After mentioning dryad at the end of naiad, I hadn’t really intended to return to it right away, but this evening I saw The Andersen Project, directed by Robert Lepage. (If you don’t know who Robert Lepage is, and you have any taste for live theatre, look for an opportunity to see one of his pieces.) It just happens that it’s about a guy who is hired to write a libretto for an opera production in Paris of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Dryad.”
A dryad is a kind of nymph that lives in, or is associated with, a tree. And by nymph I don’t mean simply a young girl (I was going to name the eponymous lead female in a book by Nabokov, but then I remembered that that name is snagged by spam filters due to its use to signify young girls in prurient contexts). I mean a spirit, a sprite (not a Sprite, even if it’s a Canada dryad, but it may be effervescent – if evanescent), the sort of thing the aid of which you’re enlisting when you knock on a tree after saying something hopeful – and if not on a tree, then on the nearest wooden thing (which, however, seems a bit like expecting a steak to eat grass and say “moo”).
Dryad may or may not seem woody to you. The hint of druid in it may connect you to the forest, but otherwise its connection is pretty much through its sense and its etymology (from Greek δρυς drus “oak”).
But for some reason, to me the word dryad has always had a bit of an erotic tinge. Obviously, nymphs may have one, and dryads do always take the form of beautiful young women, but beyond that, nearly every context in which I can remember encountering the word dryad has had some at least faintly sexual tinge to it. I do wonder whether I don’t also associate dryness with bareness…
But dryads have a well-established place in literature. Andersen’s dryad (who pines to see the city, and then, having done so, dies wishing she had stayed in her tree) is among the less known of the literary dryads. The Victorian ilk, with their barely repressed prurience – that society that produced Lewis Carroll as well as the pre-Raphaelites – certainly had a taste for these little darlings of the woods; in fact, it had arisen even before the Victorian era. Keats, Wordsworth, Wilde, Coleridge, all mentioned them in one place or another (be they startled, leaf-crowned, light-wingèd, what have you); so did Milton, in Paradise Lost.
Not that modern times have no fascination with them, of course; we have not lost our taste for lithe young females, be they ever so sylvan and shy. Simply do a Google image search on dryad and you will see what I mean. Mind you, many of these dryads are not so wispy – they tend to have the buxomness characteristic of fantasy (and gaming) artwork. (Dryads are also characters in World of Warcraft, after all.)
I wonder, too, whether, the shape of the word doesn’t have some influence. Look at it: in the heart is the y, which may seem like two forks of a tree coming together, but may also resemble the meeting point of the legs (y), a shape you will see in many paintings of dryads. And those d and d on the sides – they could be trees, or branches, or blossoms, but they could also be parts of a feminine form. (Perhaps even a double-d feminine form.)
And no doubt other similar words influence. Other words for nymphs, certainly – naiad is notable – but also maenad. Ah, but dryads are at least not associated with Bacchanalian frenzy, however woody they may be.