I’m sorry, but to me it seems ridiculous to talk of “hating trees”.
In our recent lecture, we were prompted with another Tolkien-inspired question: “Do we hate trees?” My response to this rather odd query is…why would we? For what is there to hate? To hate something is an exceedingly strong reaction: it implies the perception of a threat, an instigated fear. What, may I ask, is so threatening about a tree? Despite however “large and alive” they might be, they are still trees, confined by the natural limitations of their species (Letters 321). They can’t move…they can’t fight back. The worse harm that one can expect from a tree is the off-chance that one might fall on you—and with some proper precautions (like not taking walks in the forest during tornado season), even this threat can be mitigated. I fear that Tolkien’s suggestion of an active human antagonism against trees is a tad far-fetched; one might as well speak of hating grass or daffodils. Far more interesting to me is the idea of trees hating us, as seems to be the unfortunate case in Middle Earth.
In fact, it is the people of Middle Earth who have real grounds for disliking their local shrubbery. For the trees in Tolkien’s world are bad boys, indeed. Not only can they move, they can swallow vast orc armies whole. They are capable of everything from dropping branches on the heads of unsuspecting bystanders to whispering malignancies as one rides by-to be sure, trees in The Lord of the Rings are frightening creatures. Now, to head off a general outcry, let me first explain that I am primarily discussing the trees of Middle Earth here, not the amiable tree-herding Ents. One must admit that when left to themselves, trees play a mostly malevolent role in the hobbit’s adventures. Even the Huorons—the most tree-like of the Ents—are more fearsome than friendly without the Ents guiding influence. As a child reading the story, I recall wondering why Tolkien chose to cast trees in this light. The tree outside my window bore no resemblance to these wicked, enraged monsters who seemed to take perverse pleasure in torturing small hobbits. What was the problem with these plants?
To answer to this question, I believe one must look to Middle-Earthian trees’ unique perception of time. Flieger gets right to the heart of the matter when she talks of Treebeard’s “memory of the past, awareness of the present, and… foreboding of the future“ (Scholarship and Fantasy 95). She points out that Ents seem to be a means of vocalization for trees in Tolkien’s world. They express intricacies of feeling to the reader in a way that the pure rage of less-sentient trees cannot. And the most vital sentiment that comes through in this expression is the trees’ unconstrained love for the past. For then was the time of their glory, when their domains stretched across the expanse of Middle-Earth. As Treebeard describes it, “Those were the broad days!...The woods were like the woods of Lothlorien, only thicker, stronger, younger” (LotR, Book 3, Chpt 4). The trees’ memory of their past shapes their behavior in their present, for it causes them to be more inwardly-focused than any other species on Middle Earth. Caught up in their business of growing new leaves and contemplating their many years, the trees have little actual awareness of their present world—but all this changes when they are woken up.
“Two-leggeds” infringement upon the trees’ kingdom perhaps went unnoticed at first. But over time, even the trees became cognizant of the harm being wrought on them by these newcomers. Thus, the present for trees consists of two self-serving concerns: preserving what they can of their old majesty and revenging themselves upon the two-legs. One can see this even in how the Ents cope with the present troubles of Middle Earth, for their focus is mainly on how the threat of Sauron affects them as a people instead of Middle Earth as a whole. Again, Treebeard expresses this best: “I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…no one cares for the woods as I care for them” (LotR, Book 3, Chpt 4). Even in the attack on Isengard, the trees were oddly concentrated on the advanced structure and machinery of the place. This is perhaps because, for them, Isengard represented the impending threat of the two-legs and the doomed future that lay in wait for the trees. Even trees that were less far-sighted then the Ents sensed this fate in the presence of two-legged folk, and thus they reacted to them in the only way they could—with malice.
Hence, trees enclosed themselves in their forests, keeping away “two-leggeds” where possible and maintaining the illusion that time moved as slowy as it once did. But the onrush of the future is unresistable, as the Ents know and the trees perhaps suspect. The hate which manifests itself through trees attacks on man are merely reactionary—blind responses to looming fear. The trees perhaps realize that they are fighting a losing battle—thus, the malevolence of the trees towards man derives less from anger, and more from sorrow and fear. It is ironic, however, that in their very efforts to close themselves off and preserve themselves from mankind’s advance, the Ents and trees hasten their own demise—at least in the minds of man. Theoden describes this sad transition when he says “songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children as a careless custom” (LotR, Book 3, Chpt 8). Despite all their efforts in fighting back against man, the doom that the trees fear most is already upon them, as the vibrance of their life is tragically forgotten in the mists of time and legend.