(urth) Short Story 72: War Beneath the Tree

Marc Aramini marcaramini at gmail.com
Mon Jul 28 23:10:02 PDT 2014

“War Beneath the Tree” first appeared in *Omni* in 1979.


Robin’s toys, the spaceman, bear, dancing doll, and guardsmen, provide him
with more company and guidance than his mother, who wonders what he will do
when he doesn’t have robotic sycophants to spoil him.  Her robot maid
readily agrees with everything she says.    The maid tells the toys to
straighten up.  Bear and Robin hold a conversation about squiggling and
problems sleeping, and Robin says that he will get something for Bear on
his birthday tomorrow.  Bear sings a Christmas Carol and thinks of the
problems with the other toys and of the toys from the previous year.  Bear
goes out to plan strategies with the other toys for the coming battle.  Robin
dreams of ice skating and hitting his head, but awakens in bed. He creeps
out to see his mother, Mrs. Jackson, described as fat as Santa, and all the
new toys under the tree.

Robin watches all the new toys move and get out of their boxes: a clown, a
raggedy girl, and a climbing monkey, along with cowboys, Indians, and a
knight with a dragon. The fierce battle begins and the old toys are burnt
and defeated one by one.  Bear considers running and hiding in a box in the
basement but fights on.

In the morning Robin is playing with his toys, and says one of the Native
Americans doesn’t work, damaged in the previous night.  The maid asks where
the new toys are, and Robin’s mother says, “They’re programmed to
self-destruct, I understand … But Robin, you know how the new toys all
came, the Knight and Dragon and all your Cowboys, almost by magic?  Well,
the same thing can happen with people.”   Robin looks frightened as she
finishes, “The same wonderful thing is going to happen here, in our home. “


A fairly straightforward satire of poor parenting and the isolation of
childhood, it also provides an interesting metaphor  for an interesting
part of growing up – the putting aside of childish things in favor of
almost equally but perhaps slightly more age appropriate new, shiny things,
that soon die and lose their luster in turn.  The lonely children in
Wolfe’s fiction occupy a pretty important part of his writing, and here,
despite the fact that there is very little more than the surface metaphor
of objects that mean the world when they are new and are then are almost
easily replaced with fickle novelty, we can see that fantastic escapism at
work.  There is a slightly more critical tone to the treatment of the
mother, Mrs. Jackson, who is completely out of touch with her child’s
feelings and perspective.

The toys do the parenting, with the Spaceman saying it is time for bed and
the mother echoing it, and with a doll programmed to begin the boy’s sex
education, and the mother remains blind to her own pampered surroundings by
“transistorized sycophants.”  Her smoking while pregnant is another example
of her rather poor parenting (this was, after all, written in the late 70s).
Finally, Wolfe shows us what an only child would feel at the prospect of a
new baby: fear of being replaced, destroyed inside and out and meaning
nothing to a parent.  To a young child, it might very well be like being
thrown into the fire emotionally.  Her lack of empathy for the son’s
potential horrified response (albeit influenced by the absurdity of the
literal situation he witnessed) is captured quite nicely.

I feel there is an indictment of the consumerism inherent in Christmas and
birthdays here, where Robin considers buying his toy a present, but this is
more innocent and sweet than the impression we are left of the mother, and
a father who is completely absent as he travels in Brazil over Christmas.

What makes the story effective is the emotional truth of the tale: how does
it feel to be forgotten and cast aside?  The early everyday horrors of
childhood that stem from unfamiliarity with the world are nicely captured

One other detail is that besides the Christmas Carol the Bear sings, there
is little mention of what Christmas is actually supposed to connote –
salvation and the birth of Christ, instead merely being a time of new toys
replacing old ones.

Wolfe commented “This is simple truth: Tonight you and I, with billions of
others, are sitting around the fire we call ‘the sun’, telling stories; and
from time to time it has been my turn to entertain. I have occasionally
remembered that though you are not a child, there is a child alive in you
still, for those in whom the child is dead will not hear stories. Thus I
wrote ‘War Beneath the Tree’, and certain others.”


This has a dark parallel with the much later “And When They Appear”, but
Wolfe’s treatment of isolated and lonely children found their best
expression in “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” and “The Death
of Doctor Island.”
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