Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Since humanity's primate ancestors were arboreal, trees are in a sense our original homes, which might explain their power over the human imagination. To be sure, entire Forests are often depicted as evil or dangerous, but images of individual trees are generally positive. Trees are regularly depicted as abodes, often hollowed-out havens of domesticity for the anthropomorphized forest creatures of Children's Fantasy, as in Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books; one thinks also of the Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse and of Tarzan, happily swinging through the branches of trees and depicted (at least in some of the Tarzan Movies) as living in a treehouse. There have been many impressive Cities in trees, ranging from Jules Verne's The Village in the Treetops (1901) to Revelwood in Stephen R Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. More cosmically, Norse mythology pictured the entire Universe as one enormous tree, Yggdrasil (see World-Tree); and central to the Christian Creation Myth is Eden's Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Trees have served also as characters. The features of a mature tree – its visible durability, stature and solidity – have undoubtedly served to establish the features of the imagined sentient tree: incredibly old, wise and powerful. In the original version of the Cinderella story it was a talking tree, not a Fairy Godmother, that helped the lass in her hour of need. This is this tradition that J R R Tolkien drew upon in creating the Ents of The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955): ancient, benevolent, knowledgeable, they lend dignity and substance to Frodo's battle against Mordor. Charming tree-people, who sometimes seem to change into human shape and dance, are found also in C S Lewis's Prince Caspian (1951), though Lewis seems to be building more on the notion of Greek Mythology that Dryads spiritually inhabited trees. Trivialized with a smiling face, friendly trees are a staple of children's literature, often of the worst sort. While such trees are usually cast as males, another wise old tree, now envisioned as female, gave magical assistance and good advice to the heroine of Disney's Pocahontas (1995). In that movie and elsewhere we see a more modern aspect of the tree persona: defender of the natural world against the encroachments of civilization.

Yet sentient trees may also be viewed negatively. Because they usually cannot move or move only with difficulty, they might be seen, like Tolkien's Ents, as overly passive, unwilling to act in times of crisis. They might, like many very old creatures, become irritated by or hostile to the young, especially young humans who flaunt their mobility. Thus one frightening aspect of the dark and sinister forest is that the trees themselves might come to life and attack – which is exactly what Snow White imagines while fleeing through the woods in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Also, Dorothy and her friends are attacked by mean-tempered trees in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and one can also mention the ambulatory tree which serves as a Monster in the movie From Hell It Came (1957). Further villainous movie trees occur in The Blue Bird (1940) and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992). [GW]

see also: Quincunx.

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.