Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The most revered of Britain's native Trees, held as sacred by many cultures including the druids, Germans and Greeks. It was believed to be sacred to the god of thunder, as it was often struck by lightning, and the Druids believed mistletoe grew on the oak after it had been struck. A symbol of virility and strength, it was also regarded as the tree of the dead and the home of dead spirits. Odin hanged himself on an oak for nine days prior to his Resurrection, while Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is hanged from an oak before his rebirth as a Real Boy. The oak can also bind spirits (see Bondage) – e.g., Merlin was imprisoned in an oak by Viviane (see Lady of the Lake) and Jennifer and Daniel were likewise treated in I Married a Witch (1942). (Ariel, in Shakespeare's The Tempest [performed circa 1611; 1623], was by contrast imprisoned by the witch Sycorax in a pine.) The death of an oak tree was a symbol of death in "The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream" (1857) by Hans Christian Andersen. It is also maintained that the last leaf never falls from an oak tree and there are several Baltic Folktales about Pacts with the Devil where the deal hinges on the last leaf falling. Oaks were also capable of protecting from evil, and oak wood was often used in making gallows. Anything made from the wood of a gallows will protect against evil: see "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" (1910 Contemporary Review) by M R James and "The Fatal Oak" (1947 in Unholy Relics) by M P Dare (1902-1962).

Oak groves were sacred meeting sites for the Druids. The oakmen were spirits of the oak (see Dryads), Dwarf-like beings who are guardians of the forest and its animals (the oak supports more wildlife than any other tree) – they appear in, e.g., Beatrix Potter's The Fairy Caravan (1929 US). A 13th-century oak at Windsor is associated with the spirit of Herne the Hunter. The oak was believed to confer power, and was often used as the site for temporary parliaments. It is through the oak that the Hubelaires begin their rise to power in the Tales of Cornwall by David H Keller. An oak was probably the original of the stone in which the Sword in the Stone was placed. Arthur thus becomes symbolic of the Oak King – see In the Shadow of the Oak King (1991) by Courtway Jones (real name John Alan Jones; 1923-    ). The Oak King is also associated with the Green Man and is often represented by a Foliate Head. Further references to this figure are in Peace (1975) by Gene Wolfe and The Oak King's Daughter (1979 chap) by Charles de Lint; de Lint utilizes the imagery of the Forest in many of his books, and the oak is especially significant in Into the Green (1993), where a Merlin-like figure is trapped in a Little-Big oak. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.