Friday, May 13, 2011

Baby, It's a Cold Hard World Out There (For A Tree)

In Wednesday’s class, we discussed the roles that trees have played in both the cosmology and worship of various religions, including various pagan traditions and Christianity. Yet as the worship of trees has fallen out of fashion, likewise has fallen a respect for the power of nature – the latter problem which Tolkien analyzes through his depiction of forests and Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Upon revisiting the readings in order to write this post, I noticed a recurring connection between faith and reward in respect to nature: characters whom believe in the power of the forest and respect it thus find aid within, while those who neglect (or worse, try to dominate) nature find themselves hindered. Despite this, the alien nature of the forest – made more foreign by the march of civilization – prevents most from understanding why such respect is important.

Throughout the readings, trees and other nature spirits can exercise formidable power in their domains. Though sometimes they exercise this power to help travelers, such as in the case of Merry, Pippin, and the denizens of Fangorn, more often the trees seems to desire to impede those who traverse the forest. While occasionally trees take overt action, most often the primary weapon of the forest is its air of being Other. Incidents such as Merry’s run-in with Old Man Willow leave a strong impression upon the memory, but when all is said and done are relatively few. More common is “an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity,” (LOTR, Book 1, p. 109) and when not that, a sleepy, dream-like quality that catches travelers off guard. Yet this enmity is not without any rhyme or reason – the trees seem to react to the slights they perceive against their dominion. Within the Old Forest, one gets the sense that our band of heroes have tougher going in the forest after Frodo sings songs about how “all woods must fail.” (LOTR, Book 1, p.110) Even the heroic Ents seem to aid in the fight against Isengard not out of purely altruistic impulse, but out of a desire to take revenge upon “the treachery of a neighbor.” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 474)

The idea of nature spirits using their force to test the virtue of men predates Tolkien by many ages, and can be seen in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Yet while the Green Knight comes to the reader swathed in nature symbolism, his tests regarding the Christian values of chastity and penitence do not seem to tie in with the representation of trees we see in the legendarium. As one looks through the nature spirits from the human-like Green Knight to the Ents and sentient trees of Tolkien, one finds that the more tree-like trees (for lack of a better term) resemble more closely capricious pagan nature spirits than any sort of human mind. Because of this, while the trees of Tolkien are very much living, thinking, and feeling entities, their minds are totally foreign to the vast majority of the humanoid characters. Of these, Tom Bombadil alone displays the power to make himself understood to the sentient, non-Ent trees, and the exact nature of Tom Bomdadil’s being is in itself a matter of debate. Even Gandalf, supernatural angelic figure that he is, claims that the control of trees is “a thing beyond the counsel of the wise.” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 530)

Although Gandalf may not fully understand the minds of trees, he understands enough to respect their power. For other characters, this is not so. Their attitudes towards the wildernesses of the Old Forest and Fangorn follow an interesting trend – the characters who live the closest to untamed nature tend to feel the most at ease, and the characters from more cultivated and industrialized climes feel the most dread. Apart from Gandalf, Legolas seems the most at ease in Fangorn out of the Fellowship. He even desires to “walk among [the trees],” and recognizes that “they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 533) This makes sense – Legolas hails from Mirkwood, itself a fairly untamed forest, and the Elves originally taught speech to the Ents. Of the Hobbits, Merry, growing up in Buckland on the edge of the Old Forest, seems the most at ease in the woods – he suggests the flight from the Uruk-hai into Fangorn, and understands that Old Man Willow wants Frodo to put out his torch. Yet moving on to the race of Men, comprehension of forests generally decreases. While Aragorn, raised by Elves, understands the dangers incurred by offending the trees, Théoden states that his people have “cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 537) and that his people view the Ents as legends, the songs about them “careless customs.” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 537) Gimli, whom as a Dwarf hails from caverns and specializes in craftsmanship, outright expresses dislike of the Forest. Seeing this progression, one almost feels sorry for the Orcs and Uruk-hai – whether they hail from Isengard or Mordor, they have never really had a chance to grow to appreciate nature.

Yet generally, Tolkien feels the most sorry for the trees. Though the armies of Isengard and Mordor fall in defeat, so too do those inclined to befriend the trees fade from Middle-Earth. The Elves diminish and depart for Valinor, the Hobbits “now avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.” (LOTR, Book 1, p. 1) Théoden’s lamentation that “much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-Earth” (LOTR, Book 3, p. 537) suggests that Men, the only race that does not diminish after the end of the Third Age, will likely not suddenly befriend the Ents. Most telling of all, Treebeard himself seems resigned to a melancholy fate, as he hopes that should the Ents meet their end at Isengard it will “at least be worth a song.” (LOTR, Book 3, p.475) In the end, the progress of civilization prevents mankind from understanding, and thus loving, that which is wild – a loss that Tolkien finds as upsetting as inevitable. “Every tree has an enemy, few have an advocate. (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed [. . .])” (Letters, p. 321)



  1. Does Tolkien feel sorry for the fate trees, or rather for the fate of the Ents? There are two signs at the end of the book that seem to point away from the former.
    Aragorn and Gandalf find a sapling to replace the White Tree of Gondor, and the old one is returned to the Earth with utmost reverence. In addition, when the hobbits return to the Shire, one of the most noticeable signs of destruction is the missing trees. Even their beloved Party Tree is missing. Sam replaces it and others throughout the Shire with seeds given to him by Galadriel. The seeds grow quickly and the trees that appear are wonderful.
    The care given by these characters to replace damaged trees, and the love they have for trees in general seems to point to a bright future for trees in Middle-Earth. While the Ents may waste away, I don't think there's too much reason to believe that trees won't have their advocates in Middle-Earth.


  2. Excellent attention to the distinctions between the way the various characters and peoples interact with the trees; likewise, to the melancholy of the fate of the trees. I do wonder whether the distinction between "wilderness" and "cultivation" is quite where you put it, however. Surely part of the point is perspective (oddly, for Tolkien, since he is typically so clear about right and wrong). With the trees, it is very much a problem of others' not understanding them and their "tree culture" than that they have no orderliness about their lives at all. "Wilderness" in this sense may truly be relative!

  3. I tend to agree with MA’s point, especially given the two clear examples of tree-care at the end of the books. Though Tolkien discusses the “enemies” of trees, I wonder if “enemy” is necessarily the right term. It seems more likely, even in Middle Earth, that trees have experienced primarily collateral damage. The trees died for Saruman’s destructive machines, and indeed the effect was devastating for those who attend to such things. Here the misinterpretation of “wilderness” plays an important role, as does the issue of simple attention. For example, consider the contrast he illustrates in a letter: “Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved,” while “the Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries” (Letters, p. 419). I would argue that the problem does not arise when trees are hated, necessarily. Inattention and misunderstanding, instead, wreak nearly as much havoc on the trees as active hatred could accomplish. As to which is better or worse, the trees’ few allies are almost more pitiable than any real enemies they might have in Middle Earth. The trees yet have a few powerful allies in Middle Earth, but it would take first attention and then understanding for the Ents to achieve the same.