Friday, May 13, 2011

More Talk About Forest People

I'm actually more than a little surprised that we did not cover this topic during the Wednesday discussion about the guardians of the forest and what they represent in Tolkien's universe, but here goes:

We have discussed Ents and the Green Knight as beings who occupy a different sort of civilization than "humans", even though they certainly are cultured. It is clear from our discussion that Tolkien values the forest as representative of the "Old World", who guide the growth of natural things, but I wonder what perspective he would put on the mysterious Wild Men encountered about halfway through the Ride of the Rohirrim during Return of the King. In particular, why does Tolkien choose to represent the "Men of the Wild" in such a way as he does even though Treebeard and the Green Knight are represented as high beings, which are to be expected and revered by the reader.

By contrast, The Wild Men are uncultured, speak in broken Common Tongue, and generally seem to represent undeveloped savages more than anything else, although I agree that there is certainly a lot more depth to them than meets the eye. The Ents are characterized as representative of the Wild, but as we see they are actually very complex characters. We see that they have communities and gatherings, can get roused to anger, and feel love. They even possess great knowledge about the history of the world. The Wild Men, by contrast, are represented by little more than beasts, being focused rather on their own survival than the greater conflicts of the world. Ghan-buri-Ghan's speech seems to be uncivilized and uncouth, certainly a far cry from Treebeard's elegance. He is presented as slow and lumbering, with very little complex thoughts on his mind besides the preservation of his race. In essence, I feel as though Ghan-buri-Ghan is very similar to a beast of the wild, rather than a human. This is not to say that he is in the wrong, quite the contrary! We see at the end of the series that Ghan-buri-Ghan and the Wild Men are left at peace. However, my question still remains. While the Ents, despite what they may seem as, are in fact very sophisticated beings, I wonder why Tolkien chose to represent the Wild Men, who are equally representative of the wilderness, and have equal potential in the way of storytelling, in the way that he did.

In relation to our discussion on Wednesday, why are we afraid of trees? I don’t think that it’s necessarily that we are afraid of trees, but rather that humans are afraid of the untame-able wilds, they fear things they cannot control, which is entirely to be expected. Now, rather we can attribute this to the influence of Morgoth or just human nature is besides the point. In the storyline, the Ents represent the controllable, understandable wisdom of the wild that is in control of the Huorns to prevent them from killing everybody. Ghan-buri-ghan, on the other hand, seems to indeed represent the wilds that cannot be tamed, that we are afraid of. I disagreed in class with the assessment that people are afraid of trees, but certainly the fear of the untamable is something we can all understand. In Return of the King, Ghan-buri-Ghan and the Wild Men represent just this. They do not ally themselves to the side of the Good Guys, because to do so would be to associate themselves and thus be chained by an outside organization. Rather, they right with the Good Guys for the purpose of ensuring their continued survival as a species. The Huorns behave similarly, but they do fall under the control of the Ents, and as such are a little less useful in this discussion about the wilderness.

So in conclusion, I feel like Tolkien touches on some very important thematic elements in the creation of the Wild Men. The first of which is self-preservation, which, as we know from the Silmarillion, is something that the Ents are rather short on, being destined to fade away into nothingness with the coming of men. The Wild Men, by contrast, are a race of beings who are thoroughly concerned merely for their own survival, rather than the motivations of the more major characters in the series. They are the untamed wilderness that refuses to be controlled by anybody, and in fact they wish nothing more than to just fade into obscurity after Aragorn comes into the seat of power. I would even venture to say that this may be a commentary on the imperialistic expansion of the European countries, demonstrating the fact that leaving the “untamable” as they are, rather than trying to control them, really turns out better for everyone involved.

Quite possibly, Tolkien is once again demonstrating his recurring theme of Nature triumphing over Industry, as the Wild Men, in the end, to achieve everything they desire, and, as far as we know, remain so until the end of time.

EDIT: Sorry for the late post. I didn’t realize Blogger had fixed itself.

-James T.


  1. I must confess, the Wild Men have always been something of a puzzle to me. (Isn't Tolkien great? There is always some character or people that he includes that just rubs somebody the wrong way!) They don't seem to fit with any of the other peoples he creates and their speech in particular just seems ridiculous. And yet, there they are--showing the Rohirrim the way to Gondor. It seems inescapable that Tolkien is here saying something about "civilized" contact with the "wild" or "savage," but I'm not sure in the end that this is the way Tolkien means us to see the Wild Men. They do, after all, have language--and language, above all, is key to Tolkien's thinking about what it means to be human.


  2. I also think that the Ents and the Wild Men echo the Scottish fairy courts mythos--inhuman, but not without rules. A brief description: there's the the Summer/Seelie Court, which is full of fairies benevolent toward humans, and the Unblessed/Unseelie Court, which is not. However, neither is particularly moral or good. (For more than this, look to William Butler Yeats.)

    So, while the Seelie and Unseelie Courts have rules and "civilization", they are not human. It's a different moral code, more "wild" from the perspective of humanity, but still a law unto themselves. Traditionally, fairies have always had rules, which--if you knew them--would help you trick them into helping you, or revealing items of magic, or giving you a gift. Just because the rules of nature seem inexplicable doesn't mean they don't exist.

    ~Sarah Gregory

  3. I think something interesting to note about the Wild Men is the remnants of a past long forgotten that crop up around them. Tolkien describes Merry as feeling wonder and pity toward stone images of man-like creatures which the Rohirrim call Púkel-men, and later makes a comparison between these statues and Ghan-buri-ghan. I feel like the Wild Men represent a sort of mysterious lost past similar to the Ents, but not necessarily something 'untamable'. Rather, I see them as signifying history and the past. Just as the Rohirrim can hardly believe that Galadriel truly exists, and that Ents walk the earth, the Wild Men are a little-known piece of the history of Middle Earth, the difference being that they remain mostly mysterious while Lothlórien and the Ents are explained more fully.

    E. Minehart

  4. For my money, the key to the mystery of the wildmen lies in the link to the Púkel-men. I think that it’s no mistake the Merry sees a similarity between the two. If I remember my Unfinished Tales correctly (and I might not) the two are actually the same, or at least descended from the same group. If that’s right, then I think their function is as a sort of warning. While I don’t think that Tolkien necessarily views them negatively, I think that what he accomplishes by showing their great lonely statues, guarding now empty halls, and then showing them as less civilized, and made homeless, is sort of a memento mori to civilization in general. That is, as permanent as our cities and cultures seem, it is not impossible that they will fall away and we can go to seed ourselves. This is sort of the same thing he does with the diminishing Ents and such. The lesson that we can take from this is that the strength of great civilizations like Gondor is that they do remember themselves. Therein lies the value of history and of remembering the past- it means that instead of forgetting it and letting something remarkable fall into disrepair, a successful civilization will build on its knowledge of itself and remain strong.

    E. Moore