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Trees in literature

October 16, 2020 by Nora Nagy

When we think in terms of project-based reading, it is always a good idea to turn towards the natural world. Not only does it give us a chance to talk about the environment, it also has cultural and literary implications our students can benefit from. In this post we look at trees and their symbiotic relationship with human life and the arts in particular.

Trees have been around for longer than we have and have been part of our cultural heritage forever (just think of the tree of knowledge in Genesis and the tree of life in the Kabbalah). Here we have chosen four examples from literature in which a tree has either cultural or symbolic significance. We have also added discussion questions and tips on vocabulary building. In this post we focus mainly on intermediate-level learners, but once you get the idea you can source other examples and adapt these ideas to any other level.

For a collection of stories and talking points for young learners and teens, check out our previous post on trees: 

Famous trees

The chestnut tree in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

"Before I left my bed in the morning, little Adèle came running in to tell me that the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away."

The chestnut tree in Jane Eyre can be understood as a symbol of Jane and Rochester’s relationship. Jane finds peace under the tree, it is where they get engaged and, on the same night, the tree is struck by lightning and cut into two pieces. However, it is still connected by its roots. Similarly to the two halves of the tree, Jane and Mr Rochester are separated after this event, but they remain connected under the surface until they find each other again.

About the tree

  • What’s the difference between horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts?
  • Describe a chestnut tree.
  • What is a conker?
  • How do you play conkers?

About the topic

  • What other symbols of love and relationships can you think of?
  • How do you feel when you stand under a big tree? Close your eyes and recall the sensation. Then describe it to a partner.

The Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter stories

The Whomping Willow is a big tree in the Hogwarts grounds. It is a magical tree and can move its limbs (branches) quickly to scare people away. It does this to protect a secret passage leading from Hogwarts to the Shrieking Shack, a mysterious house in the neighbouring village of Hogsmeade. The willow only attacks people when it feels threatened so its aggression is also an act of self-protection.

About the tree

  • Describe a willow or a weeping willow tree.
  • What is the wood from willow trees used for?
  • What does ‘whomp’ mean? (If you don’t know what it means, think of the sound of the word, what does it make you think of?)
  • Do you know any imitative words of movement like ‘whomp’?

About the topic

  • Can you think of any other magical trees or trees with human characteristics? (Lord of the Rings - Tree Beard, Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, Toad Tree in Pan’s Labyrinth).
  • Shakespeare features willows in Hamlet and Othello in tragic moments, find the passages and compare them.

The wych-elm in Howards End by E. M. Forster

The novel is set in London and at a house called Howards End in the English countryside. Both locations symbolize different ideas. Howards End stands for tradition and social stability whereas London is presented as a buzzing city where culture and business boom. We read about Howards End and its surrounding garden in the first chapter, and the wych-elm by the house becomes part of the image of the countryside. In the story, the tree is also presented as a ‘comrade’ of women:

"It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness, and the girth, that a dozen men could not have spanned, became in the end evanescent, till pale bud clusters seemed to float in the air. It was a comrade."

About the tree

  • Wych elms (pronounced witch elms) were one of the most common trees in the British isles but were devastated by Dutch elm disease. Read about the tree and find out about its importance in the natural cycle.
  • What are wych elms associated with in mythology and folk tales?

About the topic

  • The tree represents man’s connection with nature and a more traditional, stable world. Find other examples like this in art or literature and present them to the class.
  • According to folklore, if pig's teeth were found in a wych elm, then chewing its bark would cure toothache. What other folklore related to trees can you find?

Film tips

Watch the classic adaptation of the novel directed by James Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter. The latest adaptation is a mini series starring Haley Atwell and Matthew Macfayden.

The knothole tree in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The reclusive Boo Radley leaves gifts for neighboring children Scout and Jem Finch in the knothole of an oak tree outside his house. The tree initially symbolizes friendship and acceptance of diversity, However when the knothole is cemented in everything changes and it becomes a metaphor for the intolerance and fear of the townspeople.

"Two live oaks stood at the end of the Radley lot; their roots reached into the side-road and made it bumpy. Something about one of the trees attracted my attention.

Tin-foil was sticking out of a knot-hole just above my eye level, winking at me in the afternoon sun. I stood on my tiptoe, hastily looked around once more, reached into the hole, and withdrew two pieces of chewing gum minus their outer wrappers."

About the tree

  • What are ‘knots’ in trees and why are they formed? What are knotholes?
  • Oak trees are among the most loved trees. What do they symbolise? Find examples from different cultures throughout time.
  • Imagine you are an oak tree, describe yourself.

About the topic

  • One of the themes of the novel is prejudice and fear. What other novels have you read that speak about prejudice? Share examples in class.
  • Look online at covers of different editions of To Kill a Mockingbird. What do many of them they have in common?


More about trees

These are just some of our favourite examples. Ask your students to suggest their own, and to find quotes and explanations of the symbolism used.

Here are some ideas to start with:

  • The Great Groby tree in Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
  • The Baobab in The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
  • The Tree of Heaven in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Francie Nolan
  • The Linden Tree in The Dead by James Joyce

And of course no list of literary trees would be complete without The Giving Tree in the book of the same name by Shel Silverstein.

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