Friday, May 13, 2011

The Wild Green Yonder

Wednesday’s discussion and the comparison between Treebeard and the Green Knight dispelled the notion that Ents are representatives of wild, untamed Nature. They are in fact agents of civilization whose purpose is not only to protect trees but to guide and manage them. By asserting that Treebeard is the “archetype for the green world, speaking for the spirit of wild, uncultivated life,” Flieger seems to fall into the same trap into which many of the inhabitants of Middle Earth have stumbled. There are many beings who occupy an intermediary role, treading the boundary between culture and wildness, and they are almost always misunderstood. To sedentary, “cultured” folk they may seem wild, but they are shown to be far wiser and more civilized than the cultured societies who regard them with mistrust. This is true of the Ents, as we discussed in class. It is also true of the Rangers (especially Strider), who keep the beasts of the wild at bay; the Breemen mistrust them and consider them dangerous, but they are of course of wise and ancient lineage and embody the remains of a society far grander and more civilized than Bree is. The same sentiments might be the cause of Men’s general unease with and mistrust of Elves. The Rohirrim seem to regard Galadriel, the “Lady of the Wood,” as some kind of nature-spirit whose sorcerous powers are linked inextricably with the place she inhabits, though the reader knows her majesty and power are innate.

Truly wild races are in fact hard to find. The trees of the Old Forest are wild, as are the Huorns that inhabit Fangorn. But they are all trees, and though they are aware and possess a malign intelligence, they are not in the strictest sense a race, like Men or Elves. The only group both fully sentient and wild is the Woodwoses, and I think Flieger’s notion of an achetype of the green world fits the Woses far better than it does the Ents (or the Green Knight). The Woses have developed a kind of primitive society, but in all other respects they seem to be Tolkien’s equivalent of the Nature-being. They are few and secretive, and they were hard to find even when at their most numerous. They are masters of woodcraft, and they surpass even the Elves in their knowledge of plants and trees (quite an accomplishment). Tellingly, Tolkien attributed to them many “magical” abilities, enumerated in Unfinished Tales: they could sit motionless for days, enter vigilant trances during which their watchful spirits detected and repelled trespassers, and even transfer their essences into inanimate, mobile likenesses, which they could control remotely. Though they are not green, they are bizarre in appearance, so that their kinship with normal men is almost completely obscured. (If the Stone-giants mentioned in the Hobbit are more than an embellishment by Bilbo, they could well be counted as a wild race, but since we know so little about them, it’s hard to be sure.)

Curiously, each of these wild races wishes for pronounced authority over its domain. The trees of the Old Forest resent incursions and encroachments by the hobbits: in that forest “there lived yet… the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering a time when they were Lords” [In the House of Tom Bombadil]. The same can be said of the trees and Huorns in Fangorn. And the Woses wish above all to rule their Forest without interference, for good or ill, from anyone. Desire for Rule is a trait we have rightly come to associate with Evil. Yet neither the trees nor the Woses are Evil; even the most black-hearted trees are at worst malevolent (it is only in Mirkwood, where Sauron’s influence is felt, that the forest is Evil rather than simply dangerous). Indeed they seem completely removed from the affairs of the world and only involve themselves when they are forced to by circumstance. The Trees dislike all things that go on two legs (perhaps excluding Elves), and the Huorns do not march against Isengard, the seat of Evil, but only against the Orcs, with whom they have a feud. The Druedain too aid the Rohirrim primarily because of their hatred of Orcs, who threaten their homes; Ghân-buri-Ghân urges Theoden not to vanquish Evil but to kill Orcs and then to leave the Woses in peace. The wild races might be briefly allied to Good or Evil and might work toward the same goals, but in the end they belong to neither faction. Compare this temporary cooperation to the behavior of the Ents, who decide to purge Isengard of Saruman’s taint and who condemn the misuse of his powers.

One can, therefore, make an assumption about Tolkien’s understanding of what it means to be wild. The Lord of the Rings is often cast as a struggle between Nature and Industry, between those who are content to let the Wild be the Wild and those who are not. But such an opinion assumes that the Natural and the Wild are the same. There is no doubt that the Forces of Good adore and revere Nature or that Nature is Good. But I think Tolkien believes that the truly Wild is neither Good nor Evil - it simply exists. Just as importantly, it cannot really be known, which is why one needs intermediary figures like Treebeard. The Hobbits are very much at ease with Nature, and though they might be confused or frustrated by the impenetrability of Emyn Muil or the strange watchfulness of Hollin, they are never out fully of their depth. The truly wild places of Middle Earth, however, are to the hobbits more than mere obstacles – they are unfathomable, alien regions. They (and we as readers) can only understand Fangorn through Treebeard and the Old Forest through Tom Bombadil. Flieger’s green world exists in Middle Earth, but it has no emissaries - one must venture inside to see it. And one must hope that its shepherds are nearby, or one might not make it out again.

-G. Lederer


  1. Excellent distinction between Nature and the Wild, although given what you say in the first paragraph, I wonder now whether the Wild actually exists. As I said in class, I think Flieger is off the mark in suggesting that Treebeard and the Green Knight represent "wild, uncultivated like" anymore than (as you point out here) the Rangers or the Elves. Could this be the one place in which Tolkien is arguing for perspective? As you say, "the Wild" seems to be neutral--perhaps because it is relative?


  2. Though I heartily support your critique of Fleiger's argument about the wild, I think there is an option for our characterization of the wild that is more nuanced than a neutral, simple existence. Certainly Tolkien does not really portray these wild parts of the world as definitively good or evil, but they are not thus cornered into a completely amoral state of being. The description of the as unfathomable and alien, I think, is most appropriate; the wild things in LOTR are not really wild. They are merely relics from another time. In both Tolkien's work and Gawain and the Green Knight, the wild things, like Treebeard and the Green Knight, are clearly incredibly civilized and well-integrated master of their own worlds; the problem is merely that their own worlds are somewhat distant from the worlds they inhabit within the stories. In a sense, these characters almost create a myth-within-myth. They remind the reader (and the characters they encounter) of a far-off, incomprehensible otherworld. For Merry and Pippin, Treebeard is an indication that the Middle-earth they know is only a small part of the vast world and time frame of the whole legendarium, and for Gawain, the Green Knight brings him away from the cushy world of Arthur's court that he is so familiar with, and sends him back only after he learned a great deal about himself, surprised that something so foreign and wild also shares the virtues by which he promised to abide.

    Ro Ca

  3. You make an excellent observation about those characters who, in fact, occupy a sort of intermediary area between the “wild” and the “civilized,” and that they are almost always perceived as being wild themselves by those who live within the boundaries of “civilization.” You hit on an excellent example of “wild” beings in Tolkien’s legendarium with the Woodwoses; they are creatures outside of every structure of “civilization” we know of it Tolkien’s works. However, they do function within a society of their own, which begs the question: how does one define “civilized” vs. “wild?” It seems to be something that cannot be objectively defined, but merely categorized on the basis of comparisons: the Ents are more “wild” than Men, but the Huorns and trees are more “wild” than the Ents. Rangers are less “civilized” than the Men of Gondor, but more civilized than the Wild Men. Does that mean that Men from different regions, or tree-like beings, could potentially be differently categorized as ‘wild’ or ‘civilized,’ making this a distinction between groups rather than Races? Does “wild” mean less organized, less structured? Or does it mean more out of control, more dangerous?

    I think you are absolutely right that Tolkien sees Nature and that which is Wild as being neutral, part of the earth, seeking only to live in the world, neither Good nor Evil, and, like Treebeard, not taking a side, but simply defending their own right to live.