why didn’t you have the magical tree grow back? That would have been so cool. Ugh, man. More trees, please, more trees.
Wes: And when you learn a little bit about the nemeton, I think… it’s either Argent or the druid guy…
Wes: Yeah, Deaton. They call it and and the definition they use is the actual definition. I guess a nemeton is just a thing from history. The French applied that name to druidic circles who had sacred groves of trees that they called nemetons. And then that got popularized, I think by one of the Romans. His name escapes me at the moment, but he wrote this… I’ll try to find it so Oren can get it in the show notes, but it was this really vivid, mysterious, sacrificial druidic temptation kind of thing to popularize this notion that there are druids that we have to go out and be Romans and deal with. And so I’ll find it and get it to us because it was very good. I should have put it in the notes. Sorry, guys.
Chris: I don’t know how accurate this is, but at least I’ve heard the notion that druids had an idea about how a tree that was upside down, where it’s like the idea is it’s halfway in this world, halfway in another world. Again, another gateway, another tree.
Wes: Gateway trees don’t care about boundaries.
Oren: Yeah. I never know if I can trust anything that I hear about druids, because a bunch of jerk-ass people in the 1800s just made up a lot of stuff about druids based on literally nothing.
Chris: Is this true or not? Eh, I dunno…
Oren: Yeah. Who knows. A lot of it sounds very cool, but I don’t know if I can believe it.
Wes: The thing I can’t believe is the Dungeons & Dragons notion of a true neutral Druid, trying to maintain balance. And I’m like, “What is there with balance when we’re just building cities?” I always sympathize with the aggressive druids, because I’m like, “Hello. The presence of the city throws a balance off. Does it not? What are we balancing against?”
Oren: I mean, I guess. I don’t know. I guess a question like that gets weird because you get into these bizarre ethical quandaries about what the purpose of nature is. And in a D&D world, where animals are implied to be sapient and nature is a living thing, that really changes the morality of humans existing, and it gets a little weird.
Wes: There’s that spell that they get… It’s called “Awakened” or something. Basically, you can take a cow, or any animal really, and give it a decent intelligence score and just like, “Uhhh…” We’ve talked a lot about spells.
Oren: Yeah. You could do that. And you can also do that with trees, and just make tree friends, and I don’t think there’s a limit on how much you can do that. So, if you have enough time, you can just go awaken a forest. And now that forest is your friend, which has some kind of disturbing implications.
Wes: What’s fun about tree friends is when you get just a little sapling or cutting of a tree, and you decide to carry it around with you, and then your game master decides to reveal that it’s a parasite of sorts, then you basically turn into a tree. And that was the most fun I’ve ever had in a roleplaying game. So, thank you Chris. It’s Chris. It’s funny just talking about this, how much you drew on, like everything we’ve been talking about with portals and the connection and all of this stuff. In that story, my character kind of became a dryad-ish.
Chris: Yeah. I was originally intending a fay, but then as soon as I made the fay more monstrous and fantastical, because they’re associated with nature, it just naturally evolved into a dryad, basically.
Wes: That was really cool.
Chris: Yeah. And that game, your character was lured away to the forest and then ended up entering a tree where another weird fay-being gave you this flower and you took it, and that was based on the whole fay-changeling sort of thing because the flower turned you into the fay and the fay then took over your life.
Wes: I remember when I just tried to go do a normal thing and then you’re like, “Do you notice that basically you have bark for skin?” I’m like, “Oh no.”
Oren: It’s okay. Your bark ended up being worse than your bite.
Chris: Oh noooooo.
Wes: Oh boy.
Oren: And with that, we are pretty much out of time, so we’re going to have to call this podcast to a close. We’ve had a good time talking about trees, but you know now that time is over we are going into a gateway to the next podcast with our trees. All right, got that. Brought it all together. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I’d like to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
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