Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Walking Trees by Rosa Mullholland

Recently, David Haden, at his Lovecraftian blog Tentaclii, noted that an old and rare children's fantasy is now available in pdf-form for the first time (link accessible here). This is a curious short novella The Walking Trees: A Story for Children by Irish writer Rosa Mulholland (1841-1921). It is comprised of ten chapters, and originally appeared in three issues in volume 4 (1876) of The Irish Monthly. The story was collected in Mulholland's The Walking Trees and Other Tales (Dublin, M.H. Gill and Son), dated 1885 but published in late 1884 for the Christmas market. The book contains three other tales ("Little Queen Pet and Her Kingdom"; "The Girl from under the Lake"; and "Floreen's Golden Hair"), along with four illustrations. This edition, and a subsequent one published in March 1897, was apparently distributed in England by Simpkin, Marshall and Company. 

The suggestion of walking trees in the title makes the story immediately interesting to anyone (like me) studying the literary roots of Tolkien's fantasies, for the walking trees of the title reminds us of Tolkien's Ents and the Huorns of Fangorn Forest. So I downloaded the pdf and read it. 

It is an odd story, kind of in the style of George Macdonald's fairy tales. It follows a young boy, Leo, who believes that the seven tall ash-trees, which he can see against the horizon during the daytime, move around at night. So one night Leo parks himself in one of the trees, and indeed the trees all walk away, taking Leo with them. They soon reach the sea, where the trees have come to enjoy the fresh air, and from there, Leo climbs into the clouds. Sadly, that is the last we see of the walking trees.

But Leo's journey continues. He wants to get to the moon, but in the end doesn't, distracted by other things, like meeting, successively, three Hours of the night. First Leo reaches the Gates of Sunrise, and sees the sun with its "curious little round eyes and a wide mouth," marching across the sky on little spider legs. Then he encounters a lark, and the summer-cloud children, who float around strangely. Then he goes to the bad-weather country, and meets the rain-children, who tell Leo of the Storm King. This brings us through chapter nine, and Mullholland's imagination as well as readerly interest has been flagging for some time.

In the final chapter,  Leo finds himself alone in a great white world of snow. He enters a snow forest, and meets a snow-girl in the boughs, who tells Leo she can't come down until the Snow Queen turns in her sleep. And soon the Snow Queen turns, and the story ends bizarrely:  the ice-forests and snow-lawns dissolve away, and the snow children and rain children fly circles around Leo. Then:

Just with this there was a loud report and a hissing noise, and a flaring light. Leo looked round wildly, and beheld capering overhead a fierce-looking being, brandishing a red-hot, two-pronged, gigantic fork in its claw. Before he had time to scream, the terrible weapon was thrust into the skirts of Leo's little knickerbocker jacket, and as he went whirling through the air he heard a chorus of mocking laughter and the cry-- "Hurrah! hurrah! he's off with the forked lightning!" 

And there it ends. Is Leo supposed to be dead, or to have entered some nightmare?  The reader is left entirely hanging. One can easily see why this never became a popular children's story! 

And the Tolkienian resonances are very minimal. The story does exemplify some of the various preoccupations in Victorian children's stories-- with what happens in the hours of the night, the interest in the moon, and even the Gates of the Sun, etc. Aspects like these are found in Tolkien's earliest mythology (the Cottage of Lost Play, the Man in the Moon, etc.), but there is no sense that any of these derive from Mullholland's odd tale. 


  1. Walking trees do seem to be a motif that draws writers, especially perhaps those with pantheistic inclinations. I'm thinking of Algernon Blackwood's "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" and Lord Dunsany's "The Walk to Lingham." There must be others. Pity that this Mulholland story wanders into MacDonald territory.

  2. There's also flying on the back of an eagle.

    1. Technically yes, but the episode is so short (comprising only six sentences on pp 1129-130) that the scene is pretty much without significance:

      [the Hour says:] "Get on my eagle's back, little face, and he will carry you so far as the Dawn, where you will be sure to find some pretty solid clouds for a while."
      The eagle at once dropped from her arm and Leo found himself astride on its back in a twinkling.
      "Make haste to return," cried the Hour to the eagle, "for my time is nearly up."
      And off flew the eagle with Leo on its back, far away from the moon which had grown very dim by this time and had somehow fallen quite down to one side of the sky.

      CHAPTER. IV.

      The eagle flew so swiftly across the sky that Leo quite lost his breath. He was just able to gasp out, "What in the world are you?" and the eagle to answer, "I am only a Moment,'' before the journey was at an end, and the little boy was lying in a heap of clouds so deep and solid that it seemed pretty sure they would be a resting-place for him for a considerable time to come.