"Old Polleau does not love the trees, no," the old man had said. "No, nor do his two sons. They do not love the trees—and very certainly the trees do not love them."
The Woman of the Wood (1926) is a charming but deceptively simple fantasy of one man’s healing and recovery from the physical and spiritual wounds of the First World War. It is one of the author’s better stories, of the same caliber as The Moon Pool, if not better. A. Merritt is ambitious in weaving together proto-ecological concerns, historical perspective on humanity’s endless wars with itself and nature, and the psychology of violence into what seems to be a straightforward fable.
McKay is a shell-shocked veteran of the recent war who visits a wooded valley in France to heal from the trauma of battle. He is a lover of nature, and particularly of trees: “To him they were not merely trunks and roots, branches and leaves; to him they were personalities.” He stays at a rustic inn, across the lake from an old fallen down hunting lodge. In the lodge, across the water, live Polleau and his two grown sons. They symbolize mankind’s struggle to control nature, and are relentlessly cutting down trees in order to convert the woods into productive farmland.
A particular area of the woods along the lake attracts McKay’s attention, a stand of his favorite trees, silver birch. It is clear Polleau and his sons intend to cut them down. He envisions them as dancing maidens, in keeping with his sense that trees are alive with consciousness. He rows across the lake, and standing among the trees has a vision. He sees the trees anthropomorphized into female and male elves. One in particular—‘the woman of the wood’ befriends him and pleads for his help against the peasant farm family. This being a Merritt story, his favorite color—green—predominates in these scenes.
McKay visits Polleau and his sons and offers to buy the land in order to protect it from development. But Polleau refuses to sell it. Like the biblical pharaoh, he has hardened his heart, and will not let his people—the green ones—go. Polleau tells McKay about the history of his family’s struggle with the encroachments of the trees—how they have come to injury and starvation because of the forest seizing their fields. Polleau has the same understanding that McKay has of the trees—that they are conscious beings—but sees them as an implacable enemy. For his part, McKay becomes a kind of ambassador, going back and forth between the warring parties.
At this point, Merritt attempts to explore the historical source of the peasants’ hatred of the forest. He traces it to their oppression by noblemen before the French Revolution, when forested landholdings were protected by the gentry from use. The Polleaus live in the ruins of one of the nobleman’s hunting lodges. McKay hypothesizes that the peasants have transferred their hatred of the noblemen to the trees that grew on their lands.
In a similar vein, McKay analyzes his own psychological condition—whether what he perceives is real or a creation of his traumatized psyche. “…was it not his own deep love and sympathy for the trees that similarly had clothed them in that false semblance of conscious life? Had he not built his own mirage? The trees did not really mourn, could not suffer, could not—know. It was his own sorrow that he had transferred to them; only his own sorrow that he felt echoing back to him from them.”
In the end no compromise is possible, no peace treaty is signed. Polleau and his family suffer a gruesome end, one in which both McKay and the trees are complicit. This is the chilling part of tale. McKay turns his back on his own kind, despite hearing their equally poignant lament. In the end it is not certain whether McKay’s violent defense of the trees springs from real concern about nature, or a symptom of what we would now call “post traumatic stress syndrome”. Behind the all the “soft whisperings of leaves following him, glad chanting of needled pines; the voice of the forest tender, friendly, caressing…” are echoes of the Great War and its impact on individuals like McKay.