Trees and Humans: Stories in Film and Literature

The tree is a powerful symbol in human consciousness and one that often manifests in our stories. There, they are often used in journeys or as a connection, as a source of wisdom or redemption, or a representation of the mystery and untamed in Nature.

The magic tree of Enid Blyton's enchanted forest

The magic tree of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest

In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, a magical tree in an enchanted wood allows access to different lands, some pleasant and fun e.g. The Land of Birthdays, and others a nightmare for children e.g. The Land of Dame Slap, a horrid teacher. One must also return in time before the lands rotate, or else one waits another full rotation. Here the tree is similar to the conduit envisioned by shamans to access different worlds (The Meme of Trees), as well as there being a karmic concept of cycles, and consequence, if one stays too long in one land.

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an important link between humans and nature

In The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, the tree is a place of redemption and sacrifice, and one that can renew the spirit and allow contact with Nature. One who survives this sacrifice on the Summer Tree, the 3 days of being tormented by one’s self, without food or water, arises stronger, with powers and direct communication with the wildness of the land.

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, trees, and especially forests, are embodiments of the mystery and power of Nature. Elves, who are more connected with natural magic, do not fear these ancient abodes and some make it their home. There are also Ents, tree-like creatures with a tonal language, having become the trees they herded. Large and incredibly strong, they protect the great forests and provide a face for Nature. The Ents, who are slow, but steady, have their anger roused by the deforestation by Saruman and the orcs, and wage war, showing a limit to their tolerance.

Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), people in cities and suburbia inexplicably fall dead leaving people fearful and confused. Terrorism is initially blamed, but the cause is traced to trees releasing a chemical in order to remove a threat (humans). Here, Nature is fighting back and this brings in similar concepts such as those mentioned in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia.

A scene from The Happening in Central Park

The Fountain (2006), by Darren Aronofsky, provides a surreal experience with the Tree of Life (inspired by the Kabbalah) an important symbol connecting the three periods (conquistador, the neuroscientist and the space traveller), as well as a paraphrase from Genesis 3:24, that eating from the Tree of Knowledge began human’s experience of duality and limitation.

The tree from Aronofsky’s The Fountain

In Terrence Malick’s visually stunning Tree of Life (2011), there are themes of existence and human suffering in a grand cosmology, while the large oak tree symbolizes connections between generations and the witnessing of family tragedy, while ever growing and being a source of life.

Malick’s Tree of Life: a source of life and connection, and continued existence

Even in ancient stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature from Mesopotamia, the hero has to overcome many obstacles, including a Great Flood, to reach a garden of jewel-laden trees where he leaves the physical world. In this ancient epic there is the same account of the flood myth as Genesis 6-8 as well as the account of Enkidu and Shamhat, similarly relating to Adam and Eve.

A tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 4000 years old

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”   William Blake

The Meme of Trees

The Tree of Knowledge

The tree is intimately rooted within human culture and consciousness with significant exposure in religion and myth – often serving as a link to the Earth and the subtle worlds beyond. From Egyptian hieroglyphs tying the character’s soul to the tree, Buddha’s realization under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), old Semitic texts of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the Mesoamerican world tree – a symbolic axis mundi connecting the seen and unseen, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life – which still influences Western esotericism, Yggdrasil – the giant Norse tree on which the nine worlds exist and the sacred trees of the Arabs which provide council in one’s dreams.

Yggdrasil, the Norse connection to the 9 worlds

By its very form the tree suggests connection with above and below; a mass of tangling, dark roots changing via a conduit to an expanse of branches in the light of sky. It is no surprise that shamans have used this form in journeying; returning with stories of worlds unseen. There are also long associations with ideas of shelter, contemplation, warmth – from the burning of wood, food – from fruit and nuts, construction and support, sacrifice and punishment, and for the pure enjoyment for children’s play. While human knowledge has grown and ideas and cultures have been created, destroyed and mutated, the tree has ever been present and has appeared in our lives’ stories and memories.

The bodhi tree, where buddha sat all night before enlightenment

We should thus ask the question, what it means from a symbolic or mythological perspective, to destroy the tree, and to cut down far more than those that can take their place? Is it representative of a war within ourselves, or do we wish to sever the undying link between the above and the below, the conscious and perhaps that part of ourselves that is more intuitive and more connected with the unknown? And to plant and to connect with trees – is this a desire to achieve wholeness and integration? Myths and mentations are of the past, but they influence us now, and the course of action that we shall take. Let us remember the many human lives and their stories before us.