Thursday, December 16, 2010

Story Rx: Ygdrassil - The World Tree and Trees in Stories


Just saying it makes me feel as if I'm wearing flowing robes and a circlet of gold.


Hark, is that Aragorn, son of Arathorn at my door?


Fabulous how just a name, a sound, an idea can take root in our consciousness and give rise to branches and buds of our imagination...


Today I'm thinking about the 'World Tree' also called 'Odin's horse' - the enormous tree of Norse mythology that unites the nine worlds. I used to think it was just three worlds - the underworld, the human world, and the heavens... but I discovered last night during my kids' 'winter solstice' play that I was wrong. The entire school was studying Norse and other Scandanavian myths and has built a beautiful image of Ygrassil on stage, complete with serpent, eagle and rainbow bridge to Asgard. 


I like the feeling of just saying it, nonetheless thinking of its mythologic significance:  Nidhogg, the serpent who gnaws at its roots, threatening to destroy all of life, because if the tree dies, we all die. The gossipy squirrel who runs up and down its trunk, reporting on happenings from this world to the next. The four deer, representing the four winds, who run across the branches and eat the buds. The eagle in the top branches, who sees all.

I have no personal connection to Norse mythological traditions, in fact, I'm far more familiar with Greek, Roman, or Egyptian ones, but somehow, the strength of any mythological story is its ability to transcend personal history or even familiarity. A tree, of course, is an incredibly potent cross-cultural symbol. You don't have to do a lot of explaining - trees stand for life, sustenance, beauty, strength, nature, connection to both Earth and sky.

In Indian mythology banyan trees play an enormous role, both because of their age and strength, but also because of their symbolism - what looks like an entire forest can actually be a single tree. Banyans, like Ygdrassil, represent the interconnectedness of all life - both bad and good. Underground roots lie a foundation for reaching branches - if one is destroyed (or, eaten by a serpent named Nidhogg) the other dies. Similarly, if branches are burned (it is said in Norse myths that the fire giant Surt will set the tree on fire on the day of Ragnarok) so too do the roots suffer.

Trees not only have symbolic potency as symbols of life, but represent that which is ancient and unknowable. (Check out this story that came out recently about the oldest living tree on Earth.) In Indian ghost stories, trees are the dwellings of a pantheon of spooky ghosts - bhoot, petni, shakchunni. Just this week, I finished writing a story (that will appear online soon) about Bengali ghosts - who have a penchant for throwing unsuspecting travelers in the trunks of hollow trees.  The mysterious sound of the wind rustling through a coconut grove in an Indian ghost story;  the knotty forest floor and fallen leaves that made a bed for the Babes in the Woods; the fighting ancient forests of the Ents... all of these represent a tree's many faces.

Just last week, I was teaching Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, a story in which a tree takes on central significance to the protagonist. As she struggles to articulate her experience, the teen protagonist similarly struggles to represent a tree in art class - through sculpture, painting, wood work - capturing the essence of a tree becomes symbolic for finding her own voice, strength, inner rootedness, and her ability to grow after injury.

And then of course there's the childhood classic The Giving Tree - a tree who gives a boy fruit and shade, a young man timber to build his home, and finally an old man a seat to rest upon. (I know people love that story - I was always bothered by the gendered implications... and how the boy took her for granted... but that's another story for another day...)

What are your favorite stories that use trees as central symbols? Alternately, what are your favorite tree poems?

Hm... I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree -- Joyce Kilmer


  1. I always loved that the boy in My Side of the Mountain lived inside a hollow tree... And I loved the treehouse in Bridge to Terabithia.

  2. OO... good ones! And who can forget the magic TREE house! (well, obviously I did the first time around!)

  3. There's The Cay, where Timothy saves himself and the boy by holding onto a tree throughout a hurricane.
    In P.C. Hodgell's Kencyr fantasy series, the trees engage in "arboreal drift," where they literally pick up their roots and move to warmer climates. There's one particular willow tree that the main character encounters repeatedly.

    Birches by Robert Frost is a beautiful poem (he has several lovely tree poems actually).

  4. I love Birches, you're absolutely right... I'm not familiar with either The Cay or the Kencyr series... oo more to add to my "to be read pile" - why I love doing this blog! Such good recs from readers!

  5. I too love trees -- and am fascinated by the Ygdrassil.

    Thanks for this!

    (PS -- I found you through your blog comment on She Writes)

    Louise G

  6. Thanks Louise - I know isn't Ygdrassil cool - LOVE the idea...
    and good to know that the shewrites coneections are going strong!