Friday, May 13, 2011

Jewels and Trees II: Ents as Beings of Tension

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 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.



  1. As someone who also saw the movies before the books, I understand your reaction to the Ents presented in the Two Towers. Even without knowing what Tolkien had intended for them, they seemed out of place in Tolkien’s world. It pains me to say this, but the Ents were goofy. They served as comic relief in a way that was not intended by Tolkien. I remember seeing an Ent lit on fire—a serious event—only to bend down and put himself out in the river in a comic manner, almost like a cartoon. I believe that this is a symptom of a general misunderstanding of Tolkien’s relationship with trees. Although I had not read the books at the time, it still seemed wrong to me. Now, I know that the Ents, as you say, represent a tension between the animate and inanimate elements of the forest. They are manifestations of Tolkien’s admiration and love for both nature, and, specifically, great trees that had no guardians. Tolkien’s world is fixated upon conflict between the natural and the unnatural, Elves vs. Orcs, Ents vs. everyone. It is precisely because trees have no guardians, no actual menacing quality in our real world that they must have one in Tolkien’s. It brings balance. The goofy Ents in the movies are a far cry from the powerful and stern guardians of the forest the Tolkien envisioned. They should have been much more like the Green Knight than merely silly talking trees.

    -Nick Carter

  2. Actually, the trees' standing up for themselves was novel--when Tolkien did it! But I totally appreciate your unwillingness to like something just because your friends or your friends' siblings did. I particularly like the way in which you talk about the problem that we have understanding trees as living beings that do not (seem to) think or move in the way that we do. The question is (as Sayers might put it) whether we can ever understand them without anthropomorphizing! What metaphors would we use to make sense of what it is like to be a tree?


  3. The similarity that I see between the Ents and the Green Knight is one of tension -- of something that should be familiar, but which is doing things that it should not, by the standards of those who stray into the paths of either, be doing. Trees that move are full of tension, not only within themselves-- especially as portrayed in the character of Treebeard, and in the Entmoot -- but with the expectation. The Green Knight is not only not expected to be, well, enormous and green and creating cruel challenges, but once that impression is formed, he is not expected to follow the rules of chivalry.

    I don't know if the two are entirely comparable, though -- Ents are trees, living, speaking, walking trees, and they are a sort of being that is completely foreign to the experience of the humanoids to whom the readers doubtless connect. We can see this clearly in the cruelty and territorial nature of Old Man Willow back at the beginning of the book, and again in the foreign nature of the Ents. Is there also a source of tension there, where the minds of men and trees intersect? -Michaela

  4. To add to what you've started, I've been thinking about another point of tension in the symbolism and stigma surrounding trees. We keep pointing out that they're ancient, doubly so, in fact. Firstly, they have longer life spans than humans: we often feel young and insignificant in comparison to them. Secondly, they have occupied our world far longer than we have, in both reality, and in theology/mythology. So we have built up this "ancient," almost "eternal" stigma around trees.

    But we have power over them: we have the power to end this "ancient" thing. They feel more mortal than we are, in this light, for they are felled so easily.

    So trees are, in a sense, eternal and yet potentially ephemeral. Is this an issue? We simultaneously place trees above us and below us. They hold power over us, for they have this "ancient" sense that goes beyond us; yet we hold power over them, for we can end them so easily.

    Maybe this contradiction stems from the difference between the symbolic and the real. Abstractly and symbolically, a tree feels imbued with power. But would you feel badly cutting down a tree? I cut down a tree at camp without a second thought. I was clearing a forest, so it did not feel immoral. I would never, ever want to cut down the big maple tree in my backyard though. I've attached a symbolic importance to it: it's been there my whole life...I used to swing off of it, climb it, carve my initials into it. I've given it an eternity of sorts, in an abstract sense.

    So maybe there is a divergence, when it comes to trees, between the symbolic and the real.


  5. I really liked that in your post you mentioned that Ents can become treeish over time while trees, on the other hand can become Entish. It seems as if trees and Ents are not different beings but rather inhabit different ends of spectrum of states of consciousness that spans from the mobile and thoughtful treebeard to the wholly silent immobile and sleeping tree. I must confess this ability to transition has always seemed somewhat problematic to me. First of all, a simple plot question: if trees can awakened and become Ents why do the number of Ents need to dwindle in the absence of the Entwives. I always liked the interesting dynamic Tolkien created between the wildness of the Ents and the orderly and agricultural tendencies of the Entwives. But I wonder if the delicate balance is not destroyed by the fact that new Ents can comes into being without the union of the two.

    Also I find it problematic that the Ents were merely trees until the Elves awakened them. Treebeard says, “The Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk.” If Yavanna added the Ets to the song of Illuvatar then why would the Children of Iluvatar, who were not included in the original song, be necessary to wake them into being. Although their designation as the oldest of the old seems to imply that their entishness existed always, before elves, but merely lay dormant. Perhaps the trees did not need to speak or walk in order to husband and defend themselves until other speaking beings entered the scene.


  6. KeCa, I really enjoyed your post, especially the mixture of criticism and personal reflection. It reminded me of the time when I first saw the Ents on the screen. I remember being enthralled by the walking trees, however, a reaction that stands in stark contrast to yours, which seems to have been characterized more by skepticism and disbelief than wonder and amazement. But, as you admit, you warmed up to the Ents and your reflection on this process really interested me because it showed me some of the reasons why I found the Ents so fascinating from the start. You write that the Ents are themselves “full of inner tensions” and that “there is a flux and flow” to the characteristics of being an Ent. Furthermore, you write that “Ents are caught somewhere between being a tree and possessing characteristics of animation.” I think that this last bit is the main idea we were driving at in class discussion: how symbols and artifacts are not, in fact, lifeless but are actually endowed with a spirit. The relationship between the inanimate and the animate is anything but clearly defined and there seems to be a lot of going back and forth between both states but this mystery reflects the versatility and the power of these symbols. A symbol such as a tree has a tremendous range across which it can influence you.