The Last Dream of the Old Oak Tree – Illustration
( A Christmas Tale)
By Hans Christian Andersen (1858)
In the forest, high up on the steep shore, hard by the open sea coast, stood a very old Oak Tree. It was exactly three hundred and sixty-five years old, but that long time was not more for the Tree than just as many days would be to us men. We wake by day and sleep through the night, and then we have our dreams : it is different with the Tree, which keeps awake through three seasons of the year, and does not get its sleep till winter comes. Winter is its time for rest, its night after the long day which is called spring, summer, and autumn.
On many a warm summer day the Ephemera, the fly that lives but for a day, had danced around his crown had lived, enjoyed, and felt happy ; and then the tiny creature had rested for a moment in quiet bliss on one of the great fresh Oak leaves ; and then the Tree always said, ‘ Poor little thing ! Your whole life is but a single day ! How very short ! It ‘s quite melancholy.’
‘ Melancholy ! Why do you say that ? ‘ the Ephemera would then alwa}^ reply. ‘ It ‘s wonderfully bright, warm, and beautiful all around me, and that makes me rejoice.’
But only one day, and then it ‘s all done ! ‘
‘ Done ! ‘ repeated the Ephemera. ‘ What ‘s the meaning of done ? Are you done, too ? ‘
‘ No ; I shall perhaps live for thousands of your days, and my day is whole seasons long ! It ‘s something so long, that you can’t at all manage to reckon it out.’
‘ No ? then I don’t understand you. You say you have thousands of my days ; but I have thousands of moments, in which I can be merry and happy. Does all the beauty of this world cease when you die ?
”No,’ replied the Tree ; ‘ it will certainly last much longer far longer than I can possibly think.’
‘ Well, then, we have the same time, only that we reckon differently.’
And the Ephemera danced and floated in the air, and rejoiced in her delicate wings of gauze and velvet, and rejoiced in the balmy breezes laden with the fragrance of the meadows and of wild roses and elder flowers, of the garden hedges, wild thyme, and mint, and daisies ; the scent of these was all so strong that the Ephemera was almost intoxicated. The day was long and beautiful, full of joy and of sweet feeling, and when the sun sank low the little fly felt very agreeably tired of all its happiness and enjoyment. The delicate wings would not carry it any more, and quietly and slowly it glided down upon the soft grass-blade, nodded its head as well as it could nod, and went quietly to sleep and was dead.
Poor little Ephemera ! ‘ said the Oak. That was a terribly short life ! ‘
And on every summer day the same dance was repeated, the same question and answer, and the same sleep. The same thing was repeated through whole generations of Ephemerae, and all of them felt equally merry and equally happy.
The Oak stood there awake through the spring morning, the noon of summer, and the evening of autumn ; and its time of rest, its night, was coming on apace. Winter was approaching.
Already the storms were singing their ‘ good night ! good night ! ‘ Here fell a leaf, and there fell a leaf.
‘ We pull ! See if you can sleep ! We sing you to sleep, we shake you to sleep, but it does you good in your old twigs, does it not ? They seem to crack for very joy. Sleep sweetly ! sleep sweetly ! It ‘s your three hundred and sixty-fifth night. Properly speaking, you’re only a year old yet ! Sleep sweetly ! The clouds strew down snow, there will be quite a coverlet, warm and protecting, around your feet. Sweet sleep to you, and pleasant dreams ! ‘
And the old Oak Tree stood there, stripped of all its leaves, to sleep through the long winter, and to dream many a dream, always about something that had happened to it, just as in the dreams of men.
The great Oak Tree had once been small indeed, an acorn had been its cradle. According to human computation, it was now in its fourth century. It was the greatest and best tree in the forest ; its crown towered far above all the other trees, and could be descried from afar across the sea, so that it served as a landmark to the sailors : the Tree had no idea how many eyes were in the habit of seeking it. High up in its green summit the wood-pigeon built her nest, and the cuckoo sat in its boughs and sang his song ; and in autumn, when the leaves looked like thin plates of copper, the birds of passage came and rested there, before they flew away across the sea ; but now it was winter, and the Tree stood there leafless, so that every one could see how gnarled and crooked the branches were that shot forth from its trunk. Crows and rooks came and took their seat by turns in the boughs, and spoke of the hard times which were beginning, and of the difficulty of getting a living in winter.
It was just at the holy Christmas-time, when the Tree dreamed its most glorious dream.
The Tree had a distinct feeling of the festive time, and fancied he heard the bells ringing from the churches all around ; and yet it seemed as if it were a fine summer’s day, mild and warm. Fresh and green he spread out his mighty crown ; the sunbeams played among the twigs and the leaves ; the air was full of the fragrance of herbs and blossoms ; gay butterflies chased each other to and fro. The ephemeral insects danced as if all the world were created merely for them to dance and be merry in. All that the Tree had experienced for years and years, and that had happened around him, seemed to pass by him again, as in a festive pageant. He saw the knights of ancient days ride by with their noble dames on gallant steeds, with plumes waving in their bonnets and falcons on their wrists. The hunting horn sounded, and the dogs barked. He saw hostile warriors in coloured jerkins and with shining weapons, with spear and halberd, pitching their tents and striking them again. The watchfires flamed up anew, and men sang and slept under the branches of the Tree. He saw loving couples meeting near his trunk, happily, in the moonshine ; and they cut the initials of their names in the grey-green bark of his stem. Once but long years had rolled by since then citherns and Eolian harps had been hung up on his boughs by merry wanderers ; now they hung there again, and once again they sounded in tones of marvellous sweetness. The wood- pigeons cooed, as if they were telling what the Tree felt in all this, and the cuckoo called out to tell him how many summer days he had yet to live.
Then it appeared to him as if new life were rippling down into the remotest fibre of his root, and mounting up into his highest branches, to the tops of the leaves. The Tree felt that he was stretching and spreading himself, and through his root he felt that there was life and warmth even in the ground itself. He felt his strength increase, he grew higher, his stem shot up unceasingly, and he grew more and more, his crown became fuller and spread out ; and in proportion as the Tree grew, he felt his happiness increase, and his joyous hope that he should reach even higher quite up to the warm brilliant sun.
Already had he grown high up above the clouds, which floated past beneath his crown like dark troops of passagebirds, or like great white swans. And every leaf of the Tree had the gift of sight, as if it had eyes wherewith to see : the stars became visible in broad daylight, great and sparkling ; each of them sparkled like a pair of eyes, mild and clear. They recalled to his memory well-known gentle eyes, eyes of children, eyes of lovers, who had met beneath his boughs.
It was a marvellous spectacle, and one full of happiness and joy ! And yet amid all this happiness the Tree felt a longing, a yearning desire that all other trees of the wood beneath him, and all the bushes, and herbs, and flowers, might be able to rise with him, that they too might see this splendour and experience this joy. The great majestic Oak was not quite happy in his happiness, while he had not them all, great and little, about him ; and this feeling of yearning trembled through his every twig, through his every leaf, warmly and fervently as through a human heart.
The crown of the Tree waved to and fro, as if he sought something in his silent longing, and he looked down. Then he felt the fragrance of woodruff, and soon afterwards the more powerful scent of honeysuckle and violets ; and he fancied he heard the cuckoo answering him.
Yes, through the clouds the green summits of the forest came peering up, and under himself the Oak saw the other trees, as they grew and raised themselves aloft. Bushes and herbs shot up high, and some tore themselves up bodily by the roots to rise the quicker. The birch was the quickest of all. Like a white streak of lightning, its slender stem shot upwards in a zigzag line, and the branches spread around it like green gauze and like banners ; the whole woodland natives, even to the brown-plumed rushes, grew up with the rest, and the birds came too, and sang ; and on the grass -blade that fluttered aloft like a long silken ribbon into the air, sat the grasshopper cleaning his wings with his leg ; the May beetles hummed, and the bees murmured, and every bird sang in his appointed manner ; all was song and sound of gladness up into the high heaven.
But the little blue flower by the water-side, where is that ? ‘ said the Oak ; and the purple bell-flower and the daisy ? ‘ for, you see, the old Oak Tree wanted to have them all about him.
‘ We are here ! we are here ! ‘ was shouted and sung in reply.
‘ But the beautiful woodruff of last summer and in the last year there was certainly a place here covered with lilies of the valley ! and the wild apple tree that blossomed so splendidly ! and all the glory of the wood that came year by year if that had only lived and remained till now, then it might have been here now ! ‘
‘ We are here ! we are here ! ‘ replied voices still higher in the air.
It seemed as if they had flown on before.
‘ Why, that is beautiful, indescribably beautiful ! ‘ exclaimed the old Oak Tree, rejoicingly. ‘ I have them all around me, great and small ; not one has been forgotten ! How can so much happiness be imagined ? How can it be possible ? ‘
‘ In heaven it can be imagined, and it is possible ! ‘ the reply sounded through the air.
And the old Tree, who grew on and on, felt how his roots were tearing themselves free from the ground.
‘ That ‘s best of all ! ‘ said the Tree. ‘ Now no fetters hold me ! I can fly up now, to the very highest, in glory and in light ! And all my beloved ones are with me, great and small all of them, all ! ‘
That was the dream of the old Oak Tree ; and while he dreamed thus a mighty storm came rushing over land and sea at the holy Christmastide. The sea rolled great billows towards the shore, and there was a cracking and crashing in the tree his root was torn out of the ground in the very moment while he was dreaming that his root freed itself from the earth. He fell. His three hundred and sixty -five years were now as the single day of the Ephemera.
On the morning of the Christmas festival, when the sun rose, the storm had subsided. From all the churches sounded the festive bells, and from every hearth, even from the smallest hut, arose the smoke in blue clouds, like the smoke from the altars of the Druids of old at the feast of thank-offerings. The sea became gradually calm, and on board a great ship in the offing, that had fought successfully with the tempest, all the flags were displayed, as a token of joy suitable to the festive day.
1 The Tree is down the old Oak Tree, our landmark on the coast ! ‘ said the sailors. ‘ It fell in the storm of last night. Who can replace it ? No one can.’
This was the funeral oration, short but well meant, that was given to the Tree, which lay stretched on the snowy covering on the sea-shore ; and over its prostrate form sounded the notes of a song from the ship, a carol of the joys of Christmas, and of the redemption of the soul of man by the blood of Christ, and of eternal life.
Sing, sing aloud, this blessed morn It is fulfilled and He is born, Oh, joy without compare !
Hallelujah ! Hallelujah !
Thus sounded the old psalm tune, and every one on board the ship felt lifted up in his own way, through the song and the prayer, just as the old Tree had felt lifted up in its last, its most beauteous, dream in the Christmas night.
More about Christmas and H.C. Andersen here!