Ash Trees have a pinnate leaf structure, ending in a single leaf at the end of the branch. The leaves are spear shaped and have a toothed edge. The tree’s bark is a pale grey and cracks as the tree gets older. Ash trees can live to be 400 years old and grow to a height of 35 meters. Ash are found in fertile areas with deep well drained soil. Ash trees across Europe are under threat from Ash dieback, (Hymenoscyphus Fraxineus) a disease caused by a fungus. The fungus spreads through contaminated plants and by air borne fungal spores which are released into the air.
The Ash in Myth and Folklore
Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Viking mythology is an Ash tree which has roots that reach down to the underworld, connects all the countries of the world via it’s branches and grows tall enough to reach into heaven. The gods would hold council under the tree’s canopy.
Ash trees are often thought to be protective, thee of Ireland’s five legendary protective trees are ash. It is common to find Ash trees planted near holy wells and springs.
Ash Trees were also thought to have healing properties. It was thought to magically cure warts: each wart must be pricked with a new pin that has been thrust into the tree, the pins are withdrawn and left in the tree, and the following charm is repeated: ‘Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray buy these warts of me.’
James Frazer mentions a healing ritual involving the ash tree in The Golden Bough: ‘In England children are sometimes passed through a cleft ash-tree as a cure for rupture or rickets, and thence-forward a sympathetic connexion is supposed to exist between them and the tree.’
The Ash in George MacDonald’s Fantasy
In George MacDonald’s work the Ash Tree appears in two of his fantasy novels. Phantastes (1858) and At The Back of The North Wind. (1871)
In At The Back of The North Wind an ash shelters Diamond, the tale’s hero from a bitter wind:
But the moment he was clear of the shelter of the stable, sharp as a knife came the wind against his little chest and his bare legs. Still he would look in the kitchen-garden, and went on. But when he got round the weeping-ash that stood in the corner, the wind blew much stronger, and it grew stronger and stronger till he could hardly fight against it. And it was so cold!
In Phantastes the Ash tree becomes a sinister figure pursuing the hero Anodos through the woods of Fairyland. Anodos is warned to avoid the Ash:
But shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair, if you let her near you at night.”
The tree only moves at night and, watches the house where Anodos spends his first night in Fairyland to try and catch him. We are later told what the ash wants to do to him.
“What did the horrible Ash want with me?” I said.
“I am not quite sure, but I think he wants to bury you at the foot of his tree. But he shall not touch you, my child.”
“Are all the ash-trees as dreadful as he?”
“Oh, no. They are all disagreeable selfish creatures—(what horrid men they will make, if it be true!)—but this one has a hole in his heart that nobody knows of but one or two; and he is always trying to fill it up, but he cannot. That must be what he wanted you for. I wonder if he will ever be a man. If he is, I hope they will kill him.”
Although the Ash tree is represented positively in folklore and mythology, George MacDonald makes the Ash a very sinister presence in Phantastes. At the same time there are links to the folklore surrounding the Ash Tree. Just like the practice of healing a child by placing then in a hole in the ash tree. The ash wants to fill the hole in its heart and become human by capturing Anodos. However, by burring him in its roots Anodos is being sent to the underworld of Viking folklore if this happens.
This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.
You can download a PDF scan of the 1850 US first edition of Phantastes from archive.org here: Phantastes
You can download a PDF scan of the 1911 edition of At The Back Of the North Wind from archive.org here: At The Back Of The North Wind
A free audio book version of Phantastes read by Brad Powers is available here
A free audio book version of At The Back of The North Wind is available here
More information about ash trees can be found through The Woodland Trust
More on the Folklore and mythology surrounding Ash trees can be found at Trees for Life.Org
George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies https://www.abdn.ac.uk/riiss/ The University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk