From 2015 – 2017 I completed my Postgraduate Diploma in Education which included two years of teaching GCSE English. It wasn’t the easiest of two years and I often struggled with the classes I taught. I was certainly no Mr Keating from Dead Poets’ Society. Ironically, I fared better at the assignment work I had to do as part of my course. During the two years trainee teachers were encouraged to reflect on our experiences.
In my second year a reflection on education, coupled with my disillusionment with teaching at that time, led me to write the following fable. It was the first piece of creative writing I had done in more than two years.
In the heart of a vast and distant ocean was a remote island by the name of Ravenwood. Its history stretched back for centuries but you wouldn’t have known it were you to visit today.
Across the island was desolation. An old village lay in ruins on the north side; a once clear lagoon was thick with pollution in the eastern part; to the south the beaches were black, lapping waves caressing the sands with reluctance; and over to the west one could just about trace the remains of a once near endless forest.
The island’s anomaly you would find in the centre. Whichever way you approached, the ground began to rise until you were faced with a steep hill. At the precipice you would find a solitary tree stump, long since felled, its proud history diminished into the ether, a once mighty galleon scuttled and now sunk beneath the unrelenting surface of a stormy ocean.
That is Ravenwood today but it wasn’t always like that.
No one knows for certain when the first people came to Ravenwood but they do know they had a Chief by the name of Aethelstan. He was a good man, a kind man and one that was humble. He listened to the advice of others; he was fair and courteous. He lived only to make the lives of others better.
Whatever tale brought Aethelstan to Ravenwood, he soon built a small settlement in the north overlooking the ocean. Back then the island had a dense forest, a crystal clear lagoon and white beaches. Birds perched in the treetops, animals roamed free across the land. It was akin to paradise, a paradise found, not yet lost, as it would come to be centuries from now.
One day, Aethelstan was wandering the island when he came upon the large hill in the centre of Ravenwood. He became the first man to ascend the slope and upon reaching the peak beheld the giant tree that stood there alone. Dozens of branches projected from its torso, each one covered in lush green leaves. Aethelstan had never encountered a more vibrant tree than this one.
As Aethelstan approached, the tree seemed to move in response to him. The leaves rustled though no breeze was present that day. The branches seemed to groan just above and even the earth surrounding the roots could be heard to shift. One might have assumed the tree was about to defy logic and begin to rise and walk but it remained in steadfast.
An incandescent glow emanated from the trunk. It began as a small orb of light but then expanded outwards in all directions before taking on the shape of a man. When the mould was cast, the light began to fade and in its place appeared the form of an old man. His hair and beard were long and white, he dressed in ancient robes and his eyes seemed to shift between a myriad of colours like sapphire blue and ruby red.
‘Welcome, stranger,’ the old man said.
‘Who are you?” Aethelstan replied. It seemed a reasonable question given the magnitude of the old man’s entrance.
‘My name is William and I am the Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge.’
‘The Tree of Knowledge.’ Aethelstan looked up at the overhanging branches and his eyes widened as they seemed to resonate in response to their name.
‘Yes, this tree houses knowledge of the entire world. It is sacred and only those that are worthy may learn from it.’
‘Then, I beseech you, William, allow me and my people to learn from you and from the tree. We have come to this island as outcasts from another land. I have built a small village to the north but fear for my people. I want to protect them and to help them thrive but I do not know how to do this.’
William scratched his beard before approaching Aethelstan cautiously.
‘I believe I can help you,’ William said, ‘but before I do you must promise me something.’
‘Name your price and I will gladly pay it,’ Aethelstan replied.
‘I will use knowledge from the tree to teach your people but what I give to you must only be used to help others, never to harm or wrong them. Knowledge is a treasure, Aethelstan, it is a great privilege and as the bestower of such knowledge I have a responsibility to ensure it is administered only to the just. Once your people have my knowledge, they must remain here in Ravenwood and share it with others. Do not take this knowledge beyond these shores. The distant lands have their own way of teaching and it is not to the benefit of individuals.’
‘I will accept your terms, but how are you to teach my people?’
‘They must come to me. Send only children in the morning, teenagers in the afternoon and adults in the evening. I will teach you what you need to thrive on this island and of other things such as words, numbers and history. Come to me only in spring, summer and autumn, never in winter for learning comes at a great cost to the teacher. I need the winter to regain my strength and the tree must replenish itself also. When the leaves return to the Tree of Knowledge then you too may return to learn from it.’
‘Thank you, William. Starting tomorrow I will do as you request.’
With that, Aethelstan and William parted ways with a solid handshake, a strong bond established between them. Both men were true to their word.
Aethelstan sent all of his people to the Tree of Knowledge each day and William was there to greet them. He taught them many things and each group sat quietly and listened to his words. They learned how to hunt for animals in the forests but only for what they needed and never to excess. The rocky outcrop, overlooking a small lake, in the northwest of the island became the perfect spot for fishermen, while land around the village in the north became farmland over many years, providing sustenance to the small community. Most of all, William simply taught the people for the joy of learning. Thinking, expressing and understanding became mainstays of each lesson.
The agreement between William and Aethelstan held firm and with it Ravenwood prospered.
When Aethelstan died, his son, Robert, took over as Chief on the island. Robert followed his father closely. He renewed the pact made with William and the islanders continued to enjoy the blessings of the Tree of Knowledge. This status quo remained intact for many centuries. Three seasons the people learned from William but in winter they left him and the Tree of Knowledge alone. No one wandered that part of the island for it was deemed sacrosanct.
It wasn’t until Cornelius became Chief of the island that things began to change for Ravenwood. After renewing the pact with William, Cornelius went to visit with the old man and spoke of the island’s future.
‘I want my people to fish beyond the lake in the northwest,’ Cornelius said. ‘I want you to teach us how to build boats. Our first chief, Aethelstan, is said to have come here in a boat but we don’t know to make them. Could you teach us?’
‘Why must you fish beyond the island’s shores?’ William asked.
‘There are more mouths to feed these days and I know how important it is to you that we don’t take too many fish from the water. If we were to fish in the ocean then we would avoid taking too many fish from our lake.’
‘You are right. There are more of you these days. I will teach you how to build boats but you must only use them for fishing. Do not use them to go to other lands for they are tainted and their knowledge is dangerous to us and to themselves.’
‘I give you my word that we will remain close to the island.’
Cornelius was true to his word. The islanders built just three boats on the north shore and they remained within sight of Ravenwood whenever they fished out in the ocean. No fishermen felt the temptation to go further than permitted, at least for the next few decades.
It was during the time of Chief Timur that word came to Ravenwood of something quite extraordinary. One of the fishing boats had been at sea when they encountered another vessel, manned by people from the distant lands. They were not aggressive, as William had warned, but friendly. They traded with the fishermen, taking some of their fish stock in exchange for a large sack that was very heavy. No one knew what the contents were so Timur took them to William in the hope that the old man would be able to help.
‘My people met strangers on the high seas, William,’ Timur said. ‘They traded our fish for these gifts but we do not know what they are.’
‘I told you not to sail beyond sight of the island, Timur,’ William replied. ‘That was the agreement I made years ago with Cornelius.’
‘The outsiders came to us, not us to them. My people have never sailed beyond the island’s gaze, William.’ Timur shrugged. ‘I do not see the worry, for these strangers were kind to us. They gave us these fine gifts.’
William opened the sack and removed the items one by one. ‘These are not gifts, Timur. You have swords and pickaxes here.’ William reached into the depths of the sack and produced a small bag tied with string. ‘These are coins. The outsiders use them to pay for food, drink, clothes and anything else they need.’
‘They pay for things? Do they not share as we do?’
‘No, for theirs is a world of greed and avarice. It is run by coins like these. They call it money. The most powerful people are not Chiefs, such as you, but whoever has the most money. Do not be fooled by the allure of these coins, do not allow their glitter to tempt you. In time, money corrupts and destroys people.’
‘What of the other items, William?’
‘This is a sword,’ William said, holding it aloft. ‘They are used to harm others. They have no other purpose than to kill or maim. The outsiders use them for war.’
‘Could we use them to hunt?’ Timur replied, fascinated by the sword.
‘They are not humane, Timur. We hunt with our wits and our wits only. Then it is a fair contest between human and animal. Swords take away any advantage an animal has.’
‘What of this?’ Timur raised the pickaxe.
‘That is a pickaxe. The outsiders use it to mine the depths of the earth. They dig down in search of iron, gold and other jewels. Those coins you were given are just one example of what they search for.’
‘Do they mine just for money?’
‘They mine for many minerals. Some are for gold and jewels; others allow them to make weapons to fight with and tools for many purposes. They are sacrilegious to the land and we have no need of them. Bring no more such evil to this island.’
‘I will not, William. I promise you.’
It was the first time a Chieftain in Ravenwood had lied to William.
In the years that followed the people of Ravenwood continued to learn from William. During the winter months when the Keeper was convalescing, the islanders were most active in establishing trade with lands overseas and began to acquire more and more items. The outsiders tried to explain to them how to use these new tools and materials but the islanders simply didn’t understand.
They asked Timur to speak with William and ask him to teach them but he was reluctant. He felt guilty about lying to the Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge and breaking the trust built up by a long line of chiefs before him. The longer he left it, the more frustrated the islanders they became. They wanted to know more than farming, hunting, fishing and learning for learning’s sake. William was there to teach them. What was the harm in knowing more?
One day, an idea came to Timur and he set out with haste to speak with William. As he approached the Tree of Knowledge he forced tears from his eyes and didn’t wipe them away as he closed on the old man.
‘Why Timur, what ails you on this day?’ William asked, putting one hand on the Chief’s shoulder.
‘It’s the outsiders,’ Timur replied. ‘They attacked one of our fishing boats. They killed everyone on board.’
‘This is what I feared from them. They are dangerous, evil and not to be trusted. You have learned a harsh lesson today.’
‘I fear they may now come here, William. I know you wanted us to have nothing to do with swords, pickaxes and money but how are we to defend ourselves without weapons? If they come here and we are unarmed then they will kill us all. They will then come here and destroy you also. I can’t allow that. I must protect you and my people.’
‘Knowledge cannot be destroyed like flesh and bone, Timur. It lives on through those that follow in our footsteps.’ William sighed. ‘I fear you are right, however, you must be able to defend yourselves. I will teach you how to use those tools but only to defend your people and not to harm. Is that understood?’
‘I swear they will be used only for defence.’
William’s teaching became more varied. He taught the islanders how to farm, fish, hunt, mine and fight. He still found time to teach them of writing, numbers, history and the world but not as much as before.
In the years that followed, Ravenwood was awash with activity. Food supplies continued to be healthy but joining then were masses of weapons and gold taken from beneath the earth.
Timur met with William regularly and spoke of daring attacks from the outsiders and how the people of Ravenwood were able to repel each one. Their knowledge of combat was valuable but never did they use it to attack others, only to defend themselves. With Timur’s words, William could rest easy each winter.
By the time of Timur’s death, twelve islanders had been murdered in fights over money.
When Lucretia became the Chief of Ravenwood she was cautious in her rule, maintaining the trust of William. She updated him on the struggle with the outsiders and how the islanders continued to defend themselves well. Truth be told, the only fighting to be found was amongst the people of Ravenwood and the ever-changing gifts from the outsiders only served to exacerbate the problem.
One day, Lucretia found that the islanders had so many gifts it was time to ask William for even more help. She had a selection of gifts taken to the hill in a small crate that was deliberately soaked in water and damaged with rocks and strikes from axes and swords. The reason for this she had yet to reveal.
‘What is this, Lucretia?’ William asked.
‘This was washed ashore after we sank one of the outsiders’ ships,’ Lucretia replied. ‘I told the others to stay away from it until I had spoken with you. Is there anything here that may be of use to us?’
William inspected the crate and found the contents were of a mild nature. There was a book of poetry, a couple of paintings and bottles of wine and beer.
‘Poetry is a form of writing,’ William said, ‘perhaps the most beautiful form there is for it requires the fewest words. It is mostly harmless unless used in slander. These are paintings, a form of art in which one captures their vision of the world. It is a challenging profession but a noble one. These bottles are wine and beer; one is made from grapes and the other from crops such as wheat and barley. They are an alternative drink to water, not essential for survival, but harmless enough in moderation.’
Lucretia looked down at the ground almost as if she were a small child awaiting her parents’ condemnation.
‘You wish to learn how to make these?’ William asked, holding aloft the book of poetry and bottle of wine.
‘Only if you as the Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge see no harm in it,’ Lucretia replied.
‘So long as you agree to read your poetry to me and to drink wine and beer sparingly then I am happy to teach your people of these items.’
‘I promise you will hear all the poetry you wish. As for beer and wine, well, my people are only curious. I’ve no doubt we’ll prefer water.’
William’s teaching embraced even further lessons and variety but he never wavered in his commitment. His lessons on writing, numeracy and history became less and less but the people were happy and that meant the old man was too.
The islanders began to thrive in different professions and, away from William’s wise gaze, Ravenwood prospered with trade and became feared for the might of its people when bearing arms. The Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge was oblivious to the deception for no man, woman or child ever breathed word of their lies to him and come winter, he and the Tree of Knowledge were left undisturbed while the islanders kept the cold nights at bay with heavy drinking, gambling, fighting and debauchery.
By the time Lucretia died, she and her immediate ancestors had set in motion the decline and fall of Ravenwood.
It was many decades later when William met with Chief Matthew one day in summer. The old man was full of anger.
‘Your people are becoming worse, Matthew,’ William said. ‘Some of them showed up to the class yesterday evening drunk. I have had others swearing and the children are becoming more difficult with each passing year. They refuse to learn, talk over me and bully one another incessantly. It’s disgraceful. Your ancestors and I built up trust. Chief Aethelstan vowed that his people would come here for knowledge and that they would listen and not be disrespectful. What has happened?’
‘Forgive me, William,’ Matthew replied. ‘My people are very busy these days. There is a lot of work to be done on the island. We do value your knowledge and lessons, we really do, but they’re not as important as they used to be.’
‘Not important! How dare you speak this way? Education is paramount to our lives, Matthew. It is what shapes people as individuals. Without it they are nothing but empty vessels, incomplete and with little purpose.’
‘Things have changed since the great chief, Annabelle, won the war with the outsiders.’
It was true. Chief Annabelle had returned at the head of a small fleet and promised William that the war with the outsiders was over. They would still need to learn how to fight, just in case, but things would be different from now on. That was what she had promised.
‘I am aware of the changes Annabelle made,’ William said. ‘I almost wish the war was still being fought. No outsiders came to this island when you were fighting them. I know they come here now and that some live here as well. They have married here and borne children. I tolerated all of this in the hope that their savage disregard for pure knowledge would not taint our island but I now fear it has.’
‘You worry too much, William,’ Matthew replied. ‘The outsiders that came and settled here are islanders now. They have no loyalty to their former lives or to their ancestors. They embrace our ways and are respectful of you and of the Tree of Knowledge.’
‘When did you last look upon the tree?’
‘What do you mean?’
William nodded to the Tree of Knowledge and Matthew noticed the image of a face painted on its trunk. He coughed back a laugh, which he feared William still caught sight of momentarily. The old man was definitely not amused by this desecration.
‘Kids today, eh?’ Matthew said. ‘Their passion for your art lessons is uncontainable, it seems. I will have a word with them about this. It is very disrespectful.’
‘It is, Matthew,’ William replied. ‘Do not tarnish this island any further than you and your people have. I can withdraw my agreement with your ancestors. The Tree of Knowledge can be closed to you all.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘No, it is a promise.’
‘A promise?’ Matthew forced some phlegm from the back of his throat and spat it on the ground in front of William’s feet. ‘I’ll make you a promise too. I’m not sure we need you any longer, William. We seem to be managing perfectly fine without you these days.’
‘Then go, Matthew. Return to your town and do not come here again.’
Matthew spoke no further words. He turned his back on William and the Tree of Knowledge and returned to the town in the north. The stand off between Chief and Keeper endured for 50 years.
In the five decades that followed, the people of Ravenwood took on the mantle of teaching their own children and themselves. They had relied on William for so long that this proved a difficult adjustment in the interim. Some even beseeched Matthew to apologise to the Keeper but he refused, determined to prove William wrong.
The islanders continued to work the land, fish the seas, brew their wine and beer, make weapons and tools, while artistic pursuits such as writing and painting continued on the periphery of society. There was no time for history but writing and numbers were retained. It wasn’t easy but Ravenwood soldiered on without their ancient teacher.
Was Ravenwood a better island without William? Far from it, but it wasn’t a society that collapsed into the dust either and for Matthew that was his justification and victory.
Two more chiefs followed Matthew before Julius took charge of Ravenwood. By this point the ties between Ravenwood and the rest of the world were strong. Many people had left the island to live in the wider world while outsiders had settled in their droves on the island. The distance remained between the islanders and the Tree of Knowledge but with the rise of Julius, the death knell of Ravenwood was starting to toil in the distance.
Julius made his way to the Tree of Knowledge on the first day of spring and found William there, freshly arisen from his winter rest.
‘Greetings, old man,’ Julius said. ‘Do I have the pleasure of addressing the wise teacher and master, William?’
‘You do,’ William replied. ‘To whom am I speaking that has broken the silence Matthew laid down between us more than five decades before?’
‘I am Julius and I am the new Chief of Ravenwood. I come here in peace and with the desire to rebuild our friendship.’
‘The islanders have seen no need of me for more than half a century. Why come to me now?’
‘Matthew was a stubborn man. He was wrong to speak to you as he did. The people of Ravenwood have tried to manage without you but have failed in their attempts. They have lost all vestige of knowledge and compassion. They work and function on this island but not as greatly as their ancestors that learned from you. I wish for this land to thrive again and only under your tutelage will that happen.’
‘Fine words, Julius. I am a reasonable and fair man. Tell me, what lessons do you wish for me to bestow upon your people? Am I to teach them of their professions and of knowledge as a whole? That is what your ancestors thrived best with. Learning is about more than just work, it is a gift and an honour to know of every facet of our world.’
‘I agree, William, but the people are very busy. If you could just teach them the essential stuff like farming, mining, fishing, that sort of thing then that would be wonderful. All that thinking, reading and writing, history and discussion isn’t really essential.’
‘Learning is a vast landscape, Julius,’ William said. ‘It is not a small island of essential knowledge. Do you wish for Ravenwood to be so restricted?’
‘Like I said, just teach us the necessary stuff,’ Julius replied. ‘Anything that doesn’t teach them how to make a decent beer or a seaworthy vessel, ignore it. Just the important stuff.’
‘What of poetry and music? Are they still part of the island’s future?’
‘We have plenty of poetry books and enough music has been composed. Who needs more of that nonsense? You need luck to make money from that. Let’s stick with the other lessons, the ones that lead to a nice fat profit, eh? Thanks to Matthew we’ve become riddled with bad habits and the quality of our work is poor. That’s where you come in.’
‘And were I to do this, what of the people that come here to learn? Will they show me more respect than Matthew’s people did or that you have?’
‘Is this about bad behaviour?’ Julius chuckled. ‘Just teach them what they need to know. If they swear or mess about, so what? What harms does it do?’
‘Learning is best conducted in a calm environment. Your people’s bad behaviour just hinders learning; it makes a mockery of the process. What great feats of knowledge were accomplished amidst pandemonium and chaos?’
‘Kids are kids and adults are adults. They’re not babies. Just deal with them, Keeper. Forget about this learning process malarkey and just get the results, teach them what they need to and be done with it. That’s what a good teacher does and what you should do too. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want to distance you from us for another fifty years.’ Julius looked up and down at William in his ancient robes and grimaced. ‘Might be time for some new get up, old man. The wise old man thing is out of date now. Why not come into the town sometime, live a little. You’ll sleep better.’
‘I want you to leave now,’ William said, turning towards the Tree of Knowledge.
‘You haven’t agreed to my proposal yet,’ Julius replied. ‘We renew the old agreement. You teach us our trades and nothing more. The rest is just wasted time and wasted money.’
‘What you are proposing is emaciated education, learning carved down to the bone. Almost all of the substance has gone. That is a tragedy. I will have no part of it. Be gone.’
‘You will regret this, old man. I promise you that much. You will regret it.’
William watched Julius walk away and make his way back to Ravenwood. He thought of the Chief’s offer to resume his role teaching the islanders and felt no regret over his rebuttal. So much had changed over the centuries. The islanders had not heeded his warning about the outsiders; they had lied to him over and over and now it was they and not him that would pay the price. The agreement William and Aethelstan had made at the beginning was over. It was history now.
William approached the Tree of Knowledge and placed one hand on its trunk. His palm first rested against the bark and then disappeared within the timber. The rest of William followed, slowly being absorbed by the great tree until all that remained of him was the last of the grass that had been disturbed beneath his feet.
The next day Julius returned to the large hill in the centre of the island. He didn’t come alone this time. A large group of islanders were in tow and with them they brought a myriad of tools and fire. When they reached the peak of the hill they found the Tree of Knowledge emitting a lustrous golden glow but William was nowhere to be seen.
‘Keeper?’ Julius called aloud. ‘Where are you, old man?’
William made no response. He lay dormant within the Tree of Knowledge and no shout or threat would entice him out now.
‘Time to accept my terms, old man,’ Julius said. ‘Teach us what we need or we’ll teach ourselves?’
‘How will we teach ourselves, Chief?’ one of the islanders asked. ‘Are we not here because we need the Keeper?’
Julius looked at the Tree of Knowledge and smirked. ‘The old man’s knowledge came from the tree. It was never him we needed. We just need the tree. Save the fire, pass me the bag?’
One of the islanders handed over a large bag to Julius and the Chief produced from within a red chainsaw. Without a word or hesitation he activated the saw and took it to the Tree of Knowledge. The islanders backed away as Julius performed the final severance of the bond between his people and William.
The slaying of the Tree of Knowledge took less than ten minutes. The tree fell hard against the top of the hills, branches snapped asunder and leaves were kicked into the air, each one emitting a sprinkle of golden dust before that celestial glow dimmed and faded forever from the entire tree.
The islanders carried the lifeless tree back to Ravenwood where it was cut into pieces in the hope of luring its secrets to the surface. By the time the work was done nothing remained but a pile of timber indistinguishable from any other. The knowledge died with the tree and Julius and the islanders faced an uncertain future alone without the teacher who had enriched thousands of lives for centuries.
Few mourned the passing of William though. The challenge of surviving without him was embraced by every one of the islanders.
In less than a century it was over. No islander, animal or mineral remained. All that was left was the stump on the precipice of the central hill, the final testament to what had once been possible but had now been consigned to history.