Wednesday, October 9, 2013

3. Cain and Abel: the Later Years

In Walter De La Mare’s The Tree (1923), two stepbrothers are reunited after more than a decade apart.  They are as different from one another as Cain and Abel, and like the biblical siblings, there is a tension between them that may or may not lead to violence.  The comparison is inexact; Abel was an early victim of fratricide, and so did not reach his senior years.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Genesis 4: 1-16, or have forgotten the story—shame on you!—here is the gist:

“Now Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.  The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.  So Cain was very angry…”  (Genesis 4: 2-5)

And later murdered his brother and tried to cover it up.  The Lord curses Cain and drives him from the land of his parents, but puts a protective mark on him that keeps others from killing him in turn.  Three descendents of Cain go on to invent the beginnings of culture, specifically the rearing of livestock, the composition of music, and metal-working.

I make a point of this to emphasize the importance of recalling our cultural and spiritual roots.  There is growing concern that ignorance of scripture, history and philosophy will lead to the situation where the creative products of our own culture become ever more unintelligible to us. 

Horror fiction often contains historical and scriptural references—even in nominally atheist writers like H.P. Lovecraft.  Comprehension and enjoyment of this genre are enhanced by knowledge and familiarity with our cultural roots.

Speaking of roots, De La Mare’s story draws considerable nourishment from mythological references to the Garden of Eden, the fall of humanity, and what followed afterward.  But he has completely re-imagined the tale to include more modern concerns—circa the 1920s—about the meaning of a life and our social obligations to each other.  What if Cain did not murder Abel, and both managed to live out long, if troubled lives?  

Not only are there two brothers—stepbrothers, technically—in conflict, there is also an enormous and mysterious tree that overshadows them.  In the story, neither of the brothers is named, which suggests that they each may represent something larger than two individual human beings.  The ‘Fruit Merchant’ is agricultural in orientation, while his brother is an artist.  Of the two, the artist is the stranger one, and lives closest to nature and wildness.  Not only are the two brothers completely opposite one another in temperament, but the two seasons of the story, summer and winter, are also opposed, giving the entire story a symmetry.

We learn about the artistic brother through the viewpoint of the successful fruit merchant—who despises him.  Many years ago he loaned his brother some money, and as the story begins, he is on his way to visit him.  The ‘Fruit Merchant’ is the personification of the Protestant Work Ethic, and ascribes his success to virtuous diligence—two things his brother is completely lacking in.  As the train crosses the frozen wintry landscape, he enrages himself by remembering his brother’s laziness and lack of drive.

He last saw his brother and ‘the tree’ when he visited one summer some twelve years ago.  The brother lives in a rundown cottage next to the tree, where he does little all day but sketch.   That summer visit did not go well.  The fruit merchant excoriated his brother for his lack of accomplishment and effort.   For his part, the artist dismissed his brother’s aspirations and values:  “He had found his own place; and there he intended to remain.  Rather than sit on a stool in a counting-house writing invoices for crates of oranges and pineapples he would hang himself from the topmost branches of the tree.”

Reaching over the two brothers is the shadow of this magnificent tree.  It is like no other, with its own ecology of unusual birds and insects, which the artistic brother likes to sketch.  It bears fruit, which the artist has been eating.  There is a suggestion that the fruit may contain a poison; De La Mare is ambivalent about whether this tree is in fact the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ or something else entirely.

The ‘Fruit Merchant’ finally arrives at his brother’s home near the mysterious tree.  A wintry night has fallen, and the successful brother gingerly approaches his brother’s house and the gigantic tree.  Both men are much older now, and the fruit merchant has spent much of the story reflecting on his life and that of his despised half-brother.  The yard is glistening with ice and frost, and bathed in moonlight.  The fruit merchant’s cautious approach to the tree is the eeriest part of the story.  Was that his brother hanging from an upper branch as he had earlier threatened to do?  Will one of the enormous branches fall on him?  Is the tree poisonous?

Walter De La Mare’s The Tree ends with subtle irony and sadness, with just a dappling of cynicism.  As apples go, we have fallen quite far from the tree.


It is interesting to compare De La Mare’s tale to a story by H.P. Lovecraft, also called The Tree (1921), and published around the same time.  Lovecraft’s story was discussed in a post last July, (“Under the Olive Tree”).  They are very different stories, but the latter also contains an element of brotherly rivalry and competition between two sculptors who live together.  Lovecraft’s story is set in ancient Greece, where a strange and enormous olive tree is an instrument of vengeance from beyond the grave.  Both tales also describe an unusually close relationship between one of the characters and a nearby tree.

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