Because their roots descend into the dark mysterious underground and draw sustenance from the dead, Lovecraft sees trees as unwholesome and ensnaring. Not for him is the more universal view of trees as a symbol of life, wisdom, growth and resurrection—no “Tree of Life”, nor even “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Despite his fascination with pre-Christian religions and pagan rituals, Lovecraft rarely if ever included trees, as the pagans frequently did in their ceremonies thousands of years ago. For example, oaks were favored by the Druids and by Germanic pagans as part of their religious practices. Lovecraft favored megalithic circles of stones and altars installed in the “high places”—so often condemned by Old Testament prophets—or else subterranean edifices for secret, nameless rites. But not trees.
However, he departs from his usual perception of trees in an interesting—and odd—short story called, appropriately, The Tree, originally published in 1921. It is written in a form that resembles a fable by Aesop, except that moral instruction is not so much in view as human depravity. A Latin phrase opens the tale: ‘Fata viam invenient.’ That is, ‘the Fates will find a way.’ Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for ancient Greek culture pervades the story, which is set “on a verdant slope of Mount Maenalas, in Arcadia…”
Two friends, both sculptors, live together in “brotherly love” despite their widely differing personalities. Musides is the more outgoing of the two, and enjoys the local night life, while Kalos likes to wander the nearby olive groves alone, communing with the local spirits. In other words, Kalos is Lovecraft himself, circa 500-600 B.C. It is interesting that Lovecraft sets this story in ancient Greece, where such a close relationship between two men would be less remarkable than it was in his own day. In the description of the two sculptors, one can perceive an echo of Randolph Carter’s petulant comment in The Statement of Randolph Carter: “Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him.”
The Tyrant of Syracuse commissions both men to compete against each other in designing a new statue of Tyché for his city. Tyché is the Greek goddess of wealth and prosperity, associated with luck and good fortune. Both men commence working on their designs, sharing their ideas with each other but with no one else. Kalos eventually becomes ill and slowly dies, despite his friend’s care and ministrations. Before he passes, Kalos asks Musides to plant twigs from certain olive trees close to his head where he is to be buried, and Musides carries out this request.
Musides goes on to complete the statue of Tyché, which takes several years. Meanwhile, one of the twigs he planted by Kalos’ head has grown into an enormous human shaped tree, with one large branch ominously hanging over the home and workplace of Musides. Just as he is about to display his work to emissaries of the Tyrant, a strange storm brings the gigantic olive branch down on both the statue and Musides, destroying them both.
The story is odd because of the disconnection between the characters’ motivations and feelings for each other—at least their official ones—and the outcome at the end. Were they really all that affectionate toward each other, or were Musides and Kalos driven by cold competition? Why did Kalos suddenly decline and perish before the completion of the contest? Was Musides murdered from beyond the grave by an envious arboreal Kalos? And finally, given that the statue is of the goddess of wealth, is this an expression of Lovecraft’s failure to achieve prosperity and fame? The story does not clearly answer any of these questions, which makes it all the more haunting and disturbing.
Lovecraft published a short poem of five verses called The Wood later on, in 1929. It is interesting, though not especially effective. A vague story is told of how an ancient forest is cleared to make way for a city. The city prospers until a drunken minstrel inadvertently invokes an ancient curse, which destroys the city and restores the primal landscape. The moral appears in the last verse: “Forests may fall, but not the dusk they shield…” In The Wood it is not so much the trees that are to be feared but the darkness they may conceal. It is too bad that Lovecraft did not develop this interesting idea further.
Probably for Lovecraft, the most disturbing and problematic woodland species was his own family tree, in particular, the branch of it that he occupied. Was this that very branch held threateningly above the sculptor’s doomed celebration of Tyché, goddess of wealth?