It should come as no surprise that dryads, the spirits of trees, are eco-friendly. But did you know they play important roles in Slavic fantasy novels?
Angelina Gerus, Kristina Kachur and Elena Kaplich are Philology students from the Belarus State University. At the Our Mythical Hope conference in Warsaw in May 2017, they presented their work on the Dryads that appear in Polish and Belarussian literature. I’m very pleased to share their work here: a text, and a link to a very beautiful poster they produced for the conference: Dryades (1). Life, like Dryads, is elusive and slippery, and so it has taken us some time to make this post. As you read, think about the trees, and the spirits that linger among them . . . Elizabeth Hale
Dryads in Slavic Fantasy Literature
Dryads are among the best known nymphs and were frequent figures in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Many ancient authors (from Callimachus to Ovid) mention them, in various situations and with different purposes.
In our poster we examined how the character of dryads is interpreted in works such as “The sword of destiny” by the great Polish fantasy writer Andrzei Sapkowski, and “The faithful enemies” and “The trap for a necromancer” by the Belarusian fantasy writer, Olga Gromyko.
Andrzej Sapkowski is a popular contemporary Polish novelist. “The Witcher”, an action role-playing computer game known worldwide, is based on his works. Sapkowski’s novels are greatly awarded and have been translated into 19 languages. The Sword of Destiny is translated from original to English by David French.
Olga Gromyko is a Belarussian author well-known in the Post-Soviet area. Her novels, which are peculiar mythological transformations of the Slavic world, belong to humorous and heroic fantasy.
Dryads in Modern Youth Literature
In these novels we noticed that the tree as mythopoetic type is in demand in modern youth literature. Dryads as the personification of trees symbolize virginal nature, and the use of such characters in texts often appeals to a young reader to be eco-friendly.
Here are some points about how dryades teach young readers to be eco-friendly:
First, by attractive appearance. These woodland goddesses are described as incredibly good-looking young women. They personify nature’s beauty that is too unique and valuable to spoil. That leads adolescent readers to admire environment, encourages their attempts to set up contact with it and to save its integrity.
«Although she was petite and slender, the trunk seemed thinner still. Geralt did not understand how he could have failed to notice her arrival. Her garment … had effectively camouflaged her. Her hair, tied back by a black scarf at her brow, was olive-colored, and stripes painted with walnut ink streaked her face» (A. Sapkowski, The sword of destiny).
Obviously, it’s a reflection of the image appeared in the antique tradition. Let us compare how in “Metamorphoses” (VI, 453) Ovid describes the dryades’ beauty:
“Richly robed in gorgeous finery, and richer still her beauty; such the beauty of the Naides (Naiads) and Dryades (Dryads), as we used to hear, walking the woodland ways”.
Second, they are perfect mentors and facilitators for children. Dryads’ solicitous attitude to children teaches the reader that he or she can trust the nature and feel safe in harmony with it. According to Sapkowski, they sometimes raise normal, human children as dryads. The emphasis here should be on the fact that this trait, kid-friendliness, is not so much processed in the ancient authors’ works:
«… dryades love little children and are perfectly capable of looking after them» (O. Gromyko, The Trap for a Necromancer).
Third: dryads’ militancy. In case of danger, nature can stand up for itself. According to Sapkowski, they are known for their amazing archery skills (they can easily kill a human from the distance of 200 feet), as well as their love of the trees, forest and music. Therefore Statius (in “Thebaid” IV, 259; trans. Mozley) calls them “Forest-queens” and Valerius Flaccus (in “Argonautica” I, 105; trans. Mozley) – “woodland goddesses”.
«If you catch the moment when the dryad is inside and begin to hack at the ash with an axe, then the blood will not flow from it, but an angry hag will come out and punch you in the eye without hesitation» (O. Gromyko, The Faithful Enemies).
The next point is their ecological lifestyle. With their own example dryades show how to treat environment: not to kill animals, not to cut the trees and do anything that can spoil the nature and ruin the balance.
«That’s the way the dryads live, and that’s how they construct their homes. A dryad never hurts a tree by cutting or sawing. They know nevertheless how to grow the branches to form shelters» (A. Sapkowski, The Sword of Destiny).
It’s strongly connected with the theory of the dryades’ integrity with trees. But Sapkowski’s interpretation goes forward and becomes more physical and material than the initial concept: now the tree is not soul as much as habitation. It’s noticeable in confrontation with Callimachus (“Hymn IV to Delos”, 75; trans. Mair):
“Goddesses mine, ye Mousai (Muses), say did the oaks come into being at the same time as the Nymphai (Nymphs) [Dryades]? The Nymphai rejoice when the rain makes the oaks to grow; and again the Nymphai weep when there are no longer leaves upon the oaks”.
Dryads, Humans, and the Delicate Balance of Ecology
Last is dryads’ relations with humans.
The consumer attitude towards nature leads to a violation of the ecological balance, which is symbolized by the war of people against dryads. Ecofriendliness teaches to the mutual respect and equal partnership. This is a brand new course, because a modern person perceives nature no more from the mythological standpoint, that was actual in the antiquity. A dryad now isn’t a lovely living-in-forest girl, who evokes gods’ and people’s delight and admiration. Now it’s nature in the whole: every lake, tree or flower that may suffer from human activity.
«Such an entity hurts our pride, irritates us and keeps us awake, as we are, we humans, the owners of the world. We can tolerate in this world some elves, dryads or naiads, provided these creatures stay discreet. Accept our will, Sovereign of Brokilone, or perish» (A.Sapkowski, The Sword of Destiny).
«The slanting rays of the setting sun glided along the white foliage, not piercing it, but filling the crowns with a soft golden glow. Smooth trunks as majestic columns propped up the dome of a living temple, and in the sad rustling of falling ash keys I seemed to hear a distant, melting laughter of the old Dryad» (O. Gromyko, The Faithful Enemies).
Ecological literacy is an issue of the day. Modern youth literature introduces the concept to its audience by recognizable and attractive characters: dryades, who encourage young readers to attentive and careful treatment of nature/environment.
–– Angelina Gerus, Kristina Kachur, Elena Kaplich