What is it with Willows?

What does the British writer have against willows?  I mean really, what have they done to get such a bad press?  I thought about this the other day when I was walking along the banks of the Avon at Stratford, which is lined with willows, the descendants, presumably of the very trees that Shakespeare associated through Viola with unrequited love and through Ophelia with death.  Viola’s willow cabin speech,

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,

And call upon my soul within the house;

was one of the first passages of Shakespearian verse I learnt and most of us know of Gertrude’s speech lamenting Ophelia’s suicide even if we don’t know what prompted the younger woman’s actions.

There is a willow grows aslant a brook

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

But it isn’t just Shakespeare, oh no.

Watching a re-run of The Fellowship of the Ring last night and thinking about the bits that Jackson left out, Tolkien’s Old Man Willow came to mind.

[Sam] rushed back to the bank.  Frodo was in the water close to the edge, and a great tree-root seemed to be over him and holding him down, but he was not struggling.  Sam gripped him by the jacket, and dragged him from under the root; and then with difficulty hauled him onto the bank.  Almost at once he woke, and coughed and spluttered.

‘Do you know, Sam,’ he said at length, ‘the beastly tree threw me in!  I felt it.  The big root just twisted round and tipped me in!’

Now there’s a character you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night or at any other time of day, come to that.

And what about J K Rowling’s Whomping Willow?  I suppose I would have to acknowledge that the tree had been turned into such a monster for the very best of reasons, but don’t you just get the feeling that it really rather relished whomping its way through life?

Harry opened his mouth to say that he was sure they’d be able to mend [the wand] up at the school, but he never even got started.  At that very moment, something hit his side of the car with the force of a charging bull, sending him lurching sideways into Ron, just as an equally heavy blow hit the roof.

‘What’s happen – ?’

Ron gasped, staring through the windscreen, and Harry looked around just in time to see a branch as thick as a python smash into it.  The tree they had hit was attacking them.  Its trunk was bent almost double, and its gnarled boughs were pummelling every inch of the car it could reach.

So just what is going on here?  Is it that Shakespeare set up the association with his use of the tree and others have followed?  Or is there some older traditional link with evil and sorrow about which I don’t know?  If anyone has an answer I’d be grateful to hear it.  And are there other literary willows that either fit the pattern or break the mould?  Am I wrongly maligning them?  If so, I apologise now.


6 thoughts on “What is it with Willows?

  1. I don’t know the answer to your questions, but personally I love willows because they’re the tree versions of old souls. A willow can appear to be wise and ancient, but actually be quite young, and I have great affection for all such things.

    1. And like all ‘old souls’ some are wise and benevolent and some twisted and cranky. I just seem to come across the latter in my reading:)

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