Country tales… The Willow Wife

A traditional tale, retold by Martin Maudsley


Once, in a corner of Somerset, there was a willow tree – supple and strong, graceful and green. The tree grew by a small stream, with its roots dipping down into the cool, clear water below. For generations, the people in the nearby village had grown to love and cherish the tree. In summer, it was a shady resting place, where people would meet to relax after the work of the day was done. In winter it stood like a frozen fountain: stone-cold and still, a symbol of resilience in adversity.
A young farmer lived near the willow and he, more than anyone else in the village, had developed a deep and devoted bond with the tree. It was the first thing he saw on waking each morning – and when he returned home from work in the fields, he eagerly looked out for its familiar shape.
Every year at the end of April, on the festival of Green George (now known as St George’s Day), he would pick a posy of fresh bluebells from the woods and place them on the roots of the old tree. It was a tradition handed down by his father, and his father before that.
Royal command
Time passed with the rhythm of the seasons, and each year marked by the falling leaves of the willow. But one day messengers arrived in the village with news that the king needed trees and timber to build a great feasting hall.
The tall willow was soon earmarked to be felled.
When the young farmer heard the news he rushed to the tree in fear and fury. He begged, pleaded and bargained with the messengers – offering them many other trees from his farm if only they would spare this tree. Eventually the messengers agreed and the willow tree was spared, and so it continued to grow by the stream as it had for so many years before.
One summer’s night the young farmer was sitting underneath the willow, staring dreamily into the water of the stream. Suddenly he saw the reflection of a young woman standing by the side of the tree, with a slender, willowy body and beautiful, moonlit face. He jumped to his feet and stammered a self-conscious greeting. The woman smiled sweetly in reply, before disappearing behind the tree.
Deep rooted love
Night after night, the farmer and the young woman met beneath the willow. The woman’s heart slowly melted as he spoke in eloquent praise of the tree under which they sat. Soon the young lovers were happily married, and the following year they had a baby boy. The new family found a gentle harmony together, and at the centre of their lives was the willow tree – with its deep roots anchored to the earth and its wide branches stretching to the sky.
A few years later, however, messengers once more arrived in the village where the willow tree grew. The king had ordered new ships to expand his navy, and men were sent far and wide in search for timber. This time the young farmer’s pleas and persuasion had no effect – there were no other trees in the vicinity as large and as solid as the willow. In the end, soldiers had to physically restrain the desperate farmer as the woodcutters began to raise their axes. It took them all day to chop through the thick trunk of that great, old tree. Eventually, as day darkened into night, it was ready to fall. With a terrible groan it crashed downwards; its green leaves spilt like tears on the ground.
In the moment that the tree was felled, a piercing pain entered the young farmer’s heart. He broke free from the soldiers and rushed home in fear. The house was in darkness. His son was asleep, safe and sound, but the marital bed was empty. There was still a warm imprint on the bed, a soft sigh in the air and a single, green leaf on the floor – but his willow wife was gone…