The earliest versions of “The Tree Song”, a traditional Greek ballad, emerge as part of a cycle of poems about people living on the margins of society in the Byzantine Empire. There exist many modern recordings and regional variations of the song, which is also known as “The Young and Brave Soldier”: it resembles a myth that changes from place to place. In most versions the lyrics comprise about a dozen lines and follow the outline of the same story. A former soldier, homeless and distraught, wanders into the countryside, where he begins a conversation with a talking tree. At the end of the song, the man accepts an invitation to live underneath its branches. “You can live with me,” the tree says. “All I ask in return is two jugs of water each morning.”
Listening to the song over and over during a period of acute insomnia, I imagined a folktale that might be attached to the lyrics. What I invented was inexact, like my mind at the time, which felt as if it were continually repeating the same day. I saw the moment in which the tree, having acquired the power of speech, first spoke to the soldier.
“Do you have a name?” it asked. “What is your profession?”
Walking slowly around the tree, the man looked for a face in the trunk, but he couldn’t find any cavity from which a voice might emerge. I’m not imagining it, thought the soldier. Truly this thing is talking.
The man said he’d come on foot from a nearby town, where he’d failed to find continuing work of any kind. And while someone had offered him a few nights of accommodation – a blanket on the floor of an outbuilding – today they had asked him to leave.
“Do you have any friends?” asked the tree.
The soldier said he did not have anyone.
“A person without a single friend? That must be unusual,” said the tree.
Perhaps the issue of friendship, thought the man, was the source of all his problems. His bonds to other people had been either too light and broke easily, or they were poisoned. He told the tree he still regretted and blamed himself for the loss, years ago, of his oldest friendship. He’d long been secretly competitive with this particular friend, whom he’d known since childhood.
For as long as the soldier could remember, this friend was a quiet, inwardly strict person who was much less hard on others than he was on himself. When the friend found success and praise, the soldier’s envy at last came to the surface. The soldier didn’t believe his friend’s achievements were merited, although he always responded with enthusiasm when hearing of some new achievement or accolade. Still, soured by envy, the soldier discovered indirect ways to express his true feelings and petty reasons to argue with his prosperous friend, who in turn resolved to see less and less of the soldier, until the time came when they would pass each other in the street without a greeting.
The tree said the force of this envy was evidence only of the soldier’s shortcomings, rather than another person’s unmerited success. The man said, yes, he’d already come to that conclusion.
“Some days I feel inadequate myself,” said the tree. “I can’t walk down to the river and drink. And that’s what I most want to do.”
“What I want to do is find a home,” said the man.
“Have you tried other towns?” asked the tree.
The soldier said in one town he was beaten by a group of drunks. In another village he fell in love with someone who did not love him back. The people of a third town, he slowly discovered, suspected him of being a spy and threw him in jail. In a fourth, he was asked to complete difficult and demeaning work and wasn’t paid.
“Did you try a fifth town?” asked the tree.
The tree asked: “Tell me about this falling-in-love business?”
“Why do you care?” said the soldier. “You’re free of all that.”
“I’m curious,” said the tree. “There was once a wedding in the field over there and I have never seen so much urinating.”
“What happened is she fell in love with someone else. And they invited me to their wedding. And I went to the wedding because I thought it would make me feel better about their marriage. But it didn’t.”
The tree asked, “Do you have a trade? Are you educated, do other people think you are wise?”
The soldier said he was merely a soldier and the time for soldiers was over. “Tell me what to do,” he asked the tree. “I need help. I need a new life.”
“After all that failure and loss, I recommend you live with me.”
“What happens when it rains?”
“You will hang your clothes on my branches and sleep at my feet. If it rains, I will shelter you with these leaves. Before it gets cold, I will drop branches you can burn.”
“How long can I stay?”
“As long as you like. Until you die – if it comes to that. But I ask that you bring me two urns of water from the river each morning.”
“I don’t have an urn.”
“You can steal one from a town. One of those places you mentioned. And bring the water right here.”
The ballad begins with an unhappy person walking into the countryside and it concludes with him living underneath a talking tree, which is full of everything latent in the man and hidden in the wider world. It’s a song of sanctuary: it supposes there is always somewhere for you to go. The man leaves behind the cruelties of other people, the disappointments and pettiness and violence, the false promise of victory. Instead, the man’s imagination speaks to him and offers an answer. It is certain the tree will have much more to say.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "The Tree Song".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription