I have a friend who cannot stand talking trees in fiction.
Talking animals are fine, and she’s happy to accept a whole range of other incongruous fantasy logic (for example, werewolves that turn back into humans and still have their clothes on). But trees that talk, or walk, or are in any way sentient? She finds them stupid. And a bit creepy.
Personally, I’ve got nothing against talking plants. They don’t thrill me, but I tend to just accept them as another staple of fantasy. That said, I was recently reading John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, and while the magical trees didn’t bother me, I did find all the flowers with little children’s faces a tad disturbing… but then I think that was the point.
Anyway, my friend’s passionate dislike got me to thinking about sentient vegetation in general. In fantasy you can get anything ranging from a slight suggestion of consciousness, through to full-blown walking talking thinking plants. Within this spectrum, I could think of four distinct types.
1. The Quasi-Sentient (They’re Watching You)
Perhaps the most common type of sentient plant life, and the most subtle. The kind that doesn’t move or speak but seems vaguely, often creepily, aware of the characters and what they’re doing.
Picture a dark, ancient forest where the trees loom over a small band of travellers. They’ve already been warned coming here was a bad idea, and someone’s told the obligatory tale-of-woe about the last unfortunate souls who never made it out… but here they are anyway. Now those menacing trees seem to be watching them, conspiring against them, growing ever thicker and more oppressive…
Still, not all trees are made equal. There’s also the wizened gnarled oak variety. These ones seem content to have people sit under them thinking deep thoughts. They’re always ready to offer a root to lean on, or some symbolic, non-verbal advice.
I think my favourite ones in this category though are the blighted, twisted trees and other creepy plants around the evil places in fantasy books. Since Sleeping Beauty, twisted forests have been springing up wherever wickedness resides. The poisonous, diseased forest in Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World is particularly memorable. And then there are those creepy heart trees in Game of Thrones, with their carved faces and bleeding sap eyes. I’m still not sure what those are all about.
Most common of all seems to be trees that feel pain. In The Book of Lost Things the trees bleed red and moan when cut. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy the groans made by the trees as the orcs hack them to the ground aren’t entirely natural. Animated films like Fern Gully, Pocahontas, and Avatar suggest a similar concern for the sensitivities of trees.
2. The Inhabited
Magical trees that double as fashionable Elvish/Faerie real estate. These ones manage to be homes… while at the same time still being a little creepily aware of what’s happening inside them.
Often these are giant trees with many rooms inside their trunks, or tree cities with networks of walkways dangling between them. The Elvish wood-folk use trees this way in Lord of the Rings, and I’ve also seen them in other stories. They seem particularly common in books for children… perhaps because of the tree-house appeal.
These tree-dweller stories often have an environmental angle. The Hometree in Avatar is so big it houses an entire colony of Na’vi, but the greedy mineral-mining humans are bent on destroying it. The Tree of Souls also comes under threat, and the characters fight to preserve its magical network-like connection to all other life on the planet, and to the ancestors.
3. The Proactive (Often the Killers)
These are the plants that don’t quite talk and walk, but do more than loom and look self-important. These ones actually interfere.
Tree-wise, the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter seems a pretty good example. Crushing cars, attacking people… all in a day’s work.
I think the plants that really excel in this category though are the vines. The ones that snatch prey and squeeze it with octopus-like tendrils. Harry Potter has this too (Devil’s Snare) but I’ve seen it before. Many a fantasy hero has been nearly squeezed to death by an over-zealous or hungry plant.
Lately I think the most original (and enjoyable) plant of this style I have seen was in Chuck Wendig’s book Under the Empyrean Sky. Here the characters have to contend with vicious genetically engineered corn. It’s got razor-sharp leaves and a taste for blood, and it grows absolutely everywhere. The worst part is the characters actually have to go out and harvest it.
4. Full Blown Walking-Talking Variety
The no-holds-barred, talking, thinking, character-like type of fantasy flora.
Of course the first and most famous example that springs to mind here are the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Treebeard is the Ent we come to know best: a tree-herder. He walks and talks, and has the slow, creaky pace one might expect from a tree. Not all the trees in his forest are like him, but by the end of The Two Towers we’ve learned that those other trees are still capable of swallowing up and destroying an army. The Neverending Story also had Bark Trolls—similarly tree-ish creatures that walk and talk like humans—though they didn’t feature prominently. In Disney’s Pocahontas (not my most favourite of films), Grandmother Willow gives Pocahontas advice and guidance.
I think the Mandrakes in Harry Potter also slip over into this category. These plants have roots that look like little human babies and scream when exposed. The scream is so deadly the characters have to wear earmuffs when handling them. Interestingly, in real life Mandrake plants have long been associated with magic—turns out their roots often do look humanoid, and contain “deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids”. No wonder people thought they were “magical”.
So while pondering the slightly absurd topic of self-aware vegetation, I was trying to decide what my favourite fantasy plant was.
At first none really struck me as particularly memorable or delighful. As I said before, while I don’t hate magical vegetation, it doesn’t thrill me. I never really believed I could be as affected by a plant, however magical, as I could by a real living character.
Then I remembered reading C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew as a kid.
At the very end of the book, when Polly and Digory come back to the real world, they bring back an apple Aslan has given them from a tree in Narnia (Biblical references abound!). They give it to Digory’s bedridden mother, who eats it and finds her sickness is miraculously healed. Then they plant the apple core in the garden, and a large tree grows from it.
Decades pass, and one day the tree is blown over in a storm. The now middle-aged Digory has it made into a wardrobe… which ends up being the wardrobe through which, many years later, Lucy stumbles into Narnia (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).
I still remember how affected by this I was as a young reader. It gave me that kind of skin-prickling awed feeling. I think it was the magic of it and the way it connected to the following stories. It was also the idea of the tree itself having a memory, one that forever linked it to an ancient Narnian forest.
I still get chills when I read this bit:
“… inside itself, in the very sap of it, the tree (so to speak) never forgot that other tree in Narnia to which it belonged. Sometimes it would move mysteriously when there was no wind blowing: I think that when this happened there were high winds in Narnia and the English tree quivered because, at that moment, the Narnia tree was rocking and swaying in a strong south-western gale.”
So I guess sometimes magical plants can move us… whether you enjoy them talking or not, well, that’s a question of personal taste.