Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a short story by Sarah Pinsker which, after appearing in Uncanny Magazine in 2021, went on to win the Nebula and Hugo awards for best short story.
This is a quirky piece, recreating an on-line message board for folk music fans, who are discussing a (fictional) English folk song called Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather. They consider the song in a number of different ways. There’s the categorisation approach, listing the various acts who have recorded the song – a list which delightfully includes Steeleye Span, Dolly Parton and The Grateful Dead – and the different versions each act performed. There’s the field research approach where a young student tries to find the actual village where the song might have been written, teasing out references to local landmarks. And then there’s the analytical approach where contributors consider metaphorical and allegorical angles, and get made fun of by Barrowboy, who keeps marking their posts as ‘a stretch’.
The thing about the song Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, is the way the literal and the metaphorical collide. Hearts of oak is a familiar term, referring to bravery and resolution. But this song presents metaphor as reality. A creepy young woman seems to be ensnaring young men, removing their hearts, which she puts in a hollow oak tree, while placing an acorn in the chest where a heart used to be. So an unfortunate young man has a literal heart of oak. Not surprisingly he doesn’t last long in this state, and completely freaks out the local villagers, who execute the part-man-part-tree, before chopping down every oak they can find.
What, the contributors wonder, is this song all about? Is it about forest management, or the pain of love? However, recall the literalness in the song. The folk fan discussion mentions a professor who visited the village where the song might have been written, before vanishing. The young student contributor who follows in the professor’s footsteps by visiting the village, also seems to disappear. Members of the group comment that their field researcher has stopped posting, and emails to him bounce back. You’re thinking, has the creepy woman really got hold of a student and replaced his heart with an acorn! And then you think, hang on, that’s a stretch. Why did I even consider that?
So, maybe this whole piece is about interpretation. Confined to a folk music message board, it seems a rather niche discussion. But in a wider sense, you could easily suggest that naïve interpretations of old texts have caused real problems. Were some villagers persuaded to do something silly by misinterpreting an old song, just as literal interpretation of religious works, has led people down some highly unfortunate garden paths, where they continue to wander to this day? And yet is cataloguing a few relevant facts the only thing we can ever reasonably do with a text? Obviously there is more to talk about than that. Where does the point come where metaphor meets life in a real way?
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a fascinating, funny, unsettling and oddly moving study of textual interpretation, and how that esoteric activity, seemingly only of interest to a few enthusiasts on a message board, or in a seminar room at a university, is actually relevant outside those places too.