What do tree houses symbolise for you? Ask almost anyone and they will have a distinct childhood experience – whether they built their own, played in a friends or simply dreamt of having one. And each experience will have its own symbolic value: from that first taste of freedom to developing an appetite for adventure or learning a respect for nature.
The 6th of September is Read a Book Day. Their powerful symbolism has meant that treehouses often feature in literature and popular fiction and through this medium have gone on to inspire more childhood (and adult) fascinations with treehouses. In celebration of Read a Book Day we’ve decided to dedicate a post to exploring some of the themes that treehouses represent in fiction.
But first we’ve asked for staff to share some of their favourite memories. One story seemed to encapsulate all the themes of the others’:
Near my house there was a wood, and my friends and I would run wild around the trees playing ‘Cops and Robbers’, climbing high in the branches and falling off with glee. My parents warned me not to go in the wood as it was dangerous. Obviously this only increased the appeal of it.
Later, we built a rudimentary tree house in my back garden. In hindsight it’s symbolism was two fold: At the time, it represented freedom for me. I was out from my parents’ house, their place of power, and I had created something for myself. It was something more primal, animalistic and closer to nature, and also more independent. In retrospect, this was a simpler time. An innocent and naive time, that I both long for and am happy to have escaped from years ago.
Below are some of the greatest treehouses in literature and popular film and the themes they represent.
The Civilised Treehouse
The Swiss Family Robinson
A tale of a family shipwrecked on a desert island, The Swiss Family Robinson, a novel published in 1812, was created by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss. Wyss devised the novel as a tool to teach his young family Christian values of frugality, husbandry, cooperation, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.
In order to survive on the island the family craft a tree house in the indigenous wood. The treehouse is needed to protect the family from attack by wild animals. Oddly, in this instance, the tree house represents civilisation in a wild environment. This is contrary to the archetypal representation of a tree house as being a dwelling of those closer to nature than the rest of humanity.
Lord of the Rings
In the novel, wood-elves or Silvan Elves, are a class of elves that live in a massive forest called Mirkwood. Within the forest, the elves reside in elaborate treehouses high in the trees. It is an enchanted dangerous place in which giant spiders and other dangerous creatures call their home.
The elven homes in the treehouses are a place of civilisation in a wild and unruly forest. Like The Swiss Family Robinson they represent order and control in the midst of chaos.
The Natural Treehouse
Of course, the James Cameron directed Avatar should need no introduction. The film, released in 2009, is the highest grossing film of all time at the box office. In the film, humans are attempting to displace the indigenous people of the exoplanetary moon Pandora in order to mine the rare and valuable mineral Unobtainium.
The humans live in military compounds while the native Na’vi people live in elaborate treehouses called Hometrees. Hometree and numerous other trees in the film are of spiritual importance to the Na’vi through which the connect with Eywa, the deity of Pandora who is believed to keep the Pandoran ecosystem in balance.
The trees, and the Na’vi relationship with them, represents nature in equilibrium. The human willingness to destroy this equilibrium symbolises how humanity has become distanced from nature through our willingness to pollute and effectively destroy our own planet in the name of ‘progress’.
Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi
During the Battle of Endor in the final Star Wars film of the first trilogy, the Ewoks assisted the Rebel Alliance in destroying the second Death Star and therefore defeating the Empire. They are extremely skilled in forest survival and the construction of primitive construction. However, they adapt quickly when exposed to advanced technology.
The Ewoks reside in groups of treehouses connected by rope bridges high in the trees of Endor. The Ewoks and the treehouses in which they live represent a lifestyle of coexistence with their natural environment. As they help defeat the empire, this naturist lifestyle is endorsed by the film in favour of the despotic, technology based culture of the Empire.
The Treehouse of Independence
The treehouse in The Simpsons is the site of each legendary Treehouse of Horror Halloween special. In the treehouse Bart and Lisa tell each other ghost stories which form the different segments of each special. These revered segments include ‘The Shinning’, a parody of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal poem ‘The Raven’, and a satire called ‘Citizen Kang’ which made fun of the 1996 American presidential election.
For Bart and Lisa, the tree house is a step away from the safety of their home. It’s symbolic of growing up and becoming slightly more independent. This is inherently frightening though and so the tree house is a place of relatively safe fear like a rollercoaster.
The Treehouse of Innocence
To Kill A Mockingbird
This novel tells the story of the trial of an African American accused of a rape he didn’t commit in the Deep South in the midst of Depression era America. Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, who has been appointed to defend the accused. They are the subject of racist taunting and abuse due to their father’s position.
Over the course of the novel, Scout and Jem find refuge in a treehouse. It represents peace from the chaos and disorder of life. Combined with this, it represents innocence and joy in a society weighed down by prejudice and injustice.
Woods, forests, trees, and treehouses continue to be things that fascinate both ordinary people and storytellers. They are intrinsic aspects of many people’s youth and cornerstones in their development from children to adults. They represent the inevitable loss of innocence in everyone’s life while also symbolising the dichotomous ideas of both civilisation and naturism.
Perhaps that’s why they keep such a hold on our collective imaginations. They symbolise a point in life when things were simpler. A time we all long to return to.