Catherine Olver is a 1st year PhD student studying the personification of places in contemporary YA fantasy.
Sitting at my desk, I look up from my books and stare (sometimes thoughtfully—more often in a half-focused way) at the trees of Christ’s Pieces, punctuated by various church and chapel spires, leading off in black and green lines of spindly winter branches towards the flawlessly monolithic tower of the UL. Which reminds me to stop posing like a poet, and look down again at the paper I’m supposed to be reading.
At night, my poetic reflections become a literal reflection. I can’t see the trees outside, but a different tree appears in the dark window: there’s my shoulders and neck and head and, behind me, but apparently growing out of my head, is my bookshelf. It’s shaped like an elm tree, with young adult novels heaped and leaning at angles along its branches. If I’m feeling whimsical, it looks like my head is the middle of a mind-map, and my teenage reading has arranged itself in place of thoughts. Which is fine by me.
This got me thinking about the trees from children’s stories that I find most memorable. My favourites when I was small were the trees that looked normal on the outside but their trunks turned out to be houses for mice and tiny people. Or, if you’re a normal-sized person, you could live in a tree-house city of platforms and rope ladders and bridges and intricate pulley systems (this was how I consoled myself when I became too big for living inside the tree to be practical). Trees are portals to mysterious underworlds or cosy underground lairs, or up and up to lands in the clouds. They lend themselves to myth, especially myths about life and knowledge, or they become symbols for communities and their values. And, of course, trees are people. Whether they’re wise and gnarled or bendy and full of life, the trees of children’s literature have stories to tell. So, with those clues, which of these trees have you met?
- Piglet’s house, from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, illustrated by E.H. Shepard.
- The home of the mice in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge
- The half-awake dryads in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
- The tree from Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, in a mural by lolamurals https://lolamurals.wordpress.com/tag/mural-artist/
- The tree in Roald Dahl’s The Minpins, illustrated by Patrick Benson.
- The trees from the Christian Tale of Three Trees, retold by Angela Elwell Hunt and illustrated by Tim Jonke.
- Yggdrasil, the tree of the world in Norse mythology, drawn by Doug Kovacs.
- The Fir Tree from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Fir Tree’, illustrated by Svend Otto S.
- The underground house, entered by sliding down hollow tree trunks, in Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, Retold for the Nursery by May Bryon, illustrated by Kathleen Atkins.
- Caras Galadhon, the capital of Lothlórien, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Picture by Paul Lasaine, visual effects art director for the films.
- The Hobbiton Party Tree, also from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. A still from the film.
- The olive tree given by the goddess Athena to the earliest citizens of Athens, winning the competition against Poseidon (photograph).
- The tree that holds together the floating city in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
If you scored above ten, you may return to your studies wearing an imaginary laurel wreath. If you recognised all thirteen, you’re a dryad, and I very much hope to see you dancing with the trees on Christ’s Pieces in the middle of the night.