Why treehouses are all the rage in children’s books

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There is a rich tradition of trees in mythology.
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Elizabeth Hale, University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Avondale College of Higher Education

Two of Australia’s most popular children’s storytellers live in a treehouse. It’s a Thirteen-Storey one, at least it started out that way. The storytellers are Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, responsible for an array of children’s comedies, who live in a fantasy treehouse paradise. There they write and illustrate their stories, distracted by the lemonade fountains, see-through shark-infested swimming pool and a marshmallow gun that shoots directly into your mouth.

Since its arrival on the literary scene in 2011, this Treehouse has grown by 13 storeys at a time. The next edition will be 104 storeys. The books have sold over 3 million copies in Australia alone. The treehouse now contains a detective agency, a mashed potato and gravy train and a machine that makes money… or honey… depending on what you’d prefer. These delights interrupt Andy and Terry as they write for their publisher, Mr Bignose. Indeed the treehouse functions as a metaphor for the writing process … its storeys provide food for the stories produced inside.

Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.

Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.

The World Tree in a 17th century Icelandic manuscript.
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The World Tree of ancient Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, is similar to the thirteen-storey treehouse, linking the nine realms of the world (of fire, of ice, of elves, of gods, of fertility, of giants, of dwarves, of humans, and of the dishonorable dead). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when King Eresichthyon of Thessaly cut down the Greek Goddess Demeter’s favourite oak tree she teamed up with her sister Fames to torment him with a hunger so eternal that he eventually ate himself.

The Russian witch, Baba Yaga, lives in a mobile treehouse on a chicken foot, like an old-fashioned Grey Nomad. The Biblical serpent tempted Eve to taste fruit of the tree of knowledge. And many European forests are inhabited by tree creatures, such as sylphs and dryads, eco-friendly creatures that appear in fantasy literature such as Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.

So it’s not surprising that living in the trees gives Andy and Terry and George and Harold access to fantasy spaces, and to magic and mystery. A technical term for this is liminality: in a liminal space, you are on the borders of things, or thresholds (the word come from the Latin for threshold, limen). If you live in a tree, you are up in the air, but connected to the earth.

At heart, most myths respond to fundamental practical needs. Tree house stories recognise that children need time in nature. For generations of urban children, these books offer a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way.

Baba Yaga by Alexandre Benois.
Wikimedia Commons

In Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life (2016), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Opportunities for play in nature have dramatically declined in urbanised societies and with them, benefits such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development.

Writers like Denton and Griffiths recognise the child’s need for nature. So does Tina Matthews, in whose Waiting for Later a tree provides company for a child whose family is too busy to spend time with her. And so does mythology which regularly takes characters into nature, to confront, to challenge or to come to terms with life.

The ConversationWhile the Thirteen-Storey Treehouse may not be directly inspired by Yggdrasil or Demeter’s Oak, or hop about like Baba Yaga’s hut, it understands the relation between creativity and time in the woods, taking part in a grand literary tradition that goes as far back as myth itself.

Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing (children’s literature), University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Lecturer in Communications and History, Avondale College of Higher Education

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Eco-Friendly Dryads of Slavic Fantasy Literature

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