Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sentient Trees

In popular media the idea of sentient trees is pervasive. Whether you’re talking about World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, or even Magic the Gathering the tree people are an ever present element in the fantasy genre. But where did the idea of sentient trees come from and what common elements do they hold?

Notable Appearances
There are numerous appearances of sentient trees throughout the fantasy genre and far more than I intend to list here, however there are those that stand out more so than others and even one that may surprise you
1)      Lord of the Rings – the most notable and prominent of these appearances is the Ents from Lord of the Rings. These ponderous and powerful timber giants stormed onto the big screen in The Two Towers and raised interest in these enigmatic creatures to a level previously unheard of
2)      World of Warcraft – allies of the Night elves these treants guard the city of Darnasus and other areas associated with the Night elves.
3)      Magic the Gathering – not surprisingly sentient trees make an appearance in the popular card game Magic the Gathering as a subtype called Treefolk. There are many cards that fall within this subtype in the game going all the way back to the legacy edition cards with the Iron root Treefolk.
4)      Star Wars - yes even Star Wars has its own version of these sentient trees called Neti. The Neti differ somewhat from the typical sentient tree concept in that they’re able to change their shape and size to some degree, including a quadruped form and of course the typical tree like form.

Common Elements
No matter what franchise you’re talking about these tree people all tend to have elements in common. Naturally they’re described as being tree-like and are often wooden and covered with some form of foliage. They’re almost always described as being in tune with nature and guardians of the natural things (especially the forests), and they tend to be gentle creatures despite being typically large. As makes sense for a race of trees they’re often described as being incredibly long-lived, but never are they regarded as immortal. Reproduction methods vary somewhat, but the rate is always regarded as being slow as typically is their speech.

The popular concept of these tree people naturally has its roots in the ents of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Most other instances of sentient trees in popular culture are derived from this concept. However the idea of spirits indwelling trees is much, much older going all the way back to an old Cherokee legend called The Legend of the Cedar Tree. The Legend goes as follows:

“A long time ago when the Cherokee people were new upon the earth, they thought that life would be much better if there was never any night. They beseeched the Ouga (Creator) that it might be day all the time and that there would be no darkness.

The Creator heard their voices and made the night cease and it was day all the time. Soon, the forest was thick with heavy growth. It became difficult to walk and to find the path. The people toiled in the gardens many long hours trying to keep the weeds pulled from among the corn and other food plants. It got hot, very hot, and continued that way day after long day. The people began to find it difficult to sleep and became short tempered and argued among themselves.

Not many days had passed before the people realized they had made a mistake and, once again, they beseeched the Creator. "Please," they said, "we have made a mistake in asking that it be day all the time. Now we think that it should be night all the time." The Creator paused at this new request and thought that perhaps the people may be right even though all things were created in twos... representing to us day and night, life and death, good and evil, times of plenty and those times of famine. The Creator loved the people and decided to make it night all the time as they had asked.

The day ceased and night fell upon the earth. Soon, the crops stopped growing and it became very cold. The people spent much of their time gathering wood for the fires. They could not see to hunt meat and with no crops growing it was not long before the people were cold, weak, and very hungry. Many of the people died.

Those that remained still living gathered once again to beseech the Creator. "Help us Creator," they cried! "We have made a terrible mistake. You had made the day and the night perfect, and as it should be, from the beginning. We ask that you forgive us and make the day and night as it was before."

Once again the Creator listened to the request of the people. The day and the night became, as the people had asked, as it had been in the beginning. Each day was divided between light and darkness. The weather became more pleasant, and the crops began to grow again. Game was plentiful and the hunting was good. The people had plenty to eat and there was not much sickness. The people treated each other with compassion and respect. It was good to be alive. The people thanked the Creator for their life and for the food they had to eat.

The Creator accepted the gratitude of the people and was glad to see them smiling again. However, during the time of the long days of night, many of the people had died, and the Creator was sorry that they had perished because of the night. The Creator placed their spirits in a newly created tree. This tree was named a-tsi-na tlu-gv {ah-see-na loo-guh} cedar tree.

When you smell the aroma of the cedar tree or gaze upon it standing in the forest, remember that if you are Tsalagi {Cherokee}, you are looking upon your ancestor.” (http://www.powersource.com/cocinc/articles/cedar.htm).

Once can’t help but wonder if perhaps the idea of a sentient tree might not have been derived from this or other similar legends. Another possibility lies in the stories of legends recorded by the brothers Grimm which also includes trees that are able to move.

While it seems obvious that there are no such things as sentient trees in reality, the thought is still highly intriguing and has sparked its own niche in nerd culture. I of course find myself fascinated by these sentient trees and thus have found room for them both in my heart and my N3rd C0rn3r.