One of the questions we tried to answer in class was: Why are trees scary? I must admit that I scoffed a bit when this topic was brought up; I don’t think trees are particularly intimidating (quite the opposite, in fact, I think they are nature’s most elegant and majestic creations), and it was hard for me to understand why anyone else would find them to be so. After Wednesday’s class, it is a bit easier for me to understand how trees could be frightening in a more subtle way. For my blog post I want to explore briefly the reasons that people would be afraid of trees, and, more importantly, how exactly Tolkien combats these fears in his portrayal of the Ents.
The two main reasons we covered for people being afraid of trees were 1) that they are big, and 2) that they possess knowledge beyond our own, like the Tree of Knowledge. To this I would like to add a third reason that I don’t think was mentioned in class: the problem of sentience. We humans often seem to attribute a consciousness to trees that we don’t give to other plants, especially ones that cannot move. Off the top of my head, I can think of Grandmother in Pocohontas, the Mother Tree in versions of Cinderella, and the angry apple-throwing trees in the Wizard of Oz. I’m sure there are many other examples that I’m forgetting or are not aware of. Additionally, (not unrelated to the second reason) a quality of trees that is not necessarily scary in a horror-movie sort of way, but intimidating nonetheless, is age – most trees have life spans much longer than humans’ life spans, and with this comes a sense that trees are ancient beyond human comprehension.
That Tolkien was on the side of the trees in the man vs. tree war is clear from both his letters and his tree character in Leaf and Niggle. That he intended to show his support for the trees in the Ents is also clear. When discussing this, we mentioned Treebeard’s quote: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side,” but did not delve much further into Tolkien’s methods of defending the trees. Here I will argue that Tolkien combated the fears of trees mentioned above not by creating characters that were the opposite of what we fear from trees, but by personifying all those qualities and showing that we should love trees not despite those qualities but precisely because of them.
Let’s start with the related qualities of time and knowledge. The Ents are the oldest creatures described in the Lord of the Rings, older than Gandalf, and necessarily connected – rooted, even, if you’ll pardon the pun – to Middle Earth in a way that none of the old beings in the Legendarium are – Illuvatar, the Valar, Gandalf, the Elves, even Men, all are from or want to go to a different land. They have seen more than any of the characters in LotR, and have gained knowledge from this, knowledge that we can call wisdom. They are so wise that they don’t bother saying anything that doesn’t take a very long time to say. This aged knowledge is more than a part of the Ents; it exudes from them, as Pippin finds out when he meets Treebeard:
“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you migh say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”
Tolkien uses the Ent’s age to his advantage: Treebeard has cared for what we will later learn to be his “flock” for ages upon ages, and this slow care that has been cultivated is applied not only to his trees but to his consideration of all living things. By then having this strange creature befriend and care for our Hobbits Merry and Pippin the same way he cares for his trees, using his knowledge to protect them, Tolkien makes it difficult to be afraid.
Next is the issue of sentience. Tolkien does not imbue all his trees with direct sentience, but rather uses the Ents as mediators between the trees and humans – rather like Elf-friends – Tree-friends, perhaps? While the trees do eventually move to war against Saruman at Isengard, they are still and mute most of the time. The Ents as sentient creatures are not malevolent toward anyone except those who try to hurt them. They are calm, slow, gentle creatures, unless they need to be defended. When that time comes, the Ents protect the trees, rile them up, help them defend themselves. Unfortunately Ents do not exist outside of Faerie, and so by creating them in Faerie Tolkien both denies sentience in our world’s trees (to the extent of malevolence or walking or talking), and simultaneously calls for us to take on the role of Ents – to shepherd and care for our trees against those who would hurt them. Thus the Ents’ sentience is used in the exact way Faerie is supposed to operate: to show us something new or different about our world that makes us consider it differently when we come back to our Primary Reality. In the process, Tolkien is also successful (I believe) in showing that we have no reason to be afraid of trees.