Fables of the trees

It began with this poignant texty on Facebook:


Voting as part of the story marks this as a recent version, and the shrinking forest (possibly an allusion to deforestation) might be recent as well. But the main idea — that the trees accepted the axe because its handle was wood and they thought it was one of them — feels antique, fabulesque. And so it is.

(Hat tip to Susan Fischer.)

From Wikipedia:

The title of The Woodcutter and the Trees covers a complex of fables of Greek and West Asian origin that are ascribed to Aesop. All of them concern the need to be wary of harming oneself through misplaced generosity.

One of the earliest allusions to a fable of this kind occurs in the story of Ahiqar, a royal counsellor to late Assyrian kings who is betrayed by his adopted son Nadan. When the young man begs for a second chance he is answered with a string of reasons, drawing on West Asian folklore, why this would be useless. Among them is the accusation that ‘Thou hast been to me like the tree that said to its woodcutters, “If something of me were not in your hands, ye had not fallen upon me”.’ This refers to the fact that the axes of the woodmen have wooden shafts and the trees have therefore contributed to their own doom. A number of proverbs derive from the story, with the general meaning of being to blame for one’s own misfortune. They include the Hebrew ‘the axe goes to the wood from whence it borrowed its helve [handle], of which there are Kannada and Urdu equivalents, and the Turkish ‘When the axe came into the Forest, the trees said “The handle is one of us”.’ [cited as “Turkish proverb”: George K. Danns, Domination and Power in Guyana, 1982, p.1]

In the Greek cultural area, which at one time included all of West Asia, there were three fables dealing with the relations between trees and woodcutters. In one of these, numbered 302 in the Perry Index, the oaks complain about their treatment to Zeus, the king of the gods, who answers that they have only themselves to blame for supplying the wood for their axe staves.

Yet another fable of similar meaning is numbered 303 in the Perry Index. In it an oak (or a pine in another version) complains of being split by wedges made from its own branches. Commentaries on these fables point out that suffering is increased by the knowledge that it is one’s own fault, whoever inflicts it; or, as is implied by the Turkish proverb mentioned above, if a group has a problem, its root may be found within itself.

In another variant of the theme, a woodman comes into the forest and begs the trees ‘to give him a handle made of the hardest wood. The other trees selected the wood of the wild olive. The man took the handle and fitted it to his axe. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he began to chop down the trees’ mighty branches and trunks, taking whatever he wanted. The oak tree then said to the ash, ‘It serves us right, since we gave our enemy the handle he asked for!’ This text comes from the Mediaeval Latin fable collection of Ademar of Chabannes, who comments upon it, ‘You should think twice before offering anything to your enemies’ (Ut cogites ante ne hosti aliqua praestes).

This version was taken up early by the Anglo-French poet Marie de France and was also preferred by 15th century collectors of fables in European vernaculars like Heinrich Steinhowel and William Caxton. During Renaissance times it was made the subject of poems by the German Neo-Latinists Hieronymus Osius and Pantaleon Candidus. Jean de la Fontaine also made it the subject of his La forêt et le bûcheron (Fables X11.16), translated by Elizur Wright as “The Woods and the Woodman”. In his telling, the woodman breaks his promise to work further off and not harm his benefactors. A version based on this was set for accompanied children’s voices by the composer Rudolf Schmidt-Wunstorf (b. 1916).

This final fable was retold by Rabindranath Tagore in a six-line poem included in his Bengali collection Kanika (1899). Later he condensed it as Poem 71 in his English-language collection Stray Birds (1916):

The woodcutter’s axe begged for its handle from the tree.
The tree gave it.

In the Bengali collection, the poem was titled “Politics”, and with this clue the reader was expected to interpret the fable in the context of the time as a parable of the imperial stripping of Indian resources.

So the various ancient fables have been reworked in many ways in more modern times, by, among others, La Fontaine and Tagore — and by the (still unidentified) author of the aphoristic version in #1. And at much greater distance, by the rock band Rush (Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart) in their song “The Trees” (from their 1978 album Hemispheres):

(#2) A 1979 video performance

On the band, from Wikipedia:

Rush was a Canadian rock band [recently disbanded] comprising Geddy Lee (bass, vocals, keyboards), Alex Lifeson (guitars), and Neil Peart (drums, percussion, lyrics). Formed in 1968, the band went through several configurations until arriving at its longest and most popular line-up when Peart replaced original drummer John Rutsey in July 1974, two weeks before the group’s first United States tour.

Rush is known for its musicianship, complex compositions, and eclectic lyrical motifs drawing heavily on science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy. The band’s musical style has changed several times over the years, from a blues-inspired hard rock beginning, later moving into progressive rock, and including a period marked by heavy use of synthesizers. In the early 1990s, Rush returned to a guitar-driven hard rock sound, which continued for the rest of their career.

The lyrics:

There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples
And they’re quite convinced they’re right
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light

But the oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘oppression!’
And the oaks, just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’

Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, / Axe, / And saw

[Poetic notes. Six verses of trochaic tetrameter, with the rhyme pattern ABCB. The trochaic pattern regularly throws accent on a function word in the first foot (in verse 1, on existential there, on the subordinator for, and on the conjunction and). The rhymes are at first full (in 3 verses), then 2 verses have subsequence rhymes (fled – heads, rights – light), and full rhyme returns in the last verse: “patterns first, exceptions later” (as in Zwicky & Zwicky 1987), with a return to the pattern, for closure, at the end.)]

Back to the fables of the trees. The core of the history is relatively clear (though there are a number of woodcutter/tree fables; it’s not one proto-fable, with variants, but a loosely related family of fables), but there are puzzles at both ends: the immediate source of the text in #1 (with the shrinking forest and the voting), and the history of the (old) “Turkish proverb” sometimes said to be its precursor. What we need is some evidence of an actual old Turkish proverb. Or story or wry joke or whatever. Not just George Danns’s 1982 attribution of ‘When the axe came into the Forest, the trees said “The handle is one of us”‘ to a “Turkish proverb”.

3 Responses to “Fables of the trees”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky explores the fable of the forest that identified too closely with the wooden handle of an […]

  2. Jello Says:

    Do you really not understand the fable of the trees? It has as much to do with deforestation as Animal Farm has to do with farming. It’s about the rise of a brutal dictator who the people vote for because he convinces them that he is one of them.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Do you really not understand what fable means? Fables are invented stories with morals, with metaphorical interpretations. I think everyone writing about the fable of the trees is clear about that.

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