The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Benevolent and Malevolent Trees

Stories about benevolent and malevolent trees are widespread in British folklore.
Here's one from Derbyshire:

A man has to make a journey late at night along a stretch of road which crosses a river at a place where the torrent is particularly fast and rocky. He is afraid because this stretch of road is haunted by a malevolent ash tree known as 'Crooker' who causes people to drown in the torrent. So although the way is dark, it is important to get to the bridge before moonrise when Crooker become active. But more important still is to gain the protection of a benevolent tree. This the traveller does and the beech tree appears to him in the form of three separate women dressed in green and each of them gives him a posy of flowers "for Crooker". He is also given a beech nut for a talisman.

Once on the road he moves through the darkness as fast as he can go but sees the Moon rising before he has reached the bridge. As he gets close the shadow of a crooked branch begins to move towards him threateningly, so he offers one of the posies of flowers which is taken a thrown into the river. Further on the crooked shadow looms up before him so he offers the second posy and this too is cast into the river. Almost on the bridge the enormous shadow with branches like clasping arms bars the way. He offers the final posy and it is cast into the river. Can he now pass onto the bridge? He takes the beech nut and thinks of the rustling leaves of the beech tree. The shadow withdraws and he steps onto the bridge, passing safely across it.


These stories of animated trees with a variety of dispositions towards humans might be compared to the dryads of Greek mythology, though these are often represented as spirits inhabiting the tree which takes human form. Here, the tree itself may appear in human guise to humans but remains a tree. It is said that the greeks had a tendency to personify such spirits while the Romans were more likely to think of them as 'presences' of indeterminate form. But the British folklore record does very much indicate the attribution of both animation and particular intentions to the trees themselves.


The Apple Tree Man

There is a place where it was once the custom for the youngest rather than the oldest son to inherit the family wealth. In one family where this happened the youngest son had a particular dislike for the oldest son, so when he came to share out the inheritance all the oldest got was “an old dunk [donkey] and an ox that had gone to natomy [like a skeleton]” together with an old ruined cottage with three apple trees that had belonged to their grandpa. For this he had to pay rent. He didn’t grumble but cut all the grass along the lane to feed the donkey and the ox and he rubbed the ox with herbs to revive him. The he put the two animals into the orchard of three apple trees, and the trees flourished too.

Just before the rent was due on Midwinter Day his brother came to him and made him an offer to reduce the rent by sixpence if he could come and listen to the animals on Midwinter Night. He had heard that animals could talk to each other at this time and he hoped they might reveal the whereabouts of some treasure that had been buried in the area.

On Midwinter Day the older brother gave the animals some extra feed and hung up some holly in the barn. Then he took the last of his cider, mulled it by the embers and took it to give to the trees. When he had done this, the Apple Tree Man spoke to him, telling him to look under the exposed roots of one of the trees. There he found a box full of gold. “Tis yours”, the Apple Tree man said. “Put it away safe and tell no-one”.

When the older brother came out at midnight sure enough he heard the donkey and the ox speaking. The donkey said : “You know this gurt, greedy fool that’s listening to us – he wants to know where the treasure is”.

And the ox replied: “But he won’t never get it, cos someone else has took it already”.


Adapted from a dialect version in Katherine Briggs A Dictionary of British Folk Tales.

The obvious interest here is the Apple Tree Man, but I wonder if the reference to the inheritance by the youngest rather than the oldest son is something that just happens to have got mixed up with this tale, or whether it has some other significance?


The Forbidden Wood

'The Naiad' John Waterhouse

"I entered a forbidden wood, and the Nymphae and half-goat god bolted from my sight. If any knife has robbed a grove of a shady bough to give ailing sheep a basket of leaves: forgive my offence. Do not fault me for sheltering my flock from the hail in a rustic shrine, nor harm me for disturbing the pools. Pardon, Nymphae, trampling hooves for muddying your stream. Goddess, placate for us the Springs and Fountain Spirits [Naiades], placate the gods dispersed through every grove. Keep from our sight the Dryades and Diana’s bath and Faunus lying in the fields at noon.” - Ovid, Fasti 4.751



George MacDonald's Phantastes, first published in 1858, is a classic text that influenced C. S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others in the succeeding 20th century.

Here's another brief quotation from this novel :
As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth's atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.