“The Shivering Tree” – A Journey into True Insight

(An essay reflecting on John McLeods’ short story of “The shivering tree” (from the Anthology of Canadian Native literature in English pages 291- 298)


The story “The Shivering Tree” offers a number of underlying moral messages, presented in a cautionary tale style. In such a tale, the author draws our attention to dangerous personal qualities that may harm us and offers a lesson to be learned. In “The Shivering Tree” tale, it is our protagonist, Nanabush, who faces the consequences of his arrogant attitude and learns the benefits of adopting a humble spirit. Nanabush learns from his humbling experiences in a number of ways.  In the beginning of the tale, Nanabush is presented as a sort of a cheeky narcissist who is so absorbed with himself to the point of ridiculousness: “He was just so proud of himself for what he’d just said just before telling himself how bright he was” (291).

Nanabush learns his main lesson of humility and true wisdom by facing a conflict with our antagonist character- the conjuring juggler. When Nanabush first meets The Juggler he is still wrapped-up in his egotistic mindset when conversing with him: “It’s a fortunate thing for you that I’m such a clever fellow…” (292) The Juggler uses Nanabush’s over-confidence against him and lures him into a trick which allows The Juggler to steal Nanabush’s eyes. The clever sorcerer catches Nanabush off-guard who in a matter of seconds loses his physical strength and falls down into the river. This leads Nanabush to experience his first lesson: “He stood still, turned his fear into caution. [‘I’ve been a fool, a vain, yes…even a blind fool. With both my eyes in my head, I was blind’ (294)]. By losing his eyesight Nanabush is forced to slow down and rely on his other senses, to carefully listen to every sound as he feels his way with his carefully carved staff.

Now that Nanabush is aware of his blindness he also starts to become aware of his physical vulnerability in the wild and dangerous forest. He runs into an old enemy, the owl, who teaches him an additional lesson about trust and friendship. The owl offers Nanabush his help by suggesting that he donate his pair of daylight eyes. Nanabush is reluctant to receive such help since he realizes that this will increase his debt to his old enemy. The owl teaches Nanabush the importance of justice and compassion, and offers him a chance to put aside their old animosity and create friendship for the sake of peace in future generations. Faced with this generous offer, Nanabush learns about empathy and collective responsibility saying: “But owl, my friend, that will leave you with no eyes. [You will be as blind as I now am...” (295)] After the owl ensures him that he will remain safe, Nanabush learns the value of receiving help and accepts this offer from his new friend. In his grateful state Nanabush is committing to the owl a strong friendship and protection, ensuring he will not be harmed. Nanabush’s appreciation leads him to give the owl honour and respect by making him the ruling bird of the night.

By gaining his eyesight back, Nanabush gains a renewed appreciation for the beauty of his surrounding nature: “Good thing that I have my eyes to see it all” (296). With his regained eyesight though, returns his need for revenge of The Juggler. This obsessive anger takes over him and ruins his day. With an open ear to his worried friends, Nanabush learns to listen to his grandmother’s advice, which is to put his revengeful feelings aside, and to focus on his true purpose - to teach and help all living things. He learns that letting the pains of his past consume him will only ruin his own life and how important it is to accept and let things take their own course. Once Nanabush takes Grandmother’s advice to heart and continues with his life, the chance to reclaim justice appears in front of him. Nanabush is finally faced with an opportunity to get his stolen eyes back from The Juggler.


This time, however, Nanabush is less boastful and more clever. He learns that some conflicts are better won by wisdom and care, and not by might: “I must think this out…who is to tell how much damage he has done to others beside me?...” (297). Taking the role of a trickster, Nanabush chooses a humble disguise and turns himself into an old man. This action shows that Nanabush is willing to appear weak and weary for the sake of regaining a noble cause. Instead of fighting for his eyes back, Nanabush appeals to The Juggler’s pride and tricks him into giving his powers away without a violent fight. By doing so, Nanabush is able to transcend his egotistic desire for revenge and gains the ability to let things go, to walk away with dignity. He decides to trick The Juggler to seal his eyes shut, hence disabling him from his destructive powers and taking away his ability to cause any more harm to others.

In the end, Nanabush does not earn his eyes back, but he does earn very valuable lessons along the way - friendship, empathy, gratefulness, collaboration, patience, and wisdom. He is able to fulfill his original purpose, which is to make the world what it is meant to be. This story offers a valuable lesson for all of us readers to be open to life’s lessons, whether it is when we suffer physical turmoil or emotional distress. McLeod helps us to see in a humorous and wonderful way the opportunities in our catastrophes, the potential of friendship, and the wisdom of acceptance.