Saturday, May 14, 2011

Concerning Trees

From Yggdrasil of Norse mythology to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of Christian tradition to the nemeta of the ancient Druids, both individual trees and groves of trees have held important roles and sacred associations in many of the world’s religions, both past and present. Their longevity and annual cycle of shedding and regrowth of leaves and flowers allows trees to serve as symbols of life, death, rebirth and redemption.

According to the Christian tradition, plants were created before Man. Similarly, in mythology of Tolkien’s legendarium, trees exist at the beginning, for they are created before any of the Free Peoples awoke. Before the Age of Man, Middle-Earth was a great forest in which “a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard” (The Council of Elrond”, Fellowship of the Ring), but now all that remains are mere vestiges of this once great wood, such as Mirkwood, Old Forest and Fangorn Forest.

Accordingly, trees are important because they are artifacts of the past that are naturally, physically located in the present. In our class discussion on March 27th, we decided that history and being are tied to location, and what is rooted to a specific location better than a tree? In our primary reality, archeologists and other scholars use tree rings to date the history of a location or an object. Likewise, Treebeard’s being and history is reflected in his name. Instead of annually growing a new ring like a tree, an Ent’s name becomes longer and longer as the events of his life unfold. Both literally and figuratively, the deep roots of trees illustrate a connection to the past and their ever-growing branches that reach towards the sky suggest hope for a better future.

Thus, Man’s relationship with trees often symbolizes the moral state of his past, present and future. According to Christian mythology, Adam and Eve committed the first sin by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil even though God expressly told them not to. After such, they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden and all of their descendants are born with original sin. As we discussed in class on Wednesday, it is believed that a shoot from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was planted on Adam’s grave and grew into the tree from which Jesus’ cross was crafted. In The Dream of the Rood, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is told from the Cross’ point of view and the two characters are united as one in the phrase “we two together”. The tree that became the rood is an active participant in the passion and death of Christ. Jesus’ crucifixion was a necessary prerequisite for his resurrection and the ultimate triumph over the sin of Man.

In Middle Earth, a parallel (not identical, but similar) story of history and rebirth is seen in the lineage of the White Tree of Gondor. The genealogy of the White Tree is almost as old as history itself. The first two named trees of Arda were Telperion and Laurelin, collectively called the Two Trees of Valinor, which were sung into existence by Yavanna and destroyed by Melkor and Ungoliant. The Elves really liked Telperion, so Yavanna made them another tree that resembled it, naming it Galathilion and placing it in the city of Tirion. One of the seedlings of Galathilion was named Celeborn and planted in Tol Eressëa. One of the seedlings of Celeborn was named Nimloth and was planted in Númenor. Eventually, Sauron convinced the Númenóreans to sacrifice Nimloth to Morgoth, but Isildur took a fruit from the tree and the seedling that grew from it became the first White Tree of Gondor at Minas Ithil. This tree too was eventually destroyed, but not before a seedling was planted at Minas Anor. The Second White Tree of Gondor also died and was replaced by a seedling. The Third White Tree died as well, but was left, withered and dead, in Minas Tirith until Aragorn was crowned king and discovered a young sapling of the White Tree. The Third Tree was removed, buried and replaced by the blossoming Fourth White Tree of Gondor.

The life and death cycle of these individual trees reflects the cycle of sin and redemption of those who interact with them. One of Melkor’s earliest sins was destroying the Two Trees of Valinor and the theft of the three Silmarils, which were filled with the light of Telperion and Laurelin. It was after this act he was given the name Morgoth. Similarly, one of the earliest and greatest sins committed by the Númenóreans was the destruction of Nimloth the Fair in order to worship Morgoth.

With sin comes the possibility for redemption. Before Nimloth was cut down, Isildur essentially steals a fruit from the tree and is severely wounded escaping from the guards of King Ar-Pharazôn. Instead of sailing to invade Valinor and thus breaking the Ban of the Valar (which we have previously decided was the ultimate sin of the Númenóreans for they were directly rebelling against the word of Illuvatar), Isildur sails for Middle Earth and is healed as the seedling from the fruit of Nimloth begins to sprout.

This relationship between the life and death of not only trees, but also nature as a whole reflects general moral principles of individual men and, to an extent, races. The corruption of Saruman is marked by a complete disrespect for the nature of Isengard and his Orcs are known for “felling trees… [that are] just cut down and le[ft] to rot” (“Treebeard”, The Two Towers). Most significantly, the outskirts of Sauron’s stronghold, Mordor, is marked by “a few gnarled and stunted trees [and] old broken stumps” (“The Taming of Sméagol”, The Two Towers) and as Frodo, Sam and Gollum travel closer to Mount Doom “the only green [that can been seen] was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters” (“The Passage of the Marshes”, The Two Towers).

Oppositely, Ents are the beings most connected to trees, for they were created with the sole purpose of protecting them. It was their love of trees and forests that contributed to their estrangement with the Entwives, which will eventually result in the extinction of their race. Elves too have a close connection with nature and trees in particular. It was the ancient Elves who taught the Ents to speak and the majority of the Elves continue to live in forested areas during the time of The Lord of the Rings, most notably Mirkwood and Lothlórien. Hobbits also have a unique relationship with nature. It is true that Hobbits in general are intimidated by the Old Forest, but most Hobbits have a great love of agriculture and tamed wilderness. Under the influence of Saruman, the original Party Tree of the Shire was destroyed by a Hobbit, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, but Sam Gamgee planted a mallorn seed in its place and a new Party Tree, more splendid than the last, grew where the original Party Tree once stood.

For Tolkien, trees were pure and innocent, guilty of nothing more than being “large and alive” (Letter #241). When Frodo’s blindfold is removed after he enters Lothlórien, “he laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as a forester or as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself” (“Lothlórien”, The Fellowship of the Ring). According to Tolkien, the trees in Lothlórien are “beautiful because [they] were loved” and the trees of the “Old Forest were hostile…because of the memory of many injuries” (Letter #339). Sins against trees (and nature as a whole) stems from not recognizing them as alive. In both Tolkien’s legendarium and our primary reality, trees are not merely objects to be used and abused, but living things to be appreciated and loved for their intrinsic beauty as creations.



  1. Excellent interweaving of the themes that we discussed in class with the details of the ways in which trees figure in Tolkien's stories, on all levels! I particularly like the observation about trees' rootedness and history!


  2. I enjoyed your entire post, you do an excellent job of interweaving the different representations of trees, but in particular, I really appreciate your final point: our sins against trees come from us not recognizing them as alive. I think this relates fundamentally to Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation. Man was indeed create in God’s image, and as such exists as a sub-creator. However, I believe we are not always aware of the distinction between creator and sub-creator. An important point Tolkien presents is that trees are also creations. While they are fundamentally distinct from elves and men, the sole children of Iluvatar, they are none-the-less beings brought into existence by something outside the power of man.
    This fact should dictate the way we interact with them. Flieger said that the Ents would face extinction because of man’s desire for order, and I agree. It is our need to exert dominion over God’s other creations that lead to our conflicts with nature. Only when man accepts trees as wild and created beings that are not entirely subject to his control, can humanity and nature truly exist in harmony; at least in the way Tolkien desires it.


  3. You mention the Yggdrasil in the beginning of your argument, but dropped it and I would like to use it to elaborate on a point you made in the next paragraph. You mention that trees are old, older than people, and you talk about how, “the deep roots of trees illustrate a connection to the past and their ever-growing branches that reach towards the sky suggest hope for a better future.” So what does it say that for the Norse the dragon Nidhoggr was gnawing at the roots of the Yggdrasil while an Eagle was gnawing at the branches? The roots of the world tree exist in an interesting place. On the one hand there is certainly the element of wisdom, as the well of Mimir (which grants Odin wisdom) is located at the base of the roots, and one of the roots is in Asgard. On the other hand both Niflheim (the realm which includes Hel) and Jotunheim (the home of the gods enemies, the giants) also have roots growing through them. These three roots support the tree, and thus, the nine worlds. You could look at this and equate the base of the tree with the past, saying that it shows us how the present rests atop the foundation of history, or it could really be a tree. Either way the tree is permanence, it is what upholds all of existence, but its paradoxical. Trees are sturdy and secure, but this security is constantly being attacked. The trees of Lothlorien also share this nature. They are preserved and kept safe by the power of Galadriel and her ring of power, however there is also the ever-looming threat and inevitability of its destruction. Maybe this means that an important part of trees is that they die, that they show us that permanence is an illusion, and that even the sturdiest creations are doomed to fall.

  4. Yes, I think the ecological message is striking, with Saruman and Mordor both associated with the destruction of trees. The ecological message, though, is more directed at a relationship to nature, rather than at simple, responsible preservation. Tolkien illustrates this through myth, and perhaps it is the case that myth can represent this relationship whereas other verbal forms cannot (e.g., scientific data urging ‘responsible preservation’, as I call it above). In one of the versions of Adam’s story, the shoot of the tree is planted in his mouth. If you have time, you might look up the great fifteenth-century fresco cycle by Piero della Francesca, at Arrezzo. Sometimes trees in medieval narratives are upside-down, with the roots at the top, in heaven. This would suggest that heading into the past, to the tree’s roots, is heading back to the source of the original creation, to paradise or to heaven. Tolkien often astonishes me for the breadth of his imagination. One thing in particular is his idea of the cycle of the trees of Valinor, as sources of light and of chronology. Here you highlight the genealogy of trees, which indicates a continuity in historical phases. You also hint at the unity of the tree of the cross and of Christ in the ‘Dream of the Rood.’ Indeed, I wonder if there is any reason (besides theology) not to think of Christ as the self-same tree. After all, he can be a building (a new temple) and a lamb. In Revelation, moreover, the trees take on an everlasting quality; they are in fact without cycle, but in bloom forever to produce medicine for the nations. This is what I imagine is suggested by Tolkien’s ‘delight of the living tree.’

  5. I found the ecological aspect of this post intriguing as well. When Yavanna makes the trees, one of her primary concerns, which is most exemplified when Aule makes the Dwarves, is that Dwarves, and Men as well, will be given dominion over the work of Yavanna. She is afraid that her creations will be destroyed, and this brings her immeasurable sorrow. And as a launching point, I too would like to bring up the widespread destruction of trees committed by Saruman and Sauron. Their acts of violence against trees are very clearly portrayed as morally reprehensible, yet I do not think it is the act of cutting down trees itself, for men also cut down trees to build their civilization. This is a distinction that Aule makes to Yavanna, telling her that it is not a crime in of itself to destroy her creations. Instead, it is dependent on the attitude of the person, or creature, who is cutting down the tree. Creation is meant to be respected and appreciated for its very existence, and so it should be with the trees as well. The crime of Sauron and Saruman is that they cannot appreciate the beauty of the trees that they are destroying and they have no respect for nature.

  6. Sorry, I forgot to put my name on that comment.

    C Carmody

  7. You touched on a lot of aspects of our in-class discussions as well as the reading materials. I particularly appreciate your focus on the genealogy of trees--both in the primary reality in Christian tradition (the wood of Jesus’ cross goes back to the Tree of knowledge) and in Tolkien’s secondary reality (the White Tree of Gondor goes all the way back to Telperion). Although the parallel is found in Christian tradition, one still finds a genealogy of trees unusual. Languages have genealogies and hence we have philology. People have genealogies and therefore we have family trees. Both of these are important vessels of history for Tolkien. While we don’t usually think of trees this way, Tolkien clearly sees them as more than plants. They belong to a group of images that symbolizes “the unearthly” or the “Light”--along with jewels, music and water, except that they are the only ones with life among this category. Therefore they can be loved and cultivated more than inanimate objects, and the misuse or abuse of them become even more abominable than ordinary greed or possessiveness for sub-creations such as jewels.

    I was intrigued by your comment regarding redemption. Are sins and redemption inherent in the trees themselves? I find this to be a bit far-fetched, but then, the White Tree does by itself know when to bloom...

    Sophie Zhuang