The tales that trees tell – most of them – are too long, too slow, too uneventful for us to understand. But some stories snake like cold sap through their roots in winter and quicken in summer to race through their thickening foliage. These tales, you see, tell of people, of you and of me.
Tales by Trees is an artistic adventure by a group of inquisitive Finns, who asked themselves what stories trees might tell if they could speak. They’re exploring the answer through storytelling, art and an online magazine, and they invited me to take a look at the new translations of their award-winning fairytales. Tree tales? Tree tales.
Each story stands alone, a bitesize nugget that mixes the bittersweet delight of a good old-fashioned fairytale with the unexpected. After all, we can’t expect trees to have quite the same fascinations or priorities that we do. It’s only natural that they might like to be the heroes of their own stories, even when those stories (nominally) focus on the doings of people. I found each engaging and entertaining, written in a classical fairytale style that I always enjoy.
The Carpenter is the deceptively simple story of a master craftsman who breaks his heart – and those of his loved ones – when his emperor gives him the opportunity to make his masterpiece. With a glorious court and a magical ending, this could be a story for children, but the themes nestling within are entirely grown up: obsession, trust, critical appreciation. The trees recognise and cherish the Carpenter’s achievement, even if his disappointed emperor and estranged family don’t (although if I’m honest, I’m with his family here – sorry, trees, he’s an asshole).
The Knight is a traditional questing tale of marauding dragons, wicked uncles and princesses in need of a bit of rescuing. While the would-be Knight rides under an oak tree sigil, it takes a long time for the trees to come to the fore (but when they do, it’s very satisfying). This magical nugget works for readers of any age, and the textured artwork that opens the book is just gorgeous.
However, The Seafarer was by far my favourite of these first three tales: a small settlement nestled between the desert and the waves is home to two royal brothers; one dreams of the sea, the other of his people. A fateful bargain hands control of the village to the ambitious, visionary younger brother and leaves the elder to water his dreams alone. But their dealings with the outside world reveal the village’s riches to a rapacious merchant and both their dreams come under threat.
Like The Knight, The Seafarer is a tale I think will work at any age. I loved the small, pointed aside of the younger brother chastising his daydreaming sibling for thinking only of himself; and that the elder brother was capable of reflection and humility in the face of such criticism. These little beats worked within the broader framework to make this a redemption story – no matter how bleak their views of humanity, I could hope that trees (appropriately) believe in renewal and the future. The ending is entirely magical, leaving me with that deeply-felt appreciation for a good story well told.
On the evidence, these stories are improving as their storytellers practice their craft (or commune more deeply with the trees, if you will). The artwork too has developed from pretty illustrations in The Carpenter to suggestive landscapes (I always have preferred impressionists) and gorgeously captured moments in The Seafarer. It bodes well for future stories – the narratives are gaining nuance and the artwork is maturing.
My only criticism – and I always seem to have one, I know – is that, like Grimm, these tales are rather one-sided. Their heroes are men who abandon their wives to die of broken hearts; have lost their mother in formative episodes; or who seduce young princesses whilst doing the necessary rescuing (and as the rescuing is done under protest, you can imagine my side eye when I discovered she was pregnant).
I look forward to future tales that continue to showcase the author and illustrator’s growing skills, but where our heroes are more considerate of the women in their lives; and better yet, tales where girls and women take centre stage. I love a good fairytale, but I do believe a modern one must overcome the shortcomings of the tradition to be relevant and earn its place.
The Carpenter, The Knight and The Seafarer are available to buy now.
I received free copies from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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