My summary isn’t going to do this justice. Anderson writes evocatively of the setting and the people, and I’m just going to focus on the main plot. Here we go.
In the countryside of France, a massive tree is felled. The villagers replace it with a young chestnut tree, which has a dryad living inside it. She is a curious creature, and loves to listen to the stories people tell around her. She especially loves tales of the wider world, of the greatness of France and Paris. Ah, Paris! How she wishes she could leave her tree and see the world.
One night a light falls from the moon, and a strapping figure says to her,
“Thou shalt go to the city of magic; thou shalt take root there, and enjoy the mighty rushing breezes, the air and the sunshine there. But the time of thy life shall then be shortened; the line of years that awaited thee here amid the free nature shall shrink to but a small tale. Poor Dryad! It shall be thy destruction. Thy yearning and longing will increase, thy desire will grow more stormy, the tree itself will be as a prison to thee, thou wilt quit thy cell and give up thy nature to fly out and mingle among men. Then the years that would have belonged to thee will be contracted to half the span of the ephemeral fly, that lives but a day: one night, and thy life-taper shall be blown out—the leaves of the tree will wither and be blown away, to become green never again!”
She is overjoyed at the news. She’s going to Paris! And sure enough, soon the villagers are digging up her tree to take her into the city. You see, a tree there had died from pollution. But no worries about all that. It’s Paris!
They plant her in a square, and she delights in all the new things she can see. But she wants more. She wishes the houses would move so she could see all the wonders of Paris. She’s sick of this little square. And so she offers up a prayer, to give her that one night of mingling with men.
She’s made corporeal, and abandons her tree to explore the city. She goes everywhere, even the Catacombs. Everything is fresh and amazing. Her night exploring the city is glorious.
But come dawn, she feels death approaching and wishes she had more life to live. The sun rises, and she disappears like a soap bubble.
WTF-scale: Not too bad
This could have gotten a lot crazier. The dryad can speak to animals and plants, and in the Catacombs she talks to some rats. Aside from that, this is a pretty straightforward story.
I’m filing this under The Wider World because the story is actually a critique of city life. The innocent dryad is happy and healthy in nature, but longs for the dirty city. She is warned over and over that there lies her destruction, but she ignores them. The rats complain of gas and petroleum invading their sewers. When the dryad is dying, she reaches out to the nearest water and plants for succor, but they tell her outright that, because they’re in the city, their powers are limited.
It’s an environmentalist tale!
The message is a little unclear, though, as it isn’t the hazards of the city that kills the dryad, it’s the limitations of leaving her tree. If we really wanted to drive the point home, she could have felt pollution slowly choking her or something.
Also, from a storytelling point of view, I think an opportunity was missed. When the dryad is still in the country, she sees a scrawny little girl called Mary. The local clergyman warns Mary not to go to Paris, for it will be her destruction. Mary leaves, and comes back some time later a grand lady in a carriage of her very own. The clergyman just shakes his head, and says,
“So you went there after all, and it was your ruin, poor Mary!”
“That one poor?” thought the Dryad. “No; she wears a dress fit for a countess” (she had become one in the city of magic changes).
My first thought was that Mary must’ve fallen from grace and become a courtesan, but no, she’s a countess now. She wasn’t ruined, she made her damn fortune.
When roaming the city later, the dryad thinks again of Mary and wonders if she’s in the city. …and Mary is never mentioned again. From a storyteller’s angle, this is a hanging thread. Mary could have made an impact if she’d returned at the end. Maybe her glory is tarnished by all that pollution and corruption. Instead, she’s never heard of again.
And why, after all the clergyman’s warnings, do we not see the city itself damaging the dryad and her tree?
It’s interesting to see patterns emerging across stories–there seems to always be something important left out. Hmph.
Like so many women in fairy tales, our poor dryad gets the short end of the stick. She has a simple desire to see the world, and she’s punished for it. The moral is to always Stay Home. …or is it? Because Anderson makes Paris out to be amazing.
So many conflicting messages!
At least there were no satyrs.