The Battle of the Trees




Ari Berk




When we think of Spring, the first images we're likely to imagine are the flowers themselves. Then perhaps rabbits, an egg, some birds, a newborn lamb; all the sweet clichés that suggest the gentleness of Spring's promise of renewal.


But times of transition are never easy, and the tides of season and weather also embody profound shifts of power. Consider some other tidings that may herald the arrival of Spring, tidings that hint at the inherent and necessary violence of the earth's rhythms: rain storms, floods, breaking ice floes, frost heave, rupturing seed cases, the push of young plants to thrust themselves above their soil beds.


Such urgent images remind me of the ancient Welsh poem of the "Cad Goddeu," or "Battle of the Trees" in which the living trees and plants themselves rose up to defend we mere mortals. This short poetic epic reminds us of nature's sometimes harsh other side, as well as the traditional turn from winter to Spring to summer to fall, so often contextualized in myth as battle or capture or some violent act or image of loss.


Traditionally, winter has never stepped down peacefully from his throne. Remember, to the originators of this poem (the medieval Welsh, working out of an even older pre-Christian tradition), winter was no little old lady shuffling quietly off to her Florida condo. Winter was a giant of terrible power; a titan of earth, thorn, and battle-blood, whose head had to be struck off its body before the Spring (in the form of the giant's young son-in-law, or sometimes grandson) could arrive. And among other people, such as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the transition from winter to Spring formed part of a violent marriage ritual between Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and his stolen wife, Persephone, who, during her post-nuptial all-too-brief time above ground, would bring Spring back with her from the realm of the dead. No matter where you're from, if you look closely at the minute processes of earth, you know that seasons generally make their way only through uneasy negotiations of power; through upheaval, succession, and metamorphosis.


On its surface, my retelling of the medieval poem the "Battle of the Trees" is a simple tale: A bold theft, a vengeful Otherworldly King, a fight over stolen goods. But don't let the plot's seeming simplicity fool you. Within the lines of this poem are planted a thousand mysteries. Some have read within it an alphabet of branches. Others have pruned the vines and found a hidden forest mythos. Some discern the leaves of a green grimoire, a book of secret forest lore, each hieroglyphic line hinting at some tree or plant's own particular aspect of enchantment or province of power. All may be right. Thus, you will have to ask the trees themselves what to make of it. Reason enough to pull on your boots and take again to forest paths just now being revealed by melting snow. Reason enough to look for runes formed by the still barren thorns and exposed roots. Reason enough to listen to the wind among the branches for the hint of an ancient song, sung each year at about this time.


As you read these words, stand with me at the tree line. Here, about the grey-trunked giants and eager saplings, we are safe and among friends. Listen. The forest is waking. Here is what happened long ago and even now…







Now the blood of battle has hardened to a stone.


In this more enduring form, memory of the ancient war has been maintained unto our present age.  From within its fluid depths, we may yet discern the advancing hosts, the roaring tumult, and the rousing of the woodland.


We may see the wounded fields of combat and the fallen limbs of varied form, heaped and broken in the twilight.


Do you not recall how every living thing that grew upon the land began to move and rise and take its appointed place in the ranks of the verdant host?  Indeed, this telling is not new to you; you stood with us there, in the very shadow of contention, as the armies of the Arawn advanced against us from the Otherworld.



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Remember Amaethon as he was: sturdy ploughman, faithful kinsman, daring thief. His brother, Gwydion went with him through the forest into Annwn, cloaked with magic, invisible.  Yet Amaethon was no lover of the wood until the day when his bold theft began the war. 


The Dog, the Roebuck and the Lapwing — prides of Arawn, Lord of Annwn — were stolen by these daring Sons of Dôn.  Furious at the theft, Arawn gathered a mighty army.  Many were their number. Terrible their array as they marched across the borderland.


We called upon Gwydion son of Dôn, great he was in matters of magic, to raise his enchanted staves; we prayed with song and supplication to the Gods that made us to hasten our deliverance.


At this, the Gods replied in language of word and wood, saying:


The Trees shall raise themselves as armies from the earth to join the Sons of Dôn.  Each grove and glade, arrayed for battle, shall move to confound the foe."


Those words took place about the branches; were whispered by birds throughout the canopy, filling us and all the fearful mortal princes with riotous hope.


At the place where the gods' intentions touched the ground, the shrubs and trees grew mettlesome.  Then these things were heard:  Poet's song; warrior's astonishment; calling of crows; the sound of harps; the rising of roots.


Does precedence not live in all the land?  Noble procession formed throughout the woodland ranks.  Our hopes were instilled in every leaf and root and vine.  For then all green and growing things began to contend with the army of Annwn according to their nature.



Thus, Alder — Battle Witch, pre-eminent in lineage, the brown blood in it roused — took its place at the fore, and was the first to strike.


Walking Willow and the Rowan — Delight of the Eye were both late to move and take the field.


Blackthorn, sharp, came swift into the battle as a pack of wolves, dispensing strife.


Thorny Plum, no man's friend, was hungry for bloodshed and turned its twisted trunk to the fore.


According to the knowledge of its roots, Bean sheltered ghosts beneath its shade.  Terrible was the sight of them, roaming through the fray.


Strong Dogwood, protecting prince, contended gladly.


Rose-trees turned thorns to the host in wrathful forms; each bright bud turned red with eagerness.


Raspberry played its part, worked not for defense, did not enclose, but provided flesh for life's protection.


Wild Rose and Woodbine wove themselves with Ivy and formed a shield impenetrable. Their fair buds and eager vines became the very tapestry of war, recording every noble deed.


Poplar, long enduring, Preventer of Death, was much broken in the battle.


Cherries disparaged the foe, hurling their stones like shaming satire.


Mindful Birch armed late, not because of cowardice, but because of greatness. Its white hands touching madness to the enemies' minds; many would wear a birchen crown before the setting of the sun.


Goldenrod, Wound-Weed, did not lose form.


Fir trees were swift to the fore, stern as striding lords of war.


Maker of Roads Between the Worlds, Ash was exalted before the eyes of Kings.


Yew foresaw in signs the shattered hosts of the foe and fought bravely for the vision.


Elm, terrible in its onslaught, strayed never from its roots:  Instead, its reaching arms would strike the middle, the flanks, all sides of the enemy. Its  root: mother to rising heroes.


Hazel wood was named a weapon; nine times it struck and marked the contentious field as a place of war.


Privet, proud, became a bull of battle, a chief among the tribe of trees.


Prosperous Beech resisted all blows and moved quickly into the heart of the fray.


Holly was green with it, courageous it was in the tumult; every edge a sharpened winter spike, wounding every summer hand.


Fierce Hawthorn delivered pain. Terrible was the hag-tree then; night-crows hung about its branches, chiding Annwn's minions.


Wandering Vines wove about the foe, hampering their advance.


Fern was driven from the field of fighting.


Broom, before the host, was battered down into the rising soil.


Unlucky Gorse was for spite turned into an army, and carried quickly on, leaping to the fray.


Consoling Heather had become a standard. Boldly it pursued the rest and was Luck-Bringer to the battle.


Pear pursued a thousand.


Chestnut earned the badge of shame.


Oak was a giant striding forth across the ground, and all worlds trembled at his approach. Enemy of Annwn, Branch of Heaven, King of the Wood, Stout-Door-Keeper-Against-The-Foe, are his names in all lands.



And when the plain of combat grew still at the descending dusk and rising year, from the place of primroses and flowers of the hill, beneath the buds of shrubs and trees, from a hollow in the nettles, under the shadow of a stone, we watched and waited and heard wrens sing of the fleeing foe. Yet, it was the trees themselves — rooting back into the torn and stainèd ground — that told us of our victory.