I was eleven years old when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters. I was aware of the hype about this fantasy trilogy of movies but I hadn't known anything about them previously. I have a tendency to reject that which others are incredibly enthusiastic about when I am unable to identify with it. My best friend at the time had brought me with her family to the first movie and they all had been reading the books for years when I could have barely told you that they were books at all. I wasn't invested in the characters and I really didn't know how to process so grand a story beyond the fact that I was supposed to enjoy it because my friend's family did.
When the second one came out I remember thinking, "Oh great, there's another one now I need to sit through." But I again went with her family and was once again generally annoyed at the length of the movie, with its plot lines I couldn't keep straight, too many names etc. There was one thing that stuck with me from that first impression of the story however: my best friend's brother's reaction when he saw the Ents on the screen for the first time. No other specific moment comes to mind when I think back to my first experiences with The Lord of the Rings except for Blane's extreme excitement when it finally got to the part about the Ents. I found them a little cliche thinking...so what? Talking trees. I've seen it before, nothing new. Pocahontas had a talking tree too. But he was so genuinely pleased with these particular characters on screen and it seemed as if, in his eyes, Tolkien created the Ents for his own personal enjoyment--there had to be something to these books if he was that invested in this story. Blane's passion really did stick with me and I began to warm up to The Lord of the Rings, eventually reading them myself.
All this posterity aside, I've been enjoying this topic for a blog assignment because I really have had some weird issues with Ents that I've been able to work through a little better with closer examination of these texts. My initial reaction pretty much has always been the same--a somewhat cynical view of Ents as an environmentalists' sentimental dream come true: trees standing up for themselves! How novel! Tolkien gives them a bit of a background and a language so I'm supposed to just accept them as yet another brilliant creation? ...Clearly it took me a while to sort through just what it was about the Ents I found troubling.
As we asked in discussion on Wednesday, what is it about the forest that is frightening? Why hate a tree? Why fear a tree? From old fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" we have always understood that the forest is a place in which we are vulnerable, a place of uncertainty in our surroundings and a place of mystery. It's never always just about the possible beasts that lurk in the dark, it's also somehow about the trees themselves. Do we not in moments of paranoia hear them whisper? See them move? Feel eyes on us? What is it about trees characteristically that gives way to this level of insecurity? If I were to break it down I would argue that humans have a hard time resolving the tree's problem of life. We cannot reconcile our understanding of trees as living beings with the fact that they are not conscious and thus also have no locomotive ability.
So when Tolkien breaks both of these fundamental rules of trees in the creation of Ents its unsettling and interesting but at first it also seems too easy, a simple fairy tale worth little beyond this superficial level of anthropomorphizing. My first hint that there was something more complex going on with Tolkien, something beyond a naturalist's sort of appreciation for trees, when I read his letter to his aunt (Letters 241). He describes a great tree outside his window, claiming, "I loved it, and was anxious about it." It was a strange tension to view there and I started to realize that the Ents themselves are full of inner tensions, something Pippin tried to put into words when even just attempting to describe Treebeard's eyes, (LOTR 463). Everything is a strange balance between different states of being and about knowing their place on that scale.
The Ents are somewhere caught between being a tree and possessing characteristics of animation. They are perched somewhere in the present but in a present that is defined, if not haunted by their past, and one that hangs on the inability to move forward productively. Threat From Saruman causes urgency to be great and yet they must always move slowly. They are shepherds of their trees but as Treebeard says, "Sheep get like shepherd, and shepherd like sheep." The Ents are caught in their state of consciousness, because Tolkien allows them the capacity to lose that consciousness and to grow "tree-ish" but also for trees to grow "Entish." Tensions also appear in Treebeard's musings on the differences between Elves and Ents as well as Men and Ents--there is a flux and flow to these characteristics, always a balance. It's as though nothing and everything is constant about Ents, ever challenging our understanding of the tree.
As far as I can muse on the importance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in relation to Ents beyond the strange vegetative green state, could simply be that similar challenge of a constant or expected state. The Green Knight is somewhere between mortal and supernatural, as we discover later. Sir Gawain's attention to the rules and laws of chivalry shows his adherence to a set of constant acceptable standards but he also shows the human capacity to fall short of such rules, seek exceptions--just as Ents are exceptions to our understanding of trees. Also, when we take a tree's life to create an artifact (like a cross) there is an interesting poetic duality of death and creation that is a tension of transition. When that cross is also used to take away life, as reflected in The Dream of the Rood, this concept is even further complicated.
In general my new concept of balance and transition is what makes the Ents more than just Tolkien's generic creations. The basic tension between wilderness and civilization which has been repeated in literature is thus complicated and enhanced I believe by Tolkien's Ents. Fantasy as a genre may be more capable of bringing such tensions to light because of the way it can break our conventions in ways which may seem overly obvious at first but truly contain many subtle finer points.