Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Study of Ents, or Why Trees Aren't as Scary as They Might Seem

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.



  1. Very nice on the way in which Tolkien intensifies the major characteristics of trees (their great age, their seeming sentience) to help us think about our relationship to them, but what I asked in class was not just why do we fear trees, but why do some people at least seem to hate them? Do you see him trying to help us answer this question, too?


  2. Thinking about other stories where we've seen formidable trees/woods: Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretl, Snow White, even the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter.

    Trees represent in these stories, something "other", away from civilization. I think that places that we feel are mysterious or unchartable, like complex forests which are easy to lose your way in, seem scary to us. I think forests in this way aren't so different from the sea or outer space.

    What if the Ents hadn't been trees, but rather beings made of coral from the ocean where Numenor was? I'm just throwing ideas out there. Would we still fear what they represent (mystery, knowledge, the passage of time...) even if they weren't from the woods?

    Maybe it's not that trees are inherently foreboding, but rather the dark spaces they they inhabit is what's truly terrifying. People hate the dark. We hate what we can't see.

    It makes me think of the book House of Leaves, where something as simple as a house out in the country becomes the embodiment of fear, darkness, and depthlessness. The house itself isn't really what's terrifying- it's what's waiting in the dark, unknown places that is.

    Just food for thought.

    A. Demma

  3. In response to this post and the above comment, I think one of the most significant qualities of trees is how common they are. I haven’t ever heard of trees holding the same power or “fear” in desert or prairie societies. Trees seem to have powers we can’t understand, and they manage to be pretty much everywhere. Whether they are cultivated by humans, or grow wild in forests, trees are a very common part of our climate and ecosystem. We respect/fear/consider trees because they seem to be so common and these feelings are a response to something we have limited control over but still remains very prevalent.

    So when thinking about whether or not shepherds made of coral would be just as significant, we should consider in what contexts would coral (or any other old and historical element in nature) would touch the reader in the ways that trees do. While the ents aren’t particularly tree-like, they are connected to the trees they herd. This connection might be a reflection of our own relationships with trees. They are gorgeous and powerful. They give us necessary materials, but our power of them will always be limited by our inability to connect with them, despite how incredibly common they are.


  4. I have always hated it when some people say, “Hate is a strong word,” but in my analysis of human relationships in trees, I feel the strong negative emotion is more like resentment than hatred. I believe that this is done, rather than through obscuring human vision and progress (both in a literal sense and otherwise), trees have been shown to propel these advancements. However, in some cases, these are not the type of advancements which people are necessarily eager to make.

    For example, in literature, when a solitary traveler (or a small group of people) has been lost in a forest and is trying to find their way out, this very often symbolizes a journey of self-discovery, as well as a journey through the woods. I realize we were talking in class about forests per se, but it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. People sometimes have a very hard time with being shown parts of themselves which they have not yet been able to face; one can imagine that the long-standing archetype of the forest has been somewhat ingrained in men as being one of self-discovery—discoveries that they might be very reluctant to make. This could very well have planted in humans an aversion for trees. Because they are able to hide things from people, block the way, they also have the inherent power to reveal, a power people resent and fear.

    A. Klooster

  5. I like that you point out how we humans attribute a sentience to trees we don’t give to other plants; I know I certainly do this, but hadn’t really even realized it! You also gave some good examples of sentient trees in popular culture. To your list of things that make trees intimidating to us, I would two more things: 1) trees can be extremely resilient – they can grow where there is seemingly no soil; they grow to accommodate the shape of the terrain, even if that means growing sideways or bending themselves nearly in half; they can be damaged and cut nearly all the way down and still continue living (which makes them hard for us to control!); trees either appear to die and be reborn each year, or they stay green all the time, regardless of season or weather, for years and years. 2) Trees can communicate with one another in a way most other plants can’t; in a way that we tend to only attribute to animals. For example, trees at one end of a forest have been known “warn” trees at the other end about the onset of a forest fire; the more distant trees will begin taking up and holding more water, making them more resistant to fire. Also, the largest living organism on the planet (depending on how you measure, of course) is an aspen forest in Utah: it covers 107 acres and is around 80,000 years old (making it the world’s oldest living organism, as well), and shares one common root system stemming from a single, original tree. It’s nicknamed Pando, Latin for “I spread!”

    You make a good point that Tolkien created his forests and tree-characters to encourage us to love trees despite the things we fear about them. I hadn’t thought about the trees’ connection to Arda in that way before, but you are absolute right when you say that they are rooted (haha, love it) in Arda in a way no other beings are. I thought of Tom Bombadil, since he and Treebeard are sort of both the “first” beings on Arda (I’ve never quite been able to work that one out). But Tom is both more connected to Arda, and yet less concerned with its fate than Treebeard. I think maybe this is because Tom is essentially the spirit of Arda itself, and that the world itself has no self-interest, only the things on it do.