The Raven’s Trail: Beech

Beech Tree

(Fagus sylvatica)

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Beech trees  have a smooth silvery bark, they produce distinctive nuts in a spiky casing with four lobes in autumn. In spring the young leaves are bright green with silky hair the leaves get darker though the growing season. Overlapping leaves when in growth and a shallow, lateral root system allows the ground under them to remain relatively clear of other plants.  Beech trees need well drained soil and are only considered to be native to the south of England, they are considered a naturalised species in the north of England, Scotland and Ireland, due to conscious human cultivation. Beeches are often used to create hedges, the world record for the longest (1/4 km long) and tallest (33 m tall) hedge is held by a Scottish hedge a made of beech trees,  found in Meikleour, four miles south of Blairgowry. It was originally planted in 1745.

  Beech Trees in Folklore and Mythology

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Dowsing, illustration from Histoire critique des pratiques superstitieuses, 18th century. Akeron.

Beech trees are heavily associated with books, writing and knowledge. This can be traced back to the use of beech wood tablets, before the invention of paper in early Germanic cultures. In a wide range of Germanic based languages the word for ‘beech’ is very similar to the word for ‘book’.  The soft bark of the beech can easily be inscribed upon and early examples of this are know as arborglyphs by archaeologists. (please do not write on our beech tree!) There is a range of mythology and folklore surrounding writing on beech trees. Helen of Troy reportedly carved her lovers name on a beech tree. The Irish goddess Ogma, who is credited with creating the ogham alphabet first wrote it on a beech tree. A folk belief which persists to this day is that wishes inscribed on pieces of Beech will come true, or that the inscription of a couples names on a tree will ensure a long relationship. Owing to its association with knowledge and wisdom beech wood was traditionally used for dowsing rods in the eighteenth century.

Beech Trees in George MacDonald’s Fantasy

Beech trees thrive in the wooded areas around George MacDonald’s hometown of Huntly, and, for instance, many mature beech trees can be observed alongside the River Deveron.  With this in mind, it is unsurprising that MacDonald specifically references them when describing woodland in several of his works, including Phantastes, Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind. 

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North Wind in Beech Tree with a Child [Diamond] – Jessie Willcox Smith Illustration From George MacDonald At The Back of The North Wind 1919

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Anodos and the Beech Tree Illustration by John Bell from the 1894 edition of Phantastes

In At the Back of the North Wind the hero, Diamond builds ‘nests’ in a beech tree. In an iconic moment Diamond and North Wind come to rest in the boughs of that beech tree when North Wind appears after a long absence.

When he saw her, he gave one spring, and his arms were about her neck, and her arms holding him to her bosom. The same moment she swept with him through the open window in at which the moon was shining, made a circuit like a bird about to alight, and settled with him in his nest on the top of the great beech-tree. There she placed him on her lap and began to hush him as if he were her own baby, and Diamond was so entirely happy that he did not care to speak a word.”

In Phantastes  Anodos is rescued from the malevolent trees which inhabit the fairy woodland by a beech tree, who appears like a woman at night.

“Why do you call yourself a beech-tree?” I said.
“Because I am one,” she replied, in the same low, musical, murmuring voice.
“You are a woman,” I returned.
“Do you think so? Am I very like a woman then?”
“You are a very beautiful woman. Is it possible you should not know it?”

This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.

Further links and resources

More about beech trees can be found through the Woodland Trust

The record breaking beech tree hedge can be seen here

More information on the mythology surrounding beech trees can be found here

A full PDF of the 1894 Illustrated edition of Phantastes  can be downloaded here 1894phantastes

A full PDF of the 1919 illustrated edition of At The Back of The North Wind can be downloaded here 1919Northwind

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

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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  

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