Friday, May 13, 2011

The Fall of The Trees

The Ents, it seems to me, represent the biblical fall, or more precisely, the tragedy of mortality in the Bible. The Ents have a unique relation with death. Elves, we know, are doomed to live, while Men are doomed to die. But Men are doomed to die only as individuals, whereas Ents are doomed to die as a race. The tragedy is especially clear in light of Ents being “the bones of the earth,” as Treebeard says. As earth-creatures, tree-beings, they represent fertility and life. Yet they are divided from the Entwives, and thus, are completely unfertile. Thus the tragedy of the estrangement from the Entwives is the tragedy of mortality itself. Flieger points out that Tolkien seemed to want to connect the word ent with “to be”. He himself, in Letter 241, says Ents represent life. But, when given life, one is condemned with the potentiality of death. This is perhaps why Tolkien is preoccupied with the “destruction, torture, and murder of trees,” (Letter 241). I think this awareness of death is what Treebeard is referring to when he says “there is a black shadow in the deep dales of the forest,” (LOTR, p.1131), a “Great Darkness” which gives trees bad hearts.

Not only does Tolkien say Ents represent life, but literature as well. I think he meant Ents are inherently Biblical. They aren’t an ode to just any work of literature, just any book, but The Book. The most significant biblical parallel I identified was the song Treebeard sings (p. 477). In it, an Ent and Entwife sing to each other alternately, following the course of the seasons, beginning with spring and ending with winter. Here’s part of it:

Ent: When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild-wood stream, and wind is on the brow;
When stride is long and breath is deep, and keen the mountain air,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair!
Entwife: When Spring is come to garth and field, and corn is in the blade;
When blossom like a shining snow is on the orchard laid;
When shower and Sun upon the Earth with fragrance fill the air,
I’ll linger here and will not come, because my land is fair.
Entwife again: When Winter comes, and singing ends; when darkness falls at last;
When broken is the barren bough, and the light and labor past;
I’ll look for thee, and wait for thee, until we meet again:
Together we will take the road beneath the bitter rain!

Now compare this to some excerpts from the nuptial poem in the Song of Songs:

(Groom)As a lily among thorns,
so is my beloved among women.
(Bride)As an apple tree among the trees of the woods,
So is my lover among men.
…Hark! My lover—here he comes
Springing across the mountains,
Leaping across the hills.
…My lover speaks, he says to me:
(Groom)“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!
For see, the winter is past,
The rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth
…Arise my beloved, and come!
…. “O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
In the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
Let me hear your voice
(Bride)…On my bed at night I sought him
Whom my heart loves,
I sought him but did not find him.
I will rise and go about the city;
In the streets and crossing I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.
I sought him but I did not find him.
(Groom)…You are an enclosed garden, my bride,
An enclosed garden, a fountain sealed.
(Bride)…My lover is radiant and ruddy;
He stands out among thousands.
…His stature is like the trees on Lebanon,
Imposing as the cedars.
…For stern as death is love,
Relentless as the nether world is devotion;
Its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
Nor floods sweep it away.
)…O garden-dweller,
My friends are listening for your voice,
Let me hear it!
(Bride)Be swift, my lover,
Like a gazelle or a young stag
On the mountains of spices.

This must have influenced Treebeard’s song. So many things are alike, such as the Bride who is a “garden-dweller” and is associated with flowers, while the groom is associated with mountains, a wandering stag, and a tree. The groom says “the winter is past” so it’s time to be reunited. The bride is hidden away in “the secret recesses of a cliff” and is an “enclosed garden”. Treebeard’s song was obviously meant to be an ode to this magnificent piece of Biblical poetry, inviting the reader to explore the use of Biblical themes in the story of the Ents.

Central to the tragedy of mortality in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Christ, and it is something Tolkien again seems to invite the reader to apply toward the Ents. For instance, I couldn’t help noticing how Treebeard was first introduced, described as a tree with two branches extended outwards like arms. This made me think Tolkien was implying Treebeard looked like a cross, with his two arms forming the horizontal part, and his body the vertical part. I also noticed Tolkien uses the word “crown” a couple times. “The wood stood all round the hill like thick hair that ended sharply in a circle round a shaven crown,” (113). And also, Quickbeam says: “O rowan dead, upon your head, your hair is dry and grey; your crown is spilled, your voice is stilled for ever and a day…” The crown spilled seems to be an allusion to the spilled crown of Chirst, i.e. his death, and his crown of thorns. Consider also the Green Knight’s crown of holly, which also ends up getting spilled. Then of course, the trees are shepherds of trees, as Christ was a shepherd of men.

The Dream of the Rood emphasizes the victorious nature of the cross. But I think it detracts from the tragedy of the cross. Jewels, I think, compromise the integrity and reality of a crucifix. Jesus’s death on the cross was not supposed to be glorious; it is supposed to be violent, humiliating, and gruesome. It is only in light of the resurrection that it is glorious. To stress the victory of the cross detracts from what I think the crucifix really represents: the necessity of suffering in the human life. This necessity is exemplified by the Ents, who are condemned to suffer infertility, estrangement, and the thought that the Entwives were probably massacred by Sauron. It was an ancient belief that to die by hanging, specifically hanging from a tree, was to die a cursed death. Crucifixion was a method of death designed to replicate this, for wood from a tree was used to make the crucifix, and the victim dies by suffocation. Thus Christ died a cursed death. His death, it may be argued, was also a suicide, which is also traditionally a cursed way to die. Consider the death of Judas in Matthew. How does he die? He hangs himself from a tree.

Thus we have gathered these contradictions or paradoxes: the divine suicide, Ents as both fertile and unfertile, the tree as good and cursed, Jesus’ and Judas’ death, the cross as a symbol of victory and defeat, the Ents as wild and cultivated. All these things mesh together in a way that only Tolkien could accomplish. They all emphasize the tragic nature of the Ents, but a tragedy with a glimmer of hope. Theoden asks when learning of Ents: “May it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-Earth.” Perhaps, but the land of Middle-earth is just the tip of an iceberg.

Samuel D.


  1. I think your analysis of the paradoxes inherent in dealing with Ents and the depictions of trees that we studied in class is quite fascinating. I also wonder if the creation of the great Darkness that exists in the center of the forest is part of the nature of duality that we explored in class a few weeks ago and that you explored here in this post. For if we are to believe that nothing can be created singly, that everything must have its opposite counterpart, then inherent in the nature of the trees and the Ents must be the opposite of "to care." For the Ents are the shepherds of the trees, and some of the oldest things on Middle-Earth, and seem to be the first manifestation of someone caring about creation (someone else pointed out the plea of Yavanna in his/her post).

    But the opposite of caring is indifference (at least in my book), so somewhere in the forest, there must be a sense of indifference towards the life of other living things. And caring that is twisted and corrupted and melded with indifference leads to hatred. So I think that some trees and Ents must have been born with a limited perception of care, which resulted in indifference towards other types of beings. And when they were slashed and burned and cut and destroyed, that indifference became hatred. Just my thoughts on where that Darkness may have come from.

    And an interesting duality that I wasn't sure how to bring up in class, but I think I can throw out here: traditionally, Marian apparitions occurred on the fringes of society, where the civilized melded with the wild, a duality that usually became manifest in shepherds. Is it possible that Tolkien, influenced by Catholicism's reference for Mary, was influenced by this fact? I can't think of any specific manifestations of a Mary-like figure in The Lord of the Rings off the top of my head, but this fact has been niggling me. Maybe somebody else can find one/build upon this or maybe I'm just barking up the wrong tree (obligatory bad pun!).

  2. I'm not certain I agree that Treebeard's song is "obviously meant to be an ode" to the Song of (Songs/Solomon/etc.). True, they are each in two voices, those of a pair of lovers. True, they both use terminology relating to nature.

    However, there are not a lot of further similarities. The lovers in Treebeard's song are estranged, and while they wish to reconcile, they are each too stubborn to give in to the other's method of reconciliation. The lovers in the Song, however, are not separated at all. In the first Bride speech, one of the parts you left out says, IIRC, "O daughters of Jerusalem, the king has delighted in me and has brought me into his chamber".

    Also, the nature-related language in Treebeard's song is used as setting, to create imagery around the characters. In the Song, however, it is used directly as metaphor for the characters, except in the short "Arise, my beloved" segment.

    So basically, while it may be an homage, I don't think it's nearly close enough to say that it is for certain. After all, we know how ardently Tolkien avoided putting in anachronistic (e.g. Hebraic) names; it would not surprise me if he were to avoid referencing the Song too closely, as it would definitely also be an anachronism.

    --Luke Bretscher

  3. I disagree: I think that it is exactly right to compare Treebeard's song with the Song of Songs, including the longing for the beloved. A great deal of the Song of Songs deals not only with nature, but also with the separation of the lovers: the bride wanders about the city and does not find her beloved; he knocks at the door, but when she rises to meet him, he is gone. And the Song ends with the bride telling her beloved to flee.

    Likewise, wonderful attention to the details in Treebeard's and Quickbeam's descriptions, particularly the cross-shapes and the crowns. I had never noticed this, but am easily convinced given what I suggested in class about the correspondence in Tolkien's thinking between trees and the Tree (or Rood). And, of course, the shepherd imagery is hard to miss!

    The idea of Christ's death being victorious goes back to antiquity, however: the earliest crucifixes all show Christ alive and victorious on the Cross. It is only from around the late 10th century that Christian artists start to show him as dead. And yet, even in the later Middle Ages, the paradox was still there: God conquered Death by dying an ignominious death on the Cross.


  4. @Jacqueline: There is a very clear reference to the Virgin Mary, if you think about it: Galadriel in the garden of Lothlorien, that land "without stain." She gives Frodo a star, just as Mary is Star of the Sea; she refuses the temptation to exalt herself, but remains humble (albeit not a virgin). There is an excellent essay by Michael Maher, S.J., in Jane Chance's Tolkien the Medievalist (2003), on "Medieval Images of Mary and their use in the characterization of Galadriel," if you're interested.