The Burning Tree
‘What to make of this strange and numinous image of a tree half burning from roots to tip the other half green?’
What must burn? What must grow?
What must be cast into the inferno?
One half of my face is trunk.
One half of my face is in flame.
What is this fire that burns but does not burn?
Is it possible to burn without pain?
From this dance of leaf and flame
can you divine my name?
In Peredur the protagonist is on his way to slay a monster. In a river valley he sees ‘a tall tree on the riverbank, and one half of it was burning from its roots to its tip, but the other half had fresh leaves on it.’
Beyond the tree is a a mound with a ‘royal-looking’ squire sitting on it with ‘two spotted, white-breasted greyhounds on a leash’. Three paths lead away from the mound. Two are wide and one is narrow.
The squire advises him to take the first path to his court or to wait in order to see ‘the best greyhounds you have ever seen, and the bravest’ driving deer from the forest and killing them by the water. Peredur is told, once the hunt over, he would be welcome to join the squire at his court to feast.
Peredur turns down the offer and is told the second path leads to a nearby town and the third to the monster’s cave. Peredur, of course, goes off to kill the monster. We do not find out what might have happened if he remained at the burning tree and waited for the arrival of the hunt.
What to make of this strange and numinous image of a tree half burning from roots to tip the other half green?
Trees are central to many world myths. We think of the Tree of Life guarded by the cherub with the burning sword in the Christian tradition and Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in the Norse myths.
The lore has led me to believe that Daronwy, the Oak of Goronwy, is the Brythonic World Tree. It stands on the bank of the river Gwyllonwy and Mathonwy’s magic wand was cut from its wood.
Daronwy is associated with Goronwy/Gronw Pebr, a huntsman who possesses the qualities of Pen Annwn ‘the Head of the Otherworld’. It may be identified with the oak to which Lleu Llaw Gyfes takes flight as an eagle after being wounded by Gronw in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion. Its liminal qualities are listed in the series of englyns by which Gwydion sings Lleu down from the tree.
An oak grows between two lakes,
Very dark is the sky and the valley…
An oak grows on a high plain,
Rain does not wet it, heat no longer melts it…
It is my intuition that Daronwy may be identified with the burning tree. Both stand in valleys. The two lakes referred to are Llyn Nantlle Uchaf and the former Llyn Nantlle Isaf. From Llyn Nantlle Uchaf runs the river Llynfi, which may also have been known as the Gwyllonwy ‘River of Spectres’. Thus is stands on a riverbank. The property that it can’t be wet by rain or melted by heat suggests that it is the burning tree, appearing to be on fire without being consumed by the flames. Daronwy appears again, conversely damaged by hail (but presumably regenerating), in the story of Owain.
Peredur, driven by his obsession with killing the monster, rides straight past Daronwy, the World Tree, in spite of the fact it is burning. He completely ignores this important message of impending doom.
The symbology suggests Peredur also misses out on an encounter with Goronwy/Gronw – Pen Annwn.
The squire, with his ‘two spotted white-breasted greyhounds’, sitting on a mound is clearly an Annuvian figure. The gods and spirits of Annwn are consistently associated with burial mounds. The Hounds of Annwn are described as white with red points or being spotted or freckled.
If Peredur had remained beneath the tree on the riverbank he would have seen the Hounds of Annwn chasing and bringing down the deer in a scene reminiscent of Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn. He may have encountered the Hunter following his hounds and been invited to his Annuvian feast.
Earlier, when Peredur encountered his uncle as a lame man fishing on a lake and was taken into his Fortress of Wonders, he failed to ask the question of the meaning of the grail procession. This appeared as two lads carrying a spear ‘with three streams of blood running from its socket to the floor’ and two weeping maidens bearing ‘a man’s head’ on a ‘salver’ ‘much blood around the head’.
Unlike in the Continental retelling, Parcival, in which the injured Fisher King represents the failing health of the land and the protagonist initiates its healing by asking ‘what ails you, father?’ Peredur does not ask. Instead, the laming of his uncle is blamed on the Witches of Caer Loyw, who he slaughters.
Peredur rides past the burning world tree, misses the opportunity to meet Pen Annwn, and is blind to the meaning of the grail procession. The question remains unasked. The king and the land suffer on.
How long will the tree burn until eventually it is burned and blackened by our lack of awareness? How long will Pen Annwn wait? How long will it be until the king dies from his festering wound?
Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls. She is a co-founder of Awen ac Awenydd and writes for Gods & Radicals. Based in Penwortham, Lancashire, North West England, she gives talks and workshops, performs poetry at local events, and is learning Welsh.