Friday, May 13, 2011

Trees and Ents and Ancient Things

One of the things that strikes me most about trees and Ents is perhaps so obvious that we did not really discuss it in class: These are truly ancient things. The first line of the "Ent" section in Appendix F states that they are "The most ancient people surviving in the Third Age." Forests first started growing during the Spring of Arda and the ordering of Middle-earth by the Valar. Yavanna created the Two Trees to provide light to all of Middle-earth. Before the coming of the Firstborn, before the awakening of the Dwarves, there were trees and Ents.

The Ents, possibly more than any other characters in Lord of the Rings, have a very direct connection with the Valar and with Eru Iluvatar. Yavanna, fearing for the safety of the trees she holds dear, perceived these Ents in the very Song of Iluvatar. "Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!" Yavanna cried, and then summoned the spirits from afar that would become the Shepherds of the Trees.

Treebeard is probably vying with Tom Bombadil for the title of "Oldest character in Lord of the Rings," although as an Ent, Treebeard is closely tied to Iluvatar's Creation, whereas Tom Bombadil is...just Tom Bombadil. It is Treebeard's age, and perhaps this connection to the divine, that strikes the hobbits most upon their first meeting. Well, not just his age, but the fact that Treebeard had been a conscious being for so long holds Pippin in awe: "One felt as if there was an enormous well behind [his eyes], filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking." It is interesting, too, that Tolkien felt he didn't "create" the Ents, but rather that he was "reporting" something rather "unconscious" (Letters, p. 212n.)

I would guess that this connection to the divine the Ents have is part of the reason we can't just write them off as "wild" or mere embodiments of Nature. Like the Green Knight, in spite of all appearances, these Ents are more civilized than wild. They are shepherds, after all.

In terms of why some people hate trees...I must admit, this seems like a fairly silly idea to me as well (since someone else started their post with this thought). Perhaps "hate" is just the wrong term, because I would agree that many people have an "extreme disregard and/or apathy towards" trees. But this just complicates the types of trees that live in Middle-earth, because Tolkien both gives them the means to "fight back," as it were, while at the same time almost justifying someone's hatred for them -- it makes more sense to hate the type of trees that will ensnare unsuspecting hobbits, or swallow hordes of orcs. But it also seems that these "scary" trees of Middle-earth act this way because they lived in lands inhabited far too long by Morgoth's shadow, so I suppose they can't really be blamed for their actions.

Well, in case you need more evidence for my "Ents-connected-to-the-divine" argument, reread the Treebeard chapter. First, Treebeard works some magic over vessels of water to create light in his ent-house: "he held his hands over them, and immediately they began to glow, one with a golden and the other with a rich green light." This is more "magical" by far than much of what the Elves do, at least, not to mention that these Ent-water-lights recall the Two Trees of Valinor. Also, there's the matter of Ent-speech itself, which is downright musical -- related to the Music of Creation, you might say. Although the words that Tolkien includes are part Elvish, part Entish, and sound like nonsense, there's no mistaking the connection to music. Treebeard's voice sounds "like a very deep wood-wind instrument," when he spoke of orcs he "made a deep rumbling noise like a discord on a great organ," and as he walked he "talked to himself in a long running stream of musical sounds."

Basically, Ents are ancient relics themselves, and some, like Treebeard, have been around since the beginning of Arda itself, they are direct manifestations of Iluvatar's thought and Song. This quality impresses itself upon all those who meet the Ents, who cannot help but feel awe, and probably some smallness in comparison -- they feel not only young compared to the Ents, but that there is something otherworldly or divine in their very beings.

-Jen Th.


  1. I like very much the link that you make between the Ents and the divine, but I'm not clear yet how their being ancient ties into it. Are they more divine than the Children of Ilúvatar? I think that you are onto something here, but it needs fleshing (or leafing?) out!


  2. Although the Ents are mentioned in the songs of the Valar, and they have a divine origin, I wonder if they are still so closely aligned with the Valar by the time of the Lord of the Rings. Treebeard comments, “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays” (Two Towers, Del Rey, 2002, Pg. 75). Does this comment include the Valar as well? If so, then Treebeard feels abandoned by not only the Children of Iluvatar, but also the Valar. Or is it the other way around? Have the Ents become less aligned with the will of the Valar?
    As you point out, the Ents are a creation of the Valar, but their part of the Valar’s song is in disharmony with the part concerning the Children of Iluvatar. The labor of the Ents does not align with the workings of the Children of Iluvatar, as both men and elves are wary of Fangorn. Furthermore, the Ents no longer fulfill their purpose set for them by Yavanna. The forests have fallen in disrepair, and have diminished from covering much of Middle-Earth to a last enclave in Fangorn. This is to the fault of both the Ents as well as the Children. Elves and Men have forsaken the forests in exchange for more artificial dwellings like Minas Tirith and Rivendell, or forests of Elven creation, like Lothlorien. The Ents have not shepherded the forests as the Valar intended. Having lost the Entwives, they have failed to maintain the forest’s order, leading to a blurring of the line between shepherd and sheep.


  3. One scene in the Lord of the Rings movies gets me every time: the close-up of the orcs felling trees outside of Isengard, and then the "zoom out" to many trees being felled at once, all around the tower. For some reason, for me, this scene evokes the feeling of Evil more so than almost any other image in the trilogy. It is painful to watch the tree uprooted – more painful than watching men killed in battle. Isn't that a little weird?

    Reading this post, I started to piece together why I might have that feeling. I realized that as I watch the tree fall, and hear its groan, I am mourning more than the tree itself. It's more than the idea that something innocent is being destroyed. It's that terrible feeling that something old, something sacred, is being torn down for the purposes of Evil.

    The tree is connected to a spiritual and physical past, and as it is uprooted, part of that past is uprooted, and disconnected. Moreover, we know that the tree, this ancient, sacred thing, is going to be used to fuel the fires of Isengard, and aid in the production of Evil weapons. To turn a symbol of Good to the purposes of Evil is particularly potent.


  4. I think that trees can be creepy. They can have personality. Treebeard detects a kind of apathy in others about trees, and I’m inclined to take this as a criticism belonging to Tolkien himself of the modern relationship to nature. His message seems to be, ‘unless you can see nature in this way, you’re not seeing it at all.’ Modern apathy may be related to a feeling of invulnerability, held on the grounds that human beings are actually in civilization (so they think). What is civilization? Is it an order? Applying order to nature yields mixed results. Nature can look very disordered, and it can look also look very ordered. Things happen without conscious will, and yet the leaves of trees can be perfectly symmetrical. Leaving aside a theology of nature, this makes nature look very mysterious. It is especially mysterious if someone is alone, if it is dark, if it is distant. Ents tell nature that it too has a form, but its form is natural. Entwives give it a more regulated form, but it is not necessarily less natural. Indeed, could it be unnatural? Ents and entwives are after all much closer to nature than humans (here, we are reminded of the problem of anthropomorphism, as discussed by Sayers). Back in our primary reality, humans are often told (e.g., on safari) that, if they observe one animal killing another as prey, they should not stop it. This would be an unnatural intervention, whereas they should let nature take its course. And yet, what perspective can the human being have on itself that would render itself less natural, that would effectively take it out of nature? This is a difficult question, and depends on how we define nature, artifice, civilization, human, and a multitude of other words. In any case, for fear of digressing too much, I only wish to point out how unnaturally we have divided ourselves from nature. There is a sense in which Tolkien wants to account for a world that doesn’t seem as magical as it once was. Ents will meet the end of their day, even as humans will come to flourish in their own time. I like your idea of a tree as relic, especially in light of our conversation about the Dream of the Rood. There, we saw a jewel encrusted tree, one that had petrified, or rather crystallized, in a radiant way. One might think of the enormous well behind Treebeard’s eyes as a jeweled encrustation irradiating his ancient wisdom.

  5. Your post brought to my attention something I had never thought about before – the connection between the Ents’ speech and the Music of Creation. Now I cannot help thinking that the Ents are actually the “wood-wind instruments” of the Valar. Perhaps their voices and magic could be an echo the Creation continuing throughout time. It represents the building and preservation of the natural world as Iluvatar first wanted it. Their job is to shepherd and protect the trees of the world, encouraging them to grow and prosper. So could this musical magic be the Ents’ own method of subcreation in the world?

    Another thought that I had was what you thought of the Elves teaching them how to speak. You state that the Ents are more magically powerful, but they learned language from the Elves, "curing the Ents of their dumbness." Before this, were they just instruments in waiting? They were originally made with the purpose of shepherding the forests, so they must have done their job fine. What I am trying to say is, do you believe that they gained this magical prowess in their speech from the divine or were it from the Elves, who they then surpassed? This could give a different perspective on the power and purpose of the Ents as workers of the Valar.

    - Alex Allen

  6. I love how Tolkien uses trees in his stories, and I feel like you've done a great job looking at the multifarious ways he uses them. I like your comparison of Ents to the Green Knight – both are keepers of nature, but also wise judges on matters beyond their realms. The Ents remain detached from most of the events in the world, and even lose their wives to time. I agree with you about their divine nature. What I'd like to ask is what relation Telperion and Laurelin have to the nature of the Ents? I think it's interesting that Tolkien has endowed trees with so much power – the Two Trees were symbolic of many dualities: light and dark, man and woman, dawn and dusk. Are Ents equally as divine and possessing of such dualisms? They can, when provoked, cause terror and destruction, but for the most part are silent and wise. They also can be misguided, however. They didn't enter the war until a lot of damage was done. They, as you say, predate most other life on Middle Earth, and seem to exist independently of the changing nature of the rest of the world. Fangorn is so unaware of the development of the world that he has not become privy to the existence of Hobbits. I just find it interesting to reflect on the nature of... well, nature! Tolkien gives it a lot of power, but also a lot of disinterest. Sorry, this post is sort of rambling. I just really liked what you had to say!