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.