Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Green, It's Mean, It's a Fighting...Tree?

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.

-Jessica Adepoju


  1. As a side quibble, I'm pretty sure that Ents are two-legged. Treebeard is described as having "large feet" with "seven toes each", which means he has at least two, and he could hardly be mistaken for a "stump" if he had more than two. Plus, he counts distance in "Ent-strides", and it's really not feasible to stride with more than two legs.

    As for tree-hating, it's true that trees are more of a physical threat in the legendarium than they are in the primary reality. However, Tolkien is not one to put elements in his stories without some "applicability" or "relevancy" to our present-day world. He could have made it so that any rock you step on had a 1 in 500 chance of flying up in the air and screaming at you, but that would just raise the question: so what?

    Instead, I think Tolkien's depiction of tree-hating/fearing is related to something in real life. Specifically, how much older trees are than we. They don't rush around, do lots of stuff, then die after a few decades, like we do. They just stand there, perfectly harmonized with their environment, slowly growing, for as long as millennia. That's something which I think we find very hard to really understand. If we try too hard, overanalyzing it, we could come to think of trees as alien beings to be resented. This seems to me the likely import of the tree-hating practiced by bad guys in the legendarium.

    --Luke Bretscher

  2. I agree that it seems far-fetched, in the light of day, to hate or fear trees, but who hasn't felt threatened by a tree at night? Particularly, during a storm, when the trees do seem to be moving, perhaps even coming alive in the way that we animals think of alive, i.e. capable of moving? I think that Tolkien would agree with you that it is the trees who more properly should hate and fear us, but why then (as he might put it) do we attack them even when all they have done is be "large and alive"? I like very much what you say about the trees' memories and experience of time. Perhaps we resent the fact that we have to move while the trees don't, and yet they get to live so much longer than we do?


  3. For me, the idea of hating trees also seems fairly unfounded. I can understand trees being scary as I would always avoid the path that went through the forest when I was little if it was late at night. These trees had the power to block both sight and sound as soon as I passed their border and it was not until I passed through that I could begin breathing easily again. However, I never once felt any hatred towards the trees. Perhaps it was because they were never specifically in my way or caused me any harm that the idea is still entirely alien to me. I like the idea that Tolkien created a protector of trees which was able to stand up for the acts done against them in the stories and I agree that the trees represented in the Lord of the Rings have much more of a reason to be hated than in our modern day world. As RFLB wrote, perhaps we do resent them for their ability to live entirely in one place without having to move while our entire existence is one of insentient motion. Or perhaps we resent trees because they instead do not move whenever we wish and we are forced to deal with their stubbornness with axes and saws.

    B. Wille

  4. In class, when this issue came up, one interpretation of a ‘hatred toward trees’ that I thought was especially interesting is the notion that the strong antipathy may not be for the tree as physical object but for what the tree represents. In addition to their advanced years, size, and threatening visage, trees are literally the first defenders of virgin land unaltered by human habitation. Whenever we expand our agriculture, roads, and settlements, it is first and foremost the vegetation standing in the way of those projects that must be removed before work can commence. While modern technology certainly expedites this process almost to absurdity, this very work represented a formidable barrier to human expansion in the ancient and medieval periods, perhaps accounting for the increased fear of forests our ancestors undoubtedly experienced. Trees are thus the flagship representatives of the continued overwhelming power of nature over what we can wield, a disparity that remains vast to this day, despite our flourishing technological progress. The feelings of a ‘tree-hater’ might not resemble a personal grudge as much as the hatred of a racist toward people of other ethnicities. Though the racist will be unable to claim in all truth that a random member of another race has done him personal harm, he continues to hate that person as representative of a more abstract loathing. The ‘hatred’ of trees Tolkien refers to may operate the same way: we are insecure in our own power, and because of a jealousy of the supreme power of nature, the less Tolkien-esque among us might project those foul feelings onto nature’s most tangible avatars.

    -Philip R.