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THE FIR TREE

A modern retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story by Joe Dunthorne. Listen to the full story read by Richard Ayoade…

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The Fir Tree

By Joe Dunthorne

1/5

When I was a seedling I dreamed of being other things. I longed to be a landmark tree, one that sways and rustles, with leaves the colour of gold. Instead I was just this little nut, this little nothing, lying in the dirt. I remember when a young man picked me up and said how delicious I would be, toasted, and sprinkled on a salad. And I said, "not so fast, friend, I’ll soon grow so big and impressive you’ll be having your fancy picnics in my shade." The man laughed – patronisingly – then tossed me into a hedgerow. I wriggled down into the earth and told myself: grow.

As I settled in, the earthworms said, "such tasty dirt, is it not? So earthy and mineral – notes of acorn, wild truffle – wouldn’t you say so, pretty little seed?" and I said, "oh please, it’s nothing compared to the chilled fresh air I’ll be sipping when I rise high above the canopy." Then, the grasses I passed on the way up said, "hello, slender little sapling, so innocent and green" and I said, "don’t call me green, I’ll soon be wide as an oak and wise as an owl." Though, in truth, the only owl I’d ever met told me that the whole wise-owl thing was a bit of a cliché, and she knew many foolish owls. I didn’t let that put me off. With my eyes on the sky, I watched the tips of the big trees ripple, and I told them, "I’m coming for you." They said nothing in reply, probably because they were too busy enjoying their enormousness.

Then, when I was as tall as a small house, with inch-thick skin, two loved-up blackbirds built a nest in one of my many armpits. "You are the best and biggest tree in the whole forest," one said. The other said, "you are! We will love you forever!" And I said, "yeah, well, no offence, but your judgement is clouded by emotion. Even from here I can see at least three other bigger trees with better, more luxurious armpits than mine." And they said, "ha ha ha, you’re funny; you’re the funniest tree in this forest," which I definitely wasn’t, and the fact that they thought I was pretty much proved my point.

The Fir Tree

By Joe Dunthorne

2/5

So off I went – up, up, up – skywards, outwards, thickening, toughening, wisening, until at last I pulled up alongside the three biggest trees, my shoulders squeezed between them. I had done it. I was here. I breathed the chilled fresh air, which was delicious but actually almost too cold, and it burned my throat a little. Nevertheless, I stretched my arms to the sun in victory. I felt suddenly that I understood the world, since I could see the horizon, the snow on distant mountains. "Those poor fools down below will never know true happiness," I said, but the other trees weren’t listening. They’d noticed something on the forest floor.

"Oh, look!" the big oak said, soppily, "a little sapling tickling the belly of a baby deer!" And all three huge trees went: "awww, cute." And, now I looked at it myself, it was cute, the pretty little sapling, the playful fawn, the innocence of youth, and it struck me with the force of lightning that I could never be young again. Oh, to be green and flexible with a good sense of humour! To tickle fluffy animals! To bask in the calmly shifting shadows of giant trees who admire my smallness! And with those thoughts, droplets of sap did weep from my chest. The very next day, the biggest tree in the forest – the massive oak – was chopped down and taken away. I was excited to find out where the tree was going. Probably somewhere brilliant, I thought, so I told the loved-up blackbirds: "follow the truck that took the tree and tell me what you see."

They came back six months later. "It was amazing," one said. "The men laid the tree down in this enormous metal house." "Yes!" the other said. "There was this big shiny wheel with hundreds of pretty teeth and it span so fast it squealed with joy!" "And when the tree kissed the spinning wheel, sparks flew – which means it was true love!" "And so the big tree became two trees, and then the two trees became four, then four became eight! A family of trees!"

The Fir Tree

By Joe Dunthorne

3/5

And the two loved-up blackbirds went on to describe how the men took the family of flat trees, piled them up, and drove them to the next place, where a man massaged them and painted them a different colour. Then another man turned them into a very grand dining table. Then ten waiters and waitresses laid the table with gleaming cutlery. Then a hundred and fifty guests came and unwrapped presents and ate soup and then a small pasta course and then some little fiddly amuse-bouche and then some kind of gratin and then six suckling pigs and then a hefty fruit pudding which they poured brandy onto and set aflame and all the while they drank and cheered and hugged each other. "It was so magical!" the blackbirds said, and I decided to believe them.

From that moment forward I vowed that I, too, would become a magnificent piece of furniture. That all the finest people in the land would sit around me and make speeches and thwack their flagons on my flanks, saying: "bloody good idea!" and "I absolutely agree!" and "isn’t today great?" And then I would finally be the thing I was meant to be.

A week later, the lumberjacks came. I rattled my empty branches appealingly. "How about this big old fir tree, here?" one said. "Looks decent." And I assured them I was decent. As they revved the chainsaw, it made a mmm-hmm noise, like someone enjoying a meal. They cut my arms off, strapped me to an eighteen-wheeler truck, and drove me to the metal warehouse where they fed me through a circular saw. Sparks skipped from the blade like the little crickets that jumped through the forest of my youth and I told myself this was my destiny.

The Fir Tree

By Joe Dunthorne

4/5

After that, I lay neatly stacked in perfect rectangles in a lightless hangar. I was all alone but for the bats in the eaves who appeared at midnight and spent hours whooping and twittering about how pleasingly their squeaks bounced back off the bare, featureless walls. I tried to agree that it was indeed acoustically wonderful but, after a few nights, I started to wish I could go home to the forest. I was finally taken away to the studio of a young carpenter who planed me, stained me and turned me into a table and chair set for her family. She left some of my wrinkly bark on because she said she didn’t want to forget my origins. She even drove all the way back to the forest where I had been cut down and picked up some fir cones to use as decorations. "We must always remember this table was once a beautiful tree living in a pretty forest to the north," she told her children. "It once swayed in the wind, probably with birds nesting in it!"

Then came the day of the celebrations. They covered me with lavish, colourful salads and cakes and a barrel of home-brewed beer. The children painted the fir cones silver and hung them from the ceiling. The grandparents lit candles and set them at intervals all down my middle. The loved-up blackbirds waved from the windowsill. It was a happy day. I felt like myself.

When the party was over, a shabby little mouse climbed on top of me to eat the leftovers. It skittered as it ate, its paws smeared with stilton. While the jolly mouse feasted, I gazed up at the painted cones hanging above me. Only then did I recognise that one of them was mine; the room had been adorned with my own seedlings! I looked from the dangling fir cone to the mouse – who was very good at climbing – and I had a fantastic idea.

The Fir Tree

By Joe Dunthorne

5/5

Once he’d finished eating, the mouse ran along a ceiling beam then lowered himself down the shimmering ribbon to the fir cone. With some effort, he plucked out a tiny brown seed. He leapt to the floor and took it outside through a hole in the skirting board. Following my instructions exactly, he found the dankest, gloomiest spot in the woods and buried me as deep as he could. It was wonderful down there, warm and dark, like the inside of a pocket. Some local beetles warned me the soil was an acquired taste – gritty and mulchy – but, instantly, I loved it.

"Oh my, this dirt is exquisite, is it not, dear earthworms?" I said. "Are we not lucky to be smothered in it?" I was so happy to be what I was: a nut, yes, but not nothing. And from that day on, I was comfortable in my own shell. And every morning I said, "lovely morning, isn’t it?" To which the earthworms always replied, "another beautiful morning in paradise." And, of course, in the darkness, none of us knew whether it was morning, or noon, or night. And neither did we care.

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