Light and shade and a Singing Ringing Tree

Once upon a time, in my compact and bijou suburban garden, I planted a tree.

Amelanchier 2014My amelanchier is beautiful, but shy. She blossoms in early April in an incredible gown of a million tiny, delicate white flowers. She parades her splendour for just 3 or 4 days before donning a summer cloak of bronze-green leaves – pretty enough, but no match for the pure abundance of the spring blossom. In the autumn she’ll come into her own again in a spray of blood-red berries, and leaves which turn shades of fiery red, orange and golden umber.

My shy amelanchier boasts a little non-natural adornment. A set of metal wind chimes tinkles almost imperceptibly amidst her leaves and three strands of tiny mirrors drip from her branches. In the evening as they twirl in the setting sun, they cast a shower of light, spinning circles around and around the garden like fireflies or fairies. Even after years, I’m still transfixed by what I have named my Singing Ringing Tree.

My Singing Ringing Tree bears little resemblance to its namesake. Those of you who grew up in the UK in the 1960’s may remember a gruesome Central European fairytale which appeared on our TV screens first in 1964, and popped up once or twice more over the years. ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ (or ‘Das singende, klingende Bäumchen’) was a product of secret, scary East Germany; a story in three parts in the style of the Brothers Grimm. It was without a doubt, the grimmest, creepiest and above all most disturbing fairy story I’ve ever encountered. And judging by what other people have blogged about this nightmarish narrative, I wasn’t the only one to be utterly terrified at tea-time.

If you’re interested, Wikipedia provides a plot summary here. The story revolves around a cruel and haughty princess, a prince who turns into a bear, a giant fish and – most disturbing of all, an evil dwarf. Yes, the 60’s had little shame when it came to negative stereotyping.

Singing Ringing Tree DwarfCentral to the story is an enchanted tree guarded by the evil dwarf, which will only sing and ring once the princess falls in love with the prince. But all is not well in this dystopian fairytale land. The dwarf cruelly keeps the prince and princess apart with devilish spells and tricks; and the path of true love lies dark and cold until the princess learns to mend her selfish ways.

Old-style fairytales have dark hearts and evil characters. Children live in poverty and get lost in woods; they are lied to and deceived, routinely starved and poisoned – or fattened up to eat. Beautiful girls are abused, locked away in dungeons and towers and forced to sleep for hundreds of years. It is a world beset with nightmares, monsters, evil stepmothers, witches, trolls and goblins. And whilst there are life-lessons within their lines and they usually have a happily ever after ending, fairytales are awash with tragedy and drenched in evil. There is much to unsettle in fairytale land.

But children enjoy being unsettled by stories. In the comfort of their beds, before they’re safely tucked-in for the night, they’re gripped by tales which drip with malevolence – so long as they end with that happily ever after moment allowing a contented slumber and sweet dreams.

Fortunately, as adults we still enjoy being chilled and disturbed from within the pages of a good story. In books, we meet the sort of characters we might hope never to meet in real life. Our nerves are jangled and our emotions and loyalties toyed with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on; sometimes we think we do, but then realise we don’t. We are misdirected and misled. We follow trails of breadcrumbs scattered by the author, uncertain what lies at the end of the journey, but excited by a discomforting ride.

I love reading stories like this – and now, I love writing them too. Dark tales by the likes of Joanne Harris, Gillian Flynn, Erin Kelly, S J Watson and Carol Topolski inspire me. I try to imagine my way into sick and damaged psyches and I won’t be burdened to provide a neatly sewn-up resolution or a happily ever after ending.

This summer, I’ll sit under the shade of my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree, as it tinkles gently and showers its dancing light across my garden. But as I push on with Novel Number Two, my thoughts will lean to the mood of the original Singing Ringing Tree and all its perversity, darkness and dread.

8 thoughts on “Light and shade and a Singing Ringing Tree

  1. I wonder why the chose the singing, ringing tree rather than the direct translation, the singing, ringing sapling?
    Thanks for bringing this back to me. I had nightmares about this programme. Everybody looked evil, either deliberately do or because they were ‘too’ good. If I can’t sleep tonight we’ll be having words… 😉
    Your own tree looks lovely. We have a bush that’s similar, white flowers in April and then green leaves until autumn. The horticultural equivalent of an X-Factor winner, though more beautiful while it lasts.

    1. Ah.. you noticed the translation too. I thought it should be the ‘Little Singing Ringing Tree’, but ‘Sapling’ is better still. It was a creepy-creep-fest, that programme, wasn’t it? The princess was horrible, the ‘nice’ fish was plain weird, and the images which have stuck in my mind are of burning thorn bushes and the crazed dwarf throwing things down from a bridge or something. Clearly the product of a deranged mind (or, given it was the 60’s, perhaps a chemically enhanced mind). My tree is at its fabulous best this week, hence the post. I hope it doesn’t give you nightmares 🙂

  2. Your amelanchier looks lovely and I can see why its spring and autumn displays have earned it a place in your garden. I don’t remember the TV series but the fairytale plot line has withstood the test of time. I like happy endings, even though they are no longer fashionable, but it is good not to be obliged to provide them. I’m glad you’re planning a second novel and I look forward to hearing about its ‘darkness, perversity and dread’.

    1. Trust me, The Singing Ringing Tree is as creepy as it gets on children’s telly! As for ‘my second’, just planning at this stage. I’ve sketched and outline, main character and theme so far… no words yet!

  3. Is it commonplace to outfit trees with adornments in the UK?I watched Parade’s End recently and there was just such a tree, loaded with eye catching and hidden objects . For all I know, folks may do it here in the U.S. – but except for the wind chime or a bird feeder here or there, I’ve not seen mirrors or other accessories. Although my brother has a weeping willow with a set of 3 tree sprite masks nailed onto the trunk. I like the idea very much, and if I ever live someplace where there is any sort of tree out there, I’m going to dress her.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s commonplace, but I have a friend who adorns her entire garden with twinkly, twiddling, reflective bits of this and that, and it looks lovely. My display is far more modest – a tiny set of wind chimes and just 3 strands of mirrors (which you can hardly see on the picture) – but the dancing light display when the setting sun is visible (not a given in this climate!) is fabulous. My little urban courtyard garden is a little bit Zen, with a steel water feature and lots of pots filled with interesting foliage rather than an abundance of blooms. I suspect mirrors and steel would not be so comfortable in a traditional English country garden! Definitely worth trying the mirror strands!

  4. You make me mentally travel back to my days in wonderful England with the many gardens of roses and flowers and yes those trees. I can still see them in my minds eye. I do miss them so. Thank you for the story and excellent writing.

    1. Always a kind word – thank you Bill! Spring is a wonderful time of the year and we’re surrounded by daffodils and pink and white blossom just now. And what do you know? The sun is even shining today!

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